By Laura Ward, LMFT
As part of my work with grieving children and teens, I’m always looking for new ways to talk about grief that feel both safe and interesting. One of the ways to accomplish this is by reading books to children that explain death and grief. Some books, especially those for children, focus on telling a short, but relatable story about loss in its various forms and how it feels to experience this loss. These stories build empathy for self and others in an engaging and concrete way.
Children are concrete thinkers who struggle with understanding the abstract and philosophical questions that surround a death. Stories can help them understand death and grief as a normal part of life.
Books such as Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen, and The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia, explain death as a natural part of life in the same way that birth is a natural part of life. These books can help reduce fear around the topic of death.
Workbooks, or activity books, provide an avenue for children to open up in counseling in a safe and engaging way. They also provide activities which normalize grief and provide tools for coping with the related emotions and experiences. Amy Barret Lindholm and the children of The Dougy Center for Grieving Children authored After a Death: An Activity Book for Children, which I use with children fairly often.
Teens can have an especially difficult time with grief. They are in the normal developmental phase of pulling away emotionally from the adults in their lives in order to establish their own identity. This can make it difficult for them to confide in the close adults in their lives. In addition, peers are now the main influence whose opinions matter. It can be difficult for teens to “lose face” by confiding in peers and showing the depth of their emotions openly. In addition, puberty increases the intensity of emotions, but without the benefit of a fully functioning frontal lobe to regulate responses.
Journaling is a great way for teens to process feelings and emotions while grieving and a good skill to have for the future.
Chill & Spill: A Place to Put It Down and Work It Out by Steffanie Lorig provides a fun alternative to journaling that is specific to teens and their experience. The teen can choose to share some of what they have written with the counselor as a means to build connection.
Straight Talk about Death for Teenagers: How to Cope with Losing Someone You Love by Earl A. Grollman provides answers about what teens might expect in their grief, which doesn’t entail taking advice from the various adults in their life. The book is also brief but informative, which is a plus.
Weird is Normal When Teenagers Grieve by Jenny Lee Wheeler is also informative, but is written by a grieving teen. This is especially useful as grieving teens often feel alone and isolated in their grief from their peers. It goes a long way for teens to feel like there are other people their age who have navigated the strong emotions of grief and found a way through.
Each of these books is on our Hospicare Wish List since we like to have a supply available to hand out to families with young children who have lost a loved one or who have a family member receiving hospice services. Part of our work at Hospicare is to help patients’ families prepare for and understand what’s happening with their loved ones. Books like the ones listed here are important tools to help the youngest family members understand what’s happening.
Laura Ward is a bereavement counselor at Hospicare. She also organizes our Good Grief program to support grieving children and their parents/guardians.