Counseling Children Who Have Experienced Loss
20 May 2013
By Mary Beth Young, MSW LCSW.
Most children have experienced some type of loss in their lives. There are many types of loss; some are more devastating than others. Children in crisis have experienced multiple losses, yet they may not have gone through the grieving process. Young people need a good trusted adult who can guide them to deal with their grief and work through it. So how can care-takers counsel young people who have experienced multiple losses?
(1) When young people experience loss upon loss upon loss, they may often demonstrate an attitude that no matter what they do it will not make the situation any better. So your task is to gently provide realistic hope that things can get better and that working together, you can help them grieve or work through these losses. The more losses a child has had, the more he may need help from you to figure out how to deal with them.
(2) The caretaker can begin by providing a safe, secure and welcoming atmosphere. If the child is living on the street or with other relatives, this atmosphere can be provided by the person or group of people staffing the drop-in center or whatever ministry is reaching out to young people.
(3) Meet their physical needs (as best you can) before addressing emotional needs. If hunger is an issue then food and physical nourishment are a priority. It is impossible to think about addressing their emotional needs unless their physical needs are first met.
(4) As you spend time with the young person, and after you have developed a trusting relationship, begin to initiate conversations about the losses that have been experienced. Usually, young people hold everything inside. You can initiate conversations by saying something like, “I’m guessing you might be wondering why your life is like it is right now and I’m wondering what you might be thinking about … .” This gives the child an opportunity to talk about more personal information or to reject your invitation.
(5) As children open up about what they are thinking, they will usually reveal some type of loss in their life. You then need to help them define this loss. In other words, assist the child to identify that what she has experienced is a significant loss. You could say something like, “I bet you wish things were different for you right now. It seems like losing your _________ (parents, home, friends, security, a sense of belonging, etc.) worries you,” or “is hard on you and you might wonder if you’ll ever feel like you did before this happened.” Young people do not have the words to verbalize that what they have experienced is a loss. By defining the losses you are giving the child the words to express what she has experienced.
(6) Once children have identified what they have experienced as a loss, repeat or summarize these specific losses (which they stated) back to them. You can say something like, “It seems like you’ve experienced several losses such as ______,” and then list the stated losses along with some losses that may have been left out. Young people know the losses they have experienced but hearing someone else delineate them specifically makes the losses more real.
(7) Provide education about loss and grief. You can say:
• “When young people have experienced losses such as ______ they often keep their thoughts and feelings inside. What will help you work through these losses is to begin talking about them and begin looking at your thoughts and feelings about these losses.”
• “Grieving is when we begin to identify the thoughts and feelings we have about our loss and we accept the loss and try to deal with it as best we can.”
• “Your loss of ________ seems to have really made a big difference in your life. A lot of young people who have experienced this kind of loss get very sad or very angry or even feel like they no longer care about anything or try to run from these feelings. These feelings are a normal and natural response to what you’ve experienced.”
Explain to the young person that grieving is a process that takes time and that you are available to help through the grieving process. Let the child know that feelings are released through grieving. You can let them know that grieving is the way God has provided for us to deal with the pain of loss so that we can gradually begin living life again.
(8) You will want to help children identify the specific feelings they have about each loss they have experienced. Some children may feel numb and some may feel sad or angry. Some children may feel confused about why this happened to them, some may feel guilty and some may feel scared that life will never get better for them.
(9) Help children to express the feelings about the loss(es) they have experienced. For adolescents, this can be achieved through talking. For young children, you can “talk” with them about this through drawings, play, puppets, stories, etc. One example is to have the child draw an outline of himself or a large picture of himself. Have the child color the picture with different colors which represent how he is feeling now when thinking about ______ (his losses). Red could be anger, black sadness, blue happy, etc. This gives the child a way to express all the feelings he is feeling inside.
(10) Assist the young person to grieve these losses. Allow the child to focus on one loss at a time. Focusing on too many losses at one time can be overwhelming. Grieving is:
• Allowing children to experience their losses (feel the feelings).
• Helping children accept that these losses have occurred (not denying, minimizing or ignoring the loss, or fleeing from it through substance use or other forms of escape) and accepting also that their life may never be the same because of these losses.
• Assisting children to figure out how they can make sense of the loss. While children are grieving, you will want to gently remind them that life is still worth living to the fullest and encourage them to begin being a part of life again, even in small ways.
(11) Sometimes someone is responsible for causing the loss. When this is the case, the issue of responsibility and forgiveness needs to be addressed. You will never want to “force” a child to forgive until and unless the child is ready. You can initiate the conversation about forgiveness to get a sense of where the child is with this subject.
(12) Coming to closure. Once the grieving process is complete, a concrete form of closure can be helpful to the child. She could give a testimony about how she has dealt with grief. Or the child might pray with a young person acknowledging how she has worked through grieving and is now ready to move on with life.
While closure rituals may be important to young people, they need to know that grieving may resurface in the future, especially when significant life events occur (such as marriage, having children, etc.) or when they experience new losses. Prepare children to expect that the grieving process may need to be re-addressed at these times in the future.
Mary Beth Young MSW LCSW is a licensed therapist and administrator who works with people whose lives have been affected by trauma. As a volunteer with CCTI, she has taught curriculums on trauma, street children, and human trafficking in the United States, Senegal, and the Ukraine. She welcomes the opportunity to provide consultation to caregivers who face sensitive situations while ministering to children in crisis. She can be contacted through CCTI at crisiscaretraining.org.