Childhood Loss: The Untold Burden

Play dates, sleepovers, soccer games, pizza, death.

Death? How did that get in there? It is not an image that comes to mind when you think of childhood. And yet it is a part of childhood much more often than commonly thought. New national research we conducted shows that one out of seven kids will lose a parent or sibling before the age of 20.

The impact of such loss can be profound. Among the adults we surveyed who lost a parent growing up, more than half (57 percent) said they would trade a year of their life for one more day with their parent and 69 percent said they still think of their parent frequently.

Childhood bereavement is one of society’s most chronically painful yet rarely examined and most underestimated phenomena. Fearful of burdening their surviving parent– and growing up in a society that runs from the mention of death and grief– kids who lose loved ones get the message early on that people are uncomfortable talking about their loss, so they suffer in silence. As a result, these children are too often subject to a distressing range of emotional, psychological and behavioral difficulties, which can extend well into adulthood.

It’s time for a national conversation on childhood bereavement.

The Forgotten Mourners

Grieving kids are often called the forgotten mourners. They are too easy to overlook.
They don’t wear black and don’t mourn 24/7. They often keep up their grades and extra curricular activities. They may look “OK” to the daily observer, but they are grieving.

Childhood grief does not look like adult grief, so it often gets missed and dismissed. Kids grieve in short bursts–while playing they may fall and skin their knee and end up crying not for the skinned knee, but for their mom who died, who used to put Bandaids on that skinned knee. But moments later, they are off playing again. Don’t be mistaken by this quick recovery.

Our society does not encourage kids — or adults, for that matter — to talk about their loss. When kids bring up their deceased father’s name and mom starts to cry, or their best friend looks at the ground and changes the subject, or their teacher says, “shouldn’t you be over that by now?” Guess what? They stop communicating.

One such girl was captain of the cheerleading squad, president of the student council, and on the National Honor Society. Her mother died when she was nine. Her father remarried the next year and died when she was 12, the day before Jr. High started. She didn’t fit in with the girls her age, rarely participated in sleepovers, and cried a lot in her room. Her goal everyday was not to be happy, but simply to be okay, and not to cry. She never talked about her loss.

That girl was me.

I looked like everybody else on the outside, but on the inside, there was a huge hole that I dealt with everyday. Grief separated me. It was lonely and isolating and enduring.

Finding Your Comfort Zone

When I was growing up, there weren’t many resources for grieving children. Sadly, many years later there still are not enough. That’s why I founded Comfort Zone Camp the nation’s largest bereavement camps for kids.

Comfort Zone Camp breaks the isolation grieving children feel and let them know they are not alone. It allows them to get back to being kids again, provides validation for their feelings, and gives them tools to help heal. In 12 years, we have helped over 5,200 children. And our camps are free to all — thanks in large part to the New York Life Foundation. One kid may come to camp with clothes in a grocery sack and another in monogrammed luggage. They both start talking about, “who will give me away when I get married,” and their grief becomes a great equalizer.

We’ve helped a lot of kids but we are just scratching the surface of an unmet need in our society. Getting kid to camp is a critical step, but we need to do more. All of us.

A Community Response

I still frequently hear horror stories of communities not supporting grieving kids. I cringe every time.
Last year at Comfort Zone, I met three teens from three different states who had each been put in anger management classes in school for getting defensive when teachers told them they should be over their loss and “not use it as an excuse.”

Clearly the impact of the early loss is lost on too many Americans. We need to do more to touch the millions who are grieving–both kids and adults. Katie Couric’s recent report “When Families Grieve” illustrates this exact point. Grieving children are crying out for help, but is anyone listening?

I believe most of us are well-intentioned, but our efforts are constrained by a fear of ‘doing something wrong’ or by a simple lack of knowledge over what to do or where to go for help. It’s really quite simple. Most families want understanding, an inquiring word, an occasional invitation, and some arms-and-legs support.

Grief is a journey. We can’t eliminate it, but we can make it more manageable. That’s why Comfort Zone has created Hello Grief. The goals of the site are to start a discussion about the impact of loss, provide information on how to help grieving families cope, and to build a community of support. Our social networking tools also help kids and adults who are grieving connect and share their feelings.

I’m on a mission to give a voice and a place to grieving children and their parents. You can help. Together we must raise awareness of the effects of childhood bereavement so that kids can get back to being kids again. Grieving children need to rebuild their safety nets. We need to support them – at home, at school, and in everyday life Giving these kids the time and opportunity to heal is critical to their ability to thrive as adults

* * * *

For more information on the camps (which are offered free of charge) or how to attend or volunteer, please visit www.comfortzonecamp.org or call 866.488.5679.

* * * *

This article originally ran in the Huffington Post, May 26, 2010. View here.

Photo Credit.

16 Comments:

  1. Bill said on June 1, 2010 at 7:07 pm ... #

    So very well said as always. As you know, I’m caught up in the mission, marvel at the growth over the past 10 years and still I know we haven’t scratched the surface of the need. Cheers!

  2. Norman Sider said on June 4, 2010 at 11:31 am ... #

    I am a friend of a family where the 35 year-old husband recently died after a lengthy struggle with brain cancer. A son, who will be 3 in a few months, also survives. Are there any resources that could be helpful to a child that young?

  3. joyce said on June 7, 2010 at 5:10 pm ... #

    So true,Kate has been coming to Comfort zone for 2 years-Sometimes the tears just come-I can see the pain-I can even feel the pain-it was my daughter-he mom.

  4. June said on June 8, 2010 at 11:50 am ... #

    It’s wonderful to know that someone is bringing this sad and traumatic event that children somehow are expected to live through, to light, and helping to find ways to heal them. To live a lifetime with this kind of pain is terrible.

    I lost my mother just before my 8th birthday. I was raised by my reluctant grandmother, and passed around to a series of family members during summer months, to relