Losing a parent at any age is difficult, but it’s especially hard on children. It’s estimated that as many as 1.5 million children will lose one or both of their parents by the age of 15. And two of the most difficult days of the year for grieving kids are Mother’s and Father’s Day – when the celebration of parents puts the loss center stage. How can you help a grieving child cope?
Here’s one story of how a young girl’s father came up with a meaningful way to help his daughter grieve the loss of her mother.
Mary’s* mother died shortly after her third birthday. Mary’s father Steve*, although suffering with his own grief, was wise enough to understand that Mary needed a way to remember her mother. So, at the suggestion of his grief counselor, Steve created a “Mama Drawer” in Mary’s room. His counselor had also educated Steve on the unique ways that children come to terms with death. For example, young children don’t grasp the finality of death, so Steve had to be very specific about the Mama Drawer’s purpose and not give the impression that Mama would come back and look at or touch the items in the drawer.
Steve showed Mary the drawer and invited her to put any special items in this drawer. He told Mary that the drawer could be a place where Mary could go to remember and think about her mother.
So, on special days such as birthdays, holidays like Mother’s Day, Mary would put into the drawer drawings, gifts or other treasures a small child is apt to find. She and Steve would say, “this goes into the Mama Drawer.” If appropriate, Steve would share a special memory with Mary about his wife.
By creating a space that was devoted to her mother, Mary was able to still, in some small but meaningful way, use all the mementos that churches, daycares and schools create for Mother’s Day. It helped Mary participate in the celebration of her mother, even though her mother was no longer physically able to be in her life.
Do you know a child who is grieving? Special days are often the most difficult because there is an air of celebration that the bereaved may not feel. Consider using one of the ideas from Ele’s Place, an organization that is dedicated to creating awareness of and support for grieving children and their families. Their resource page Holiday Tips for Grieving Families contains over 30 ideas gathered from children who are grieving the loss of a loved one. Ele’s Place staff also recommends When Dinosaurs Die, which is a book that concretely explains the concept of death to young children.
For more information on helping grieving kids, visit our Helping Children and Teens Grieve page.
*Editor’s note: names have been changed to maintain privacy.