This article examines elements related to children's developmental understandings of death, ways to talk to children about death, a broad understanding of the nature of children's grief and bereavement, recognition of the common characteristics of grieving children, and useful interventions. The research related to the child grief process and the intrinsic value of therapeutic and educational supports in working with grieving children are discussed through case studies, the professional literature, and practical interventions that support the process of grief therapy for mental health counselors and the bereaved child.
Grief counseling with children in contemporary society is a complex enterprise for mental health counselors (MHCs). Today's children are bombarded with loss in a way that many adults did not experience growing up. Common childhood losses are amplified by a world filled with terrorism, war, bullying, drugs, violence, sexuality, gender issues, and fear of nuclear or biological annihilation. Grief counseling with children benefits from the creation of a community grief team, whereby the parent or guardian, the school system, and the mental health counselor are part of an integral group that nurtures and supports the grieving child in an often confusing and unpredictable world. The purpose of this article is to address children's grief, focusing on their developmental understandings of death, ways to talk to children about death, the nature of children's bereavement, and the implications for mental health counselors. The research related to the child's grief process and the intrinsic value of supports through counseling and education in working with bereaved children is woven into this material. This information is presented through case studies, research, and intellectual understandings to support the process of grief therapy for mental health professionals and their clients.
It is essential when working with children who have experienced the death of someone close to them to be aware of the many childhood losses incurred. Often there are secondary losses for bereaved children. The death of a loved one can be the catalyst creating many secondary losses including loss of friends, home, schools, neighborhoods, self-esteem, and routines. Angela was a 7-year-old in a single parent home. She rarely saw her dad after her parent's divorce. Mom had died in a plane crash. Within a week she moved to another state to live with her dad and a stepmother and stepbrother she barely new. Angela began to do poorly in school and said she "couldn't concentrate." She told her dad that she had no energy to play soccer anymore. She felt different now that her mom had died, and she "didn't want to talk about it with anyone." Within a short time she had lost her mom, her home, her school, her friends, her neighborhood, her ability to learn, and her day-to-day life as she knew it. These are multiple childhood losses that can occur due to the death of a parent.
MHCs' awareness of the following common losses experienced by children (Goldman, 2000b) can give insight into the complexities of children's grieving process. In addition to the types of losses that come easily to mind, like the loss of a family member or friend, children experience more subtle or less obvious losses. Other relationship losses include the absence of teacher or a parent being unavailable due to substance abuse, imprisonment, or divorce. Children experience loss of external objects through robbery or favorite toys or objects being misplaced Self-related losses include loss of a physical part of the body or loss of self-esteem perhaps through physical, sexual, emotional, or derivational abuse. Many children live with loss in their environment including fire, floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. A primary death can often create the secondary loss of a move, change of school, change in the family structure, or family separation. …