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When faced with sadness and grief, children cope in a variety of ways, based on their development. They typically experience the death of a loved one differently than adults.
However, like adults, children benefit from being involved in the grief process in meaningful and healing ways. Siblings of children with life-threatening illnesses or at the end of their life need opportunities to process the grief associated with the loss of their sibling. Certified Child Life Specialists at American Family Children's Hospital create ways for children to express themselves. Helping families connect with each other during the grief process is one way the Pediatric Palliative Care Team supports the whole family in creating their own meaningful legacy.
To best support children experiencing grief and loss, it is important to determine and acknowledge where they — and their families — are in their grieving process while providing the children with opportunities to express themselves. An effective way to support them is through play — a universal language among children. When they are faced with difficult things, play is a familiar and comfortable experience that children can use to cope and process what is happening around them. Combining play with art provides an opportunity for children to create lasting and meaningful legacies through self-expression. Legacies are moments in time or tangible keepsakes that are remembered and cherished, and helping children have a part in creating their family's legacy can be a powerful tool in their grief journeys.
In my role as a Child Life Specialist, I have supported many families experiencing loss. One mother of a son with complex healthcare needs explained the power of her daughter creating a family legacy during a time of sadness and grief. The mother shared the experience of telling her daughter about her brother's serious illness and feeling that her daughter did not completely understand the weight of the situation. I introduced the idea of combining play with art to help her daughter create a meaningful keepsake for the family. Creating a piece of artwork for her family in a nearby playroom gave her daughter a place to be happy and creative, while being close to her family.
The mother remembers her daughter coming into her brother's hospital room with a smile on her face, artwork and paint in hand. She shared her plan to gather everyone's thumbprints for the family tree she had painted on a canvas. Making the family tree legacy keepsake became an important job for the day, amid sadness and grief, and it is now kept in a special place in the family's home. The experience of creating it is a treasured memory and it remains a topic of conversation as well as a precious keepsake for the family.
As we honor Children's Grief Awareness Day this month, it is important to remember the powerful tools and opportunities we can provide to help children cope during their grief journeys. Creating meaningful legacies of self-expression and family connection through play and art can provide them an outlet for purpose, coping and healing.