Helping Children Grieve

Valentine’s Day is approaching and it is making me sad. Not the overwhelming grief waves, but the pang of longing. Gwendolyn loved Valentine’s Day. Before having her, it was never an important day for me. I always disliked the Hallmark faux romance, preferring more personal reasons for flowers or spontaneous date nights at special restaurants. But, once I had a child, specifically a school-aged child, all that childhood fun of Valentine’s Day returned.

Gwendolyn and I always selected a special outfit for her to wear – sometimes pink, sometimes red, and hearts were always involved. Once we had the outfit, we’d do a special photo shoot. It was just the two of us (until little Miss E arrived) and she felt fancy and special and I loved seeing her pose. We’d make her Valentine cards from these photos and Gwendolyn was always so excited to share her love with her friends. And, she always had crushes (such a romantic; thanks, Disney princess movies) that she would place extra stickers on or take extra care to send. And, of course, there was the special Father-Daughter Valentine Dance. So, so special.

Traditions like these can bring up a lot of emotion. And I know this is true for her little friends, too.

Children experience deep grief – just like adults. They don’t always have the emotional tools to process it all or even express what they are feeling (and let’s be honest, adults often don’t either). But what I’ve found is that children really need permission to grieve. Adults can be afraid of sadness – especially in kids and children sense this. But sorrow is an appropriate response to death and shouldn’t be discouraged with, “Don’t worry; She’s in a better place; Be strong…” None of these are bad statements. However, when it comes to grief, they are dismissive. They are basically saying, “Don’t feel anything about death.”

Grief needs to be acknowledged for what it is – human.

And just like adults, grief often crops up with traditions, holidays, special routines, special dates. Sometimes without us realizing it is going to have an impact. And, just because time has passed does not make these feelings any less valid or any less intense.

Since Gwendolyn’s passing, we have tried to create opportunities for the many children in her life to express themselves. At her funeral, we invited the children to participate in an activity if they so chose. Upon arrival, each child was given a purple paper butterfly and some pens or crayons. They were asked to write a letter to Gwendolyn or draw a picture during the service. At the end of the service, they were called up to present them as an offering that was blessed by our priest and then buried with her. We did this knowing children need a tangible to handle something of this magnitude. And we did this to give them an opportunity to do something in a situation where there is nothing anyone can do. And we did this because Gwendolyn’s happiest moments were when she was surrounded by children and we wanted her to always be surrounded by their love.

Before the school year started we met with the principal and her special education team at Washington Elementary to coordinate support for her schoolmates. Gwendolyn’s inclusion was such a big part of the school community that her death was felt well beyond just her classroom and we wanted families who opened their hearts to her to have the support they needed. We knew we could key in on her closest friends, but we also knew there would be so many others that felt grief and her absence. The school district provided a psychologist and crisis counselor for the first week of school and Gwendolyn’s team (her two nurses, Tina and Abbie, inclusion specialist, Kara, and her speech therapist, Emily) manned a “Friendship Station” where the children could draw, write letters, get hugs from the very people they associated Gwendolyn with because they were always with her. I’d like to say I was brave enough to be there. But I wasn’t. I couldn’t. The first week of school I had to hide so we went to Hawaii. But her wonderful team, the amazing Team Gwendolyn, who were all deeply mourning themselves, stepped up with the Friendship Station and also visited every classroom to talk to the children about Gwendolyn, give them an opportunity to ask questions, and also let the kids know they had safe places on campus to come talk about their grief any time throughout the year.

This is amazing! This is modeling how to process emotion and loss in a healthy, very normal way. And this gave children permission to mourn.

This week, Gwendolyn’s best friends made Valentine’s cards for her at the safe place. They have met with Emily or Kara many times this year to talk about Gwendolyn and do something tangible to help facilitate discussion. They’ve painted rocks, they’ve played board games that Gwendolyn loved, they’ve read books, they’ve written notes… We even had a little party at the school with cupcakes on Gwendolyn’s birthday. I have also taken them to visit Gwendolyn’s site at the cemetery. Sometimes they bring the things they made for her at school. Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they laugh. Sometimes they say the most beautiful profound things. There have also been many children at the school, kids I didn’t even know would be impacted, who have come to these safe places wanting to talk about Gwendolyn. Death is a big thing to grapple with as a child. But her team is so sensitive and accepting of children’s feelings, that real, healthy grieving is taking place. I am so proud of all of them.

We will be going back to Gwendolyn’s school soon for a very special kindness program through the Little Star Pony Foundation as a way to check in with all of her schoolmates again. It has been six months since Gwendolyn’s passing now and her absence is still felt throughout campus. I think the timing for schoolwide support is perfect. And needed. Because time does not magically make everything better, but it can make people feel awkward about how to handle grief discussions. I know this special program will offer another healthy way to teach children how to cope with loss.

Our social butterfly also had many friends outside of her school who loved her. Many live far away. We have tried to check in with them regularly, too. Gwendolyn’s best friend, Hayden, and her sweet love, Jadon, have been on our minds constantly. Navigating Gwendolyn’s loss is all the more profound because they also have SMA. Their parents have bravely tackled this with so much love and thoughtfulness. They have each sent very Gwendolyn gifts and flowers for us to take to Gwendolyn at the cemetery so they could be part of honoring her in that way and I know their parents talk about Gwendolyn with them regularly to help them cope with it all.

Her bestie in Las Vegas, Reagan, who was born just a week before Gwendolyn, wrote a special book about their life together. She spent a lot of time doing this and gave it to us when she visited in November. We will treasure it, especially because we know it helped her process her grief.

We also know there are children we have not met in person who truly loved Gwendolyn from following her life on our blog. They are one of the reasons we started Books For Gwendolyn’s Birthday. We hoped that by giving families a specific thing to do, conversations about Gwendolyn and how they were feeling would flow naturally. We also wanted to give children a tangible way to help honor her memory.

Most of the buddies Gwendolyn grew up with in Santa Barbara and had regular play dates with attend other schools. We still see them and their loving parents have always encouraged them to continue talking about Gwendolyn and share memories of the fun they had together. They often make a point of telling me when they see butterflies or something happens that reminds them of Gwendolyn. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I laugh. And I hope seeing emotion lets them know it is okay to feel.

One such friend is TJ. He is having a hard time right now. Gwendolyn has always been his Valentine. Since they were just three-years-old, TJ would deliver flowers and a card. His mom, Jenny, said she nearly had a heart attack the year he told her to wait in the car. TJ is a romantic. He always had ideas about being Gwendolyn’s Romeo and had big plans to marry her. (Don’t tell him there was some competition. Gwendolyn graciously never let him know.) Obviously, Valentine’s Day is hitting TJ in a deep, profound way. For the first time in his memory, he doesn’t have his special Valentine to give flowers to – except by bringing them to the cemetery. This week, TJ’s school had their Valentine party and he was very emotional. Because his parents have encouraged him to talk about Gwendolyn, to continually process his grief, TJ felt comfortable explaining why he was feeling so sad about party preparations to his teacher. Though his teacher never met Gwendolyn, she understood right away and lovingly allowed him to express how he feels, supported his grief, and then she found a way to incorporate Gwendolyn into the party. TJ really liked that idea. Suddenly, the heaviness of having a Valentine’s Day party felt a little lighter. On the day of the party, TJ wrote Gwendolyn his special note like he did every year and then he and his teacher went outside and tied the note to a balloon and released it together. I think this is beautiful for so many reasons. And I am so glad TJ’s grief was not squashed and was instead encouraged and he was given a tangible way to process his sorrow.

What I know about children is it is important to check in. Don’t just wait for them to bring it up – anticipate that special holidays or traditions will be hard and plan for a way to process these big emotions. Creating a way to honor the person they love is one way to get these feelings out. It doesn’t have to be heavy or somber. But it is important to give them a tangible outlet. Do a craft together. Release a balloon. Give them a few ideas and let them decide what feels most appropriate. I have found that kids feel relieved when these big emotions are acknowledged. And if they do feel sad, it is important to let them cry, let them see you cry, and validate that sadness is a normal feeling around death.

Instead of “Don’t worry; She’s in a better place; Be strong…” Try “I miss her, too; I feel sad, too; Losing someone you love is one of the hardest things in the world. It’s natural to miss them…”

Gwendolyn is once again giving us an opportunity to learn something. And learning healthy ways to grieve is a lesson we will all need in life. Grief does not have to be scary or something we push down. We will all lose someone and losing someone you love is one of the hardest things in the world.