Children who have lost a parent or sibling bear a burden of sorrow and anxiety, yet they strive to be resilient in the face of their grief and greatly value the support of friends, family and the community, according to the results of a first-ever nationwide poll of bereaved kids released today by the New York Life Foundation and the National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC).
The National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC) promotes awareness of the needs of children and teens grieving a death and provides education and resources for anyone who wants to support them. The New York Life Foundation has, since 1979, provided more than $155 million in charitable contributions to national and local nonprofit organizations. Through its focus on “Nurturing the Children,” the Foundation supports programs that benefit young people, particularly in the areas of educational enhancement and childhood bereavement.
Dealing with the death of a loved one is crushing, the findings show. Three-quarters (75%) of the kids surveyed say they are currently sad – even though, for the survey sample, the loss was experienced on average more than two years ago. Nearly seven of 10 kids agree the death of their loved one was the worst thing that ever happened to them. More than two in five (41 percent) said that in reaction to their loss they had acted in ways that they knew might not be good for them either physically, emotionally or mentally.
“The death of a loved one is incredibly hard and isolating for children,” said Chris Park, president of the New York Life Foundation. “It engenders sadness, anger, loneliness, confusion, guilt – emotions that all too often are suffered in isolation. Kids in grief are trying hard to cope and heal, but it’s clear that they desperately need our help to do so.
“But we are a grief-averse society, apparently hoping that if we just ignore grief, it will go away,” Park said. “As a result, families in grief – children in particular – often are left to suffer alone and in silence, without sufficient understanding and support from the people and institutions that could truly make a difference for them.”
The New York Life Foundation /NAGC poll of 531 kids age 18 and under who have lost a parent or sibling was conducted in-person at bereavement centers nationwide between November 21, 2011 and January 5, 2012. It is believed to be the first public opinion poll of grieving children.
“The poll results are clear,” Park said. “Friends, neighbors, teachers and counselors – and society at large – all have a crucial role to play helping kids regain some equilibrium.”
More children may be struggling with loss than may be commonly thought. A survey of 1,006 adults conducted in late 2009 by New York Life with Comfort Zone Camp, a leading provider of bereavement support services for children, found that one of nine Americans had lost a parent before age 20; one in seven had lost a parent or sibling before turning 20.
“We need to bring childhood grief out of the shadows,” Park said. “It’s critical to help kids give voice to their struggles and hopes – and in the process, shed light on what each of us can do to help. We can’t eliminate their grief journey, but we can ease their burden along the way. ”
Lives Shaped by Sadness
Kids in grief are weighted down by stark emotion, with nearly half saying sadness is their overriding feeling in the wake of their loss and four in 10 indicating they are “sad inside most of the time.”
“The emotion that bereaved kids are experiencing might not always be overt, but for many it is always present, coloring their view of the world as well as their ability to pick up the pieces following the death of a parent or sibling,” said Andy McNiel, executive director, National Alliance for Grieving Children. “One of grief’s most insidious impacts is the degree to which, for many kids, it introduces a gnawing uncertainty and concern into a world that might have previously seemed completely secure and safe.” Nearly three-quarters of bereaved kids said their loved one’s death taught them that “life is not always fair.” Four in ten said they sometimes now worry about their surviving parent or guardian dying as well.
The Daily Challenge of School
For grieving kids, resuming normal life following loss demands successfully navigating the school day. For many, this task becomes harder.
Nearly half of kids say they are having more trouble concentrating on school work and about three in 10 say they are not doing as well in school as before. Just 27 percent say that going to school after their loss was helpful.
The poll suggests that schools are challenged to provide meaningful support to kids in grief. When asked to grade their school and teachers on “helping me deal with my loved one’s death,” most kids assigned them either a “C” (15 percent), a “D” (10 percent) or an “F” (23 percent).
Bereaved parents confirmed this view in a poll conducted by the NAGC and the New York Life Foundation in summer 2011. In that poll, about four in 10 parents said their children’s school was not well prepared to help their children deal with their loss.
