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Helping children grieve

Children usually feel grief and pain in their bodies. After my oldest son died of cancer, my younger son complained about stomach aches and body aches because he was unable to process his deep emotional pain. As parents, we need to know how to move them through pain and trauma so their emotional pain is processed and does not manifest in unhealthy ways later on in life.

In counselling sessions, I often have children draw a heart. After drawing their heart, I ask them to give their feelings a colour and then show me how much of each feeling they feel in their heart. For example, if there is a lot of sad and sad is blue, they would colour a lot of the heart blue. I will then ask them where they feel the sad in their body. When they show me, I ask them what colour it is, what shape it is and what texture it is. Once they are able to identify their feeling in their body they often feel better. "Colouring feelings in the heart" is also an excellent way to check in with children after a long, and often stressful day at school as well. It makes abstract feelings more concrete.

In addition to drawing their heart feelings, I ask traumatized and/or grieving children to share their sad story with me, which helps them process the trauma in the left and the right hemispheres of the brain. If they are afraid to share, I often suggest they use a puppet to share their story. This distances them enough from the trauma that they are then able to tell their pain stories. As they share their experience (left brained activity), I will tune into their feelings and name them (right brained activity) so that the trauma is fully processed. If children are non-verbal, they can draw what happened or show me using toys in the sand tray. In order to make sure they don't stay stuck in trauma, I end our activity by having them star breathe, an activity I borrowed from a child therapist named Paris-Goodyear Brown. With a crayon, the child traces a star--as they trace from point to point they practice breathing. When they reach the point of the star, they hold their breath for three, breathe out as they go to the next point, hold, and then breathe in again as they go to the next point. I then give them star glow-in-the-dark stickers to place on their roof above their bed to help them remember how to breathe so they feel calm before they sleep. As the child learns to breathe properly, the muscle memory relaxes and the amygdala (the part of the brain that scans for danger) begins to relax. After processing traumatic events in the counselling session, the child can create a container to hold their painful feelings until the next time we meet. I may also ask them to create a painting of a peaceful place where they can go to rest if life gets too hard. In this place, they are invited to imagine what they smell, taste, feel and do in their peaceful spot. Just imagining a restful place releases "feel good hormones" such as Dopamine and Serotonin, which help the child relax even during stressful life events.

Some books I have found the most helpful for children grieving are Badger's Parting Gifts, Tear Soup, The Moon Balloon, The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, Gentle Willow, Grief Is Like a Snowflake, and When the Wind Stops.

Some helpful books for parents are Trauma Through A Child's Eyes, by Peter Lavine and Creative Interventions For Bereaved Children by Liana Lowenstein.


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