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Supporting Children in Grief

Updated: Apr 8, 2019

Maileen Keawekane is grateful for the support Hawai’i Care Choices’ bereavement program has provided her three children, Douglas III (15), D’yante (16), and Daezon (18), since their father DJ's death, almost six years ago. In addition to taking part in family grief camps, the siblings have also attended classes and counseling sessions that helped them learn how to cope with their loss, as well as know they were not alone in the grieving process.

“At first they didn’t understand it – they were mad at everything because they didn’t have their dad anymore,” said Maileen, “they thought they were the only ones who had lost a parent.” Going to family camp, explained Maileen, helped her children see that they were not alone in experiencing loss. “They met people who had lost their mother, their father, even their child. It helped them understand that they can get through it.”

If you are old enough to love – you are old enough to grieve. Losing a loved one can be an incredibly difficult experience, and for a child, the shock and confusion can cause difficulties at school and home if not properly guided through the grieving process. Children grieve in different ways and often express their grief differently from adults. For Maileen, she was grateful that “someone was there to guide them – because I didn’t want them to push down their feelings. It’s easier for my children to talk about their dad now.”

According to Japanese folklore, tapirs, a large pig-like mammal that inhabit the jungles of Asia, are considered sacred animals that eat people’s nightmares, taking the burden’s off their shoulders. For longtime Hawai‘i Care Choices’ Children’s Bereavement Counselor, Fujio Sato, Tapirs symbolized her work with children in grief. Before moving to O'ahu recently, Fujio shared that many times during individual and group sessions she would listen deeply, feeling the pain of loss alongside grieving keiki. She would always try to be honest and stay neutral, to ensure those sharing their hurt felt comfortable and safe. In that way, Fujio saw her role as a counselor like being a Tapir, digesting moments of sorrow, keeping the nightmares away.

When asked how counseling support benefitted her children, Maileen was quick to say, “I don’t think there is any other place out there that could’ve helped my family cope with our loss like the bereavement program.”

It’s important to remember that children grieve in their own way, that feelings change over time and that the bereavement process can go on throughout a lifetime. Here are some strategies that can help you, help a child or youth that has lost a loved one. (Courtesy of Brenda L. Sheatzle, M.C.)

Don’t . . .

  • Attempt to hide your feelings.

  • Fail to recognize behavior problems may be transferred emotions.

  • Tell half-truths and fairy tales.

  • Provide a theological lecture.

  • Imply a temporary situation (She/he has gone away; she is sleeping).

  • Blame God (It is God’s will).

  • Leave explanations incomplete (She/he was sick . . . So am I; will I die?).

Do . . .

  • Share your feelings. (Encourage tears. Respond to the child’s feelings. Allow time for mourning.)

  • Recognize the stages in the grief process and accept that children also go through these stages.

  • Be honest at all times. (When explaining, identify with something familiar to the child. Answer the child’s questions candidly and rationally.)

  • Allow the child to become involved. (Look for the child’s needs and fulfill these needs if possible. Allow the child to help fulfill the needs of the surrounding adults.)

  • Discuss death with children (Explain in advance about funeral rituals. Discuss the funeral service -mortuary, church, temple, and graveside - Listen to what your child has to say).

Grief can change your heart and open your soul. Grief support can help those who have lost a loved one accept new relationships. For the Arruda children, stepdad Ronney has become part of their family, and dad DJ is always in their hearts.

Standing: Douglas III, D'yante, and Daezon Arruda - Sitting: Ronney (stepdad) & Maileen Keawekane

Do you have unexpressed grief? Hawai‘i Care Choices provides youth and adult bereavement counseling to the loved ones of departed hospice patients and individuals from the community. Most programs are FREE to attend. Please contact our Bereavement Team at (808) 969-1733.

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