How to Support Youth Grieving a Loss

February 24th, 1974

If you know a child or teenager (and I hope you don’t!) who has had a parent, sibling, or other important person in their life die, consider sending a sympathy card designed specifically for them.

49 years ago today my father died of cancer. I was 14, he was 46. After my father died I received the following sympathy card from a neighbor:

Dear Mary, I am so sorry for your great loss. I always think unhappy times are the hardest for young people to bear. But I think they have a way of making one grow up with a lot more compassion. The thing that helps me feel better when I’m sad is to think that nothing – feelings or situations – good or bad, last forever. Take Care. Sincerely, Eleanor Schenck.

I don’t know if this was the only sympathy card I received from an adult after my father’s death, but it is the only one I kept. It is yellowed and well-read. I held on to it like a lifeline, for it gave me hope that something good could come out of something so incomprehensible and painful.

The good that eventually came from my loss was the creation of two New Jersey grief support centers for children and families and a life now dedicated to providing children, teens, and adults the support they need following any painful loss.

Inspired by the way Mrs. Schenck’s card spoke to me, years later I searched in cards and online for sympathy cards designed specifically for children. They do not exist! So my friend Karen Gilmour and I decided to make them ourselves. It is our hope that our line of Got Grief™ cards will let children and teens coping with loss know they are not alone in their grief.

Sympathy cards for grieving young people say to them:

  • I see you
  • Your loss matters
  • Your sadness won’t last forever

These are the messages grieving children need from adults.

Parents, teachers and family friends often ask “What should I say?” or “What should I do?” when a child they know has experienced a painful loss. I say give them your love, your time, your attention. Give them your optimism that they will get through this. And let them lead the way. They will show you what they need.

Four things you can do for children coping with loss due to death:

  1. Send them their own personal sympathy card – after a death children are often the “forgotten mourners.” Include a personal note in the card sharing perhaps a memory of the person who died or letting them know you are there for them (only if you can be.)
  2. Search online for local free support groups for children and teens (they are all over the country) and let the family know.  A great resource is the National Alliance for Children’s Grief – you can search by state for programs for kids.
  3. Give them a journal or sketch book to write down or draw their feelings and memories or what they’d like the person who died to know.  Just because their person had died, that person will always be their mom or dad or brother or sister or grandparent or other relationship.
  4. Let them have all of their feelings.  Feelings aren’t good or bad or right or wrong. And feelings come and go.  Don’t tell them not to cry or to feel sad or not to be angry.  They get to have all of their feelings. It’s what we do with out feelings that matters most.  Channeling them into talk, into art, into physical activity, or into poetry or music.  Help them make a scream box or a decorated pillow for punching.  Give them bubble wrap to stomp on or phone books or catalogs to tear up.  The idea is to help them get the kinetic energy in their bodies that accompanies strong feelings, discharged into the air and not keep it bottled up inside

The single most important thing that helps youth who are grieving is the active presence of at least one, preferably more, healthy, functional adults in their lives.  You can be that adult and help create a world where no child grieves alone.

Got Grief™ Cards for youth coming soon…. All artwork by Karen Gilmour

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