When we launched the Slumberkins brand three years ago, a resource for grief and loss quickly became our most requested creature. As families and caregivers reached out to us and shared their stories, we began contemplating how we could best fill this deep need in childhood learning.
It’s been an awesome and emotional 18 month journey of contemplating, planning, writing, crying, discussing, partnering, designing, and pouring so much heart and intention into adding this new member to our cuddly creature family.
Because we wanted this addition to further support children and caregivers in facing this tough obstacle, we decided to partner with The Dougy Center, the National Center for Grieving Children and Families, in bringing Sprite to the world. We’re honored to give back to their mission of supporting children and families experiencing grief and loss by gifting every child that receives support from The Dougy Center Littles Group with their own Sprite.
To help parents and caregivers understand how to best support their children in handling these tough emotions, our guest blogger Jana DeCristofaro, L.C.S.W. Community Response Program Coordinator at The Dougy Center, is here to share some valuable information on the process of grief and loss in the family and how open communication, allowing emotions to surface as they come, and connection with the ones you love can be a support though the journey of grief and loss.
While 1 in 15 children in the U.S. will experience the death of a parent or sibling by the age of 18, all children are likely to encounter some kind of loss, whether big or small, throughout their childhood. Feelings of loss can arise from any meaningful change in a child’s life, even changes a parent or caregiver may perceive as positive. Moving from preschool to kindergarten is undoubtedly a positive life change, but it also means saying goodbye to beloved teachers, adjusting to a new classroom environment, and encountering many unfamiliar faces. The death of a family member or pet, a home transition, divorce or separation, or a family member being deployed or incarcerated are also common losses that may cause distress for a young child.
As a parent or caregiver, it can be scary and overwhelming to help your child navigate loss, and you may feel confused about how to best approach this sensitive issue. Most of us weren’t taught how to talk about grief or process the ways it affects our bodies, minds, and emotions. And many of us were even raised in families and cultures that intentionally avoided acknowledging or discussing death and other types of loss. A lack of education around this emotional issue means many of us struggle to find the right words to say (or not say) when someone we love is grieving - especially when the person grieving is our child. Because grief and loss often feel beyond our comprehension, we find ourselves thinking “If I can’t understand how something like this can happen, how in the world can I explain it to my child?”
The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families was created to break down these barriers so parents and children can talk openly about grief. When our organization began in 1982, the approach among parents and caregivers was typically to ignore the issue, thinking children were too young for the emotional experience to leave any lasting impact. It was our goal to create stronger communication channels around this important topic and a deeper understanding of how to best process it within the family unit. Our peer support groups for children and families grieving a death (or those facing an advanced serious illness in the family) give children the opportunity to talk and play with others who understand what they’re going through. Because children are quick to sense that grief causes discomfort, they need adults capable of helping them understand the feelings, behaviors, thoughts, and questions that come with loss. When we give children the space and permission to express their grief, we show them we aren’t afraid of handling tough emotions, and they don’t need to be either.
As adults, we instinctively want to protect our children, and when it comes to grief and loss, our reaction might be to shield them from the truth or wait until they’re older to have the hard conversation. Even though these discussions can be difficult, being honest and open is an important first step in helping children grieve. It minimizes the confusion that comes with misinformation, and allows them to use their energy and inner resources for positive growth rather than confused contemplation over what happened. To help your child begin processing a loss, you can start with a short, simple explanation of the situation (making sure to use language a young child can understand), and then let their questions guide the conversation. In the case of death from illness, it’s good to name the cause—such as cancer or leukemia—rather than using generalized language like, “She got really sick and died”. Being too vague can create anxiety for young children, who might then worry a common cold could lead to something as serious as death. Slumberkins Sprite gives parents and caregivers a gentle way to open the conversation about loss so children can begin to understand the ways in which grief might affect them.
To give you an example of what it might sound like to discuss loss with a young child, let’s talk about one way you might incorporate Slumberkin’s Sprite into the experience:
King was three when his grandmother, Abby, died of cancer. His mom, Tabitha, told him the doctors worked really hard to fix Grandma’s body, but they weren’t able to fix the cancer and she died. She also explained to King that when people die, their body stops working and they can’t eat or sleep or play anymore. Tabitha reassured him he didn’t do anything to make Grandma have cancer and he didn’t do or say anything that made her body stop working. Then she asked if he had any questions. King said, “Will I see Grandma tomorrow morning?” and Tabitha replied, “No honey, her body stopped working and she died, so we won’t see her, but we can still talk about her and look at her pictures. Would you like to pick one out to put next to your bed?” After King nodded his head yes, Tabitha asked if he wanted to read a story with her on the couch. They snuggled up together and she introduced him to Sprite. King hugged Sprite tight while Tabitha read the book. At the end, King said, “I miss Grandma, I’m just like that fox and I can feel her in my heart.”
So what does this teach us about what grief looks like to children? It shows us that grief is so much more than just an emotional experience and can show up in many different ways – including how it affects normal daily routines, as we see in King’s confusion of whether or not he’ll see Mama the next day. A frequent reaction for young children is to regress, both behaviorally and emotionally. Preschoolers might temporarily lose skills they’ve mastered, like dressing themselves, using the potty, tying their shoes, or helping with household chores. You may also notice changes in their eating and sleeping patterns, or an increase in clingy behavior. Young children may have strong emotions over seemingly small events, like dropping a favorite teddy bear or banging a knee. Providing extra nurturing and support can help them feel safe and secure.
Grief can bring up many emotions, including sadness, anger, frustration, relief, fear, and confusion, and sometimes, children don’t have any visible reaction at all. Keep in mind there are no right or wrong ways to experience grief, just individual reactions we should learn to accept and respect. You can support children by listening to and acknowledging their emotions. With powerful feelings like anger and fear, consider seeking ways for young children to express and release those feelings without causing harm to themselves or others. Tossing pillows, building and knocking down blocks, scribbling with crayons, and running outside are a few examples of safe physical outlets that may help your child process anger in a healthy way. You can also remind young children that while it’s okay to have big feelings (“It looks like you’re really, really angry right now, and that’s okay”), it’s never okay to hurt anyone or anything (“You can be really angry, but you can’t kick me or throw your toys at the dog”).
Other ways to support children in grief include:
- Create space for play and other forms of expression (drawing, dance, puppets, sports)
- Provide routine, consistency, and flexibility
- Talk about and remember the people and places your child is grieving
- Ask children what they think, wonder, feel, and believe
- Answer questions as honestly as possible (remember, “I don’t know” is totally okay!)
- Give choices whenever possible to re-establish a sense of agency and control
Using Sprite is a great way to offer both physical comfort and verbal affirmations to help your child process all of the feelings that come with grief. Sprite’s message of moving forward while still keeping the person they’re grieving in their heart teaches children that as a family, you can find ways to love, grieve, and openly talk about those who matter most.
If you need more information on how to support a grieving child in your life, The Dougy Center is here to help with a series of Tip Sheets and books for parents, caregivers, and teachers, our Grief Out Loud podcast, and a directory of grief support programs around the world.