Children’s Grief Awareness Month: Studying Grief Through the Lifespan

by Lane Pease Hendricks, Director of Programs and Partnerships

At Kate’s Club, we empower children, teens, and now young adults after the death of a parent, sibling, or caregiver. We may help children grieve, but ultimately we instill skills that will help them as adults. Grief is not an event, but a journey. Grief does not end at certain point in your life, it only changes.

Because our Memory Walk theme this year is “Walking Through the Decades”, I have thought a lot recently about how we grieve “through the decades,” particularly those of us who experienced an early loss.

Continuing Bonds, Meaning Making and Grief Triggers

A few years ago, I became interested in further researching how grief manifests through the lifespan. When I began my research, I started close to home with two people who couldn’t easily refuse my probing questions: my daughters. They have the experience of the early loss of their father, who died when Zelda was four years old and Lucy was nine months old.

Being the professional that I am, I emailed them a questionnaire. I focused on three themes around grief. One was continuing bonds, meaning staying connected to the person who died.

I also asked about meaning making. David Kessler, a national grief expert, defines meaning making as “a way to sustain your love for the person you have lost. While loss happens to all individuals, meaning is what we make of the loss”.

I also wondered about grief triggers. What developmental ages and events did people grieve actively again?

Revisiting Loss: Zelda and Lucy

I thought I would know what to expect from Zelda and Lucy’s answers, but reading them brought me to tears. In writing, they expressed things they had not really expressed to me. As young adults, they now had a different perspective than what we’d talked about when they were young.

They mentioned that when they were young and played at friends’ houses, they found the concept of a “Dad” interesting and felt jealous of the bond they sometime saw with their friends and their fathers. They mentioned really missing their dad when they learned to drive, which is completely understandable if you knew me as their driving instructor. Choosing colleges and boyfriends was another theme when it came to grief triggers.

In terms of meaning making, Lucy became involved in Camp Kesem that supports children affected by a parent’s cancer and eventually became the Co-Executive Director. Both also shared that they felt connected to their father in some way. They talked to him, wore his shirts, and had some feeling of wanting to make him proud.

From their answers, I knew I wanted to dig more into the topic. How does early loss affect the people we become? How are people’s journey similar and how do they differ?

Revisiting Loss: Buddy Volunteers and Beyond

I had some information about early loss from our Kate’s Club Buddy Volunteers, as many of them experienced grief at an earlier age and have shared that they wish they had support when they were young.

I created another survey and shared it as widely as possible. I also mentioned my research to everyone I spoke with, which helped me gather stories.

One grandmother, who was registering her step-granddaughter for Kate’s Club, shared that her own father was killed in the Vietnam War. She was only five years old at the time. No one talked about her father again. Since the war was unpopular, the family gave her the message she should not talk about her father.

It wasn’t until she was in her 40s that she found an online group of children who had lost parents in Vietnam, then started to process her loss. She found community and support, and now attends events with others and feels able to honor her father.

Grief Triggers

Many of the survey respondents shared that getting married and having their own children, as well as reaching the age the person was when the person died, were big grief triggers. And as you might expect, experiencing additional deaths caused them to revisit the first loss.

From the survey, I also learned that many families struggled in the years after the death. People who experienced the death of a sibling shared that their parents did not get help, so they could not help them. One person shared she became the caretaker of the entire family, and that continues to this day. There were themes of abandonment and fear of commitment, but also themes of resilience.

Continuing Bonds

Continuing bonds might manifest as someone trying to represent some part of the person who died in their families now. People also shared they felt an increased sense of compassion and empathy and a great appreciation of relationships.

Meaning Making

Many found meaning in volunteering with Kate’s Club. Emily, a longtime Buddy Volunteer, was 13 when her sister died and 16 when her mother died.

Emily shared, “I feel like I could check all the ‘meaning making’ choices, but nothing has changed my life the way Kate’s Club has. It has put me on a trajectory that I cannot fully put in words.”

Grief Is Not an Event, But a Journey

I heard a great quote on a podcast not too long ago. Donald Rosenstein, co-author of the book The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine Life, said, “Grief is as much about the future as it is about the past.”

Wow, this resonated with me.

At Kate’s Club, we want our members to stay connected with the person who died while moving forward with their lives. It is one reason we are open-ended and have many members continue as Buddies. It is also one of the reasons for launching our young adult group.

I leave you with a quote from the revisiting loss survey:

“51 years ago, when my daddy died no one talked about it. I would often get sick at school after he died and go to the office. Really, I wasn’t physically sick, my mind was just filled with thoughts and emotions, and no one was talking about my grief. Kids need an opportunity to talk and to be told that they will be okay, and it is okay to grieve.”

As November is Children’s Grief Awareness Month, let’s help grieving children, and in turn, those adults they become.