“During the week, kids spend as many of their waking hours in school as they do at home. In many ways, school becomes the public frame of reference for their grief,” said David Schonfeld, MD, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. “Kids are pretty good at picking up on social cues. If their teachers and other adults at school seem uncomfortable or uninterested in their loss, they learn quickly they will have to deal with their grief alone.
“Of course, educators have their hands full just managing the day-to-day demands of educating our kids, and we are not suggesting that educators be expected to counsel grieving children,” Dr. Schonfeld said. “That said, for kids, much of life is all about school, which means that teachers and counselors have a considerable opportunity to lend support. Being helpful is frequently just as simple as the act of inquiring, lending a word of support or encouragement, or creating a little greater understanding and awareness in the classroom, lunch room or schoolyard.
“But individual teachers and counselors can’t do it alone,” he said. “School administrations and schools of education need to ensure all school staff learn more about grief’s impact and consider how to better support the professionals who are in daily and direct contact with grieving kids.”
Interestingly, though frequently more of a challenge for bereaved kids, school becomes for many an opportunity to work through their grief: About half say they remember and honor their loved one by “trying to do well in school.”
“The fact that so many grieving kids view their success at school as a ‘living memorial’ to a loved one is all the more reason to ensure that schools are attentive and helpful to kids following a loss,” Dr. Schonfeld said.
Striving for Normalcy
Even as they struggle with grief’s burden, many kids set their sights on living a normal life and carry considerable hope for the future.
Two-thirds say they continue to enjoy life and have fun, and just as many express the wish to “just be treated like everyone else.” More than half say that their future will “hopefully still be good” and about the same number agreed that it will “still be happy because I have great memories of my loved one.”
At the same time, many grieving kids are uneasy about the road ahead: Nearly half feel that their future will “be harder than it will be for other people.”
“It’s clear that though bereaved kids by and large are facing the future with hope, many don’t know what to expect,” said McNiel. “As a society, we need to get better at reassuring grieving kids that though the grief journey is tough, they are not alone, and there is every reason to look forward to a happy and fulfilling life.
“Grief is not a problem that we are attempting to solve for a child. It is an experience that a child lives – an experience that has ebbs and flows,” McNiel said. “It is important that we provide opportunities for children to express their grief in a safe way. At the same time, just by maintaining normal interactions with grieving kids and their families – and by being inclusive instead of hesitant – we can reinforce that they are ‘still’ full members of the community.”
Healing Can Begin with Communication
The findings suggest that, following a loss, just the mere act of communicating about one’s loss is a struggle.
A little more than half of bereaved kids agree that after their parent died their friends were very helpful and supportive, but at the same time more than four in 10 say their “friends did not understand what I was going through.”
Half agree that talking to their friends about their loss is hard. Nearly four in 10 said that “most people don’t know how to talk to you after your loved one dies.”
In the 2011 NAGC/New York Life poll, more than half – 56% -- of bereaved parents agreed that “most adults don't know how to talk to me or my kids when we run into them.” Nearly six of 10 parents said that, after their loss, friends stopped talking with them and 70% agreed that some of their friends or co-workers seemed uncomfortable around them.
The Opportunity and Obligation to Help
The poll’s overriding message is that when it comes to easing a child’s grief journey, everyone can make a difference.
“As professionals focused on alleviating the burden of childhood loss, we work to create compassionate environments where grieving kids can meet other kids in the same circumstances, share feelings of grief freely, and participate in fun and expressive activities -- all of which encourages optimism and confidence,” said McNiel.
“But a child’s grief reaction and healing journey are also informed by daily interactions at school, at play and in the community,” McNiel said. “That’s why it’s incumbent on all of us to recognize grief’s impact, be thoughtful about the needs of the grieving families – kids and adults alike – in our midst, and educate ourselves about how to lend support. We can all help – and we all have an opportunity and maybe even an obligation to do so.”
See also: The Grief Journey of a Child