Window on My World: Death of loved one can have painful impact on children

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 3, 2013 

Do you a have a close friend or relative who is grieving the death of somebody significant in their lives? You know they are hurting and want to help but aren't sure what to do or say? You've told them "call me if you need anything" but they haven't called. And you almost come to tears yet again when you think of their children having such a hard time. What do you do?

Please know your friend is probably using every ounce of energy to just get through the day and stopping to think what they need is completely beyond them. There's also a horrible stigma thinking they should be able to cope without help so they don't want to admit they are struggling. As for children, losing a parent or brother or sister is one of the most traumatic events that can happen in childhood. In addition to missing the parent or sibling, the entire family dynamic is disrupted causing additional stress. Children or teens will often act out, have trouble focusing, causing schoolwork to suffer, and/or have difficulty engaging socially with peers. Suffering the death of someone significant places children at high risk for many negative outcomes, including mental health problems such as depression, traumatic grief (a yearning for the deceased and lack of acceptance of the death), lower academic success and lower self-esteem.

In The United States, one in nine will have suffered the death of a parent or sibling before they graduate from high school. In Whatcom County, around 300 families will lose a parent or sibling each year. Think how many close friends each of those have that are also affected.

Nov. 21 is Children's Grief Awareness Day and is an opportunity for all of us to raise awareness of the painful impact that the death of a loved one has in the life of a child. From their website, (childrensgriefawarenessday.org), "Children and teens who have had a loved one die often feel alone in their grief, like nobody understands what they're going through. Experiencing a death can be overwhelming for anyone, but it is especially difficult for those so young. Children's Grief Awareness Day is intentionally set in the holiday season, often a particularly difficult time for those grieving the loss of a loved one."

I am very privileged to be part of a local organization in Whatcom County helping bereaved children and families. The TreeHouse, a program of Kids' Council Northwest is supporting children, teens, and families after the death of a loved one. We are in our sixth year offering peer support groups with trained facilitators. We believe everyone has the capacity to heal if they are supported in their grief. We offer a safe place to heal at no charge to the families.

"I didn't know what else to do. I knew my kids needed something to support them. Treehouse helped us all to feel hopeful again even though everything felt so heavy. Taking them to Treehouse allowed me to offer something to support them that really ended up supporting us all," a note from a mother in our family program.

Please consider the following ideas for your grieving friend and his/her children: call them and invite them and their families to lunch or dinner or any activity you would enjoy together. Make it easy for them to attend! Call them and say "hi." Just be there. It's OK if they don't break down and cry; maybe what they need most at that moment is a normal conversation. Call and share a happier memory you have of that person. If you have photos of the person, give them a copy. Refer them to The TreeHouse.

If you'd like more ideas to help or more information on our programs, please call or visit us online at kcnw.org. We are proud to be a recipient of 2013 Peacebuilder Award by the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center. Sadly enough there are many children out there who could use our support. Any donation would be much appreciated and put to great use.

ABOUT WINDOW ON MY WORLD

Window On My World is an occasional essay in Monday's Bellingham Herald that allows Whatcom County residents to share their passion for what they do, an idea or cause they support. Send your Window On My World, which must be no more than 700 words, to Julie.shirley@bellinghamherald.com.

Holly Miller is executive director of The TreeHouse in Bellingham, a program of Kids' Council Northwest. Call 360-223-6681 for more information.

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