The month of November has been set aside as a special time to consider the needs of the many children around the world grieving the death of people in their lives. Children’s Grief Awareness Month provides an opportunity to educate the public about childhood grief, advocate for children who are grieving, and remind ourselves what bereaved children need from us each day. This year, the National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC) is rolling out the #HeartforChildren campaign. This campaign starts with one simple questions, “Do you remember what it was like to be a child?”
Childhood has many challenges to navigate as children grow and develop into adulthood. Think back on your own childhood. What were the challenges that you faced? What did sad times look like for you? What were the things that you celebrated? How were you included with your family during all of these times? Who did you look up to, or look to for support when you needed help? Remembering what it was like to be a child yourself is the beginning of having a #heartforchildren.
The death of someone deeply impacts those who are left to live with this difficult reality. Family members struggle with intense thoughts and feelings of grief both individually and together as they attempt to make sense of what has happened. Adults often feel ill-equipped to help the children in their lives during such a difficult time. The #heartforchildren campaign provides a place to begin, encouraging us to empathize with the children in our lives by remembering the adults who made a difference in our lives when we were children.
First, take a moment and remember yourself as a child. It does not matter what age. Just think about yourself as a child and what that was like for you. Then, picture an adult from your childhood who made a positive difference in your life. Once you have this person in mind, write down at least three adjectives that describe this person and how they treated you. Finally, challenge yourself to be this type of person to the children in your own life.
I have conducted this exercise with diverse audiences across North America and each time I ask those attending to shout out some of the adjectives that describe the people in their lives. The same words come from across the crowd: Compassionate, friendly, kind, caring, honest, brave, good listener, loving, patient, consistent, open, hopeful, optimistic, encouraging, approachable, empathic, and available. These are just a few of the words that describe the difference maker in children’s lives. How do we help the children in our own lives? This is where it starts.
The reality is that we do not have to have all the answers. We do not have to know all the “ins and outs” of communicating with children. Helping children through a difficult time does not require a special degree or secret information. Helping the children in our lives starts with empathy for their situation and the courage to be a difference maker in their lives. We start by acknowledging that they too are grieving and that they are better off going through this difficult time along with the family, rather than on their own.
No one wants children to have to experience the pain of dealing with the death of someone in their life. But when reality dictates that they must, children fare better when the adults in their lives are honest with them. They fare better when the adults in their lives include them in end of life rituals. They fare better when the adults in their lives give them their time and attention. They fare better when the adults in their lives listen to their questions, allow them to express their grief, and walk with them as they adapt the changes the death of someone brings to their lives.
So, consider the children in your life. What are the challenges they are facing at this time? How is their life being impacted by these challenges? What was it like for you as a child? What were your struggles? Who were the adults in your life who made the difference for you? Now, put on your #heartforchildren and be the difference maker in the lives of the children around you.
Andy McNiel, CEO, National Alliance for Grieving Children