Childhood and adolescent phases ordinarily present challenges specific to one’s age. A death in the family can potentially wreck the momentum of maturational growth. Without intervention, the added stress of coping with the demise of a parent, sibling, or other pivotal figure in a young person’s life can threaten stability and interfere with the progression from one developmental stage to the next.
A long time ago, when illness, death, and funeral proceedings all took place in home environments, children were on hand and part of what was going on, enabling them to interpret the end of life as a natural passage. At some point, though, as funeral homes became the central sites for final affairs, young people were shielded from direct contact with the realities of life endings. The general attitude was that they should be protected from the pain of loss. Their awareness of death was thwarted and their reactions intentionally minimized. Circumvention of attention to emotional manifestations was considered justifiable based on assurance that, as resilient children, the kids would be able to bounce back from any trauma they suffered due to it.
Modern psychology has reversed that stance. Instead, a focus on childhood and adolescent grieving stems from a belief that they should have direct contact with matters of death and learn effective ways to cope with the loss it incurs. This contemporary viewpoint has led to a substantial array of resources to support young people in navigating through the emotions of separation they now can face head-on, under the supervision of trained professionals cognizant of varying needs characteristic of particular age groups.
The National Alliance for Grieving Children serves as a nationwide resource for providers and anyone seeking awareness of suggested support measures. Professionals can use it as a forum for sharing ideas and information for implementation in their respective communities. Online education is a core aspect, in addition to the network’s hosting of an annual symposium, maintenance of a national database of children's bereavement support programs, and promotion of endeavors to enhance public sensitivity to the issues impacting grieving children and teens.
As a sign of the times, often funeral homes cater to the death-related imperatives of children belonging to the families they serve. Many have playrooms.
Designated staff members may be trained to fulfill roles geared toward helping youngsters understand death while enabling them to be active participants during proceedings, in age-appropriate ways. Sometimes funeral directors offer tours of their facilities for groups of children; the objective is to demystify death through exposure to the setting while enabling absorption of factual information in the absence of emotional entanglement.
Throughout the nation there are initiatives tailored to meet the needs of bereaved young people and to help keep them on an even keel developmentally. Effective approaches are promulgated through books, articles, presentations, and other means of communicating insights chronicled by way of empirical data and scientific studies. Often schools are involved as liaisons, where staff glean competence via presentations and other tools. A focus on remedial measures to help grief-stricken young people has become a specialty. Training programs for personnel, participating adult volunteers, and peer support groups provide an educational backbone for these helpers’ engagement.
Children and teens confronted by personal losses come together in a variety of settings where they have the benefit of integrating with others in similar situations. In contrast to peer interaction within school environments, here in safe havens they are free to talk openly about death without feeling self-conscious or distancing themselves from classmates aversive to the topic. The potential for a sense of isolation is offset through the camaraderie of social synergy with one another amid interactive activities.
An impressive array of programs and facilities includes weekend or full-time grief camps as well as dedicated physical centers. Sometimes animal assisted therapy is employed, forging therapeutic partnerships with pets or other animals to enable more spontaneous communication. As an alternative to traditional counseling sessions, equine therapy affords hands-on contact with horses through various programs around the country.
Possibly more so than ever, the unique needs of bereaved youth are being recognized and addressed these days. Under the guidance of compassionate comrades, those who have encountered a life-changing loss are being handled with care. Through insightful interventions, they journey from the darkness of death toward restitution and fundamental reabsorption in accustomed lifestyles, yet ones that will never be quite the same.
Time will tell if such restorative regimens for today’s young folks will impact their attitudes toward death as adults. Maybe in this “death-phobic” society they will be better equipped to confront matters of mortality more comfortably than the current population of adults – including those who may have experienced deaths of significant others during their childhoods. If that turns out to be the case, then even in the absence of loss, perhaps death education initiatives for all children and adolescents could help generate attitudes of acceptance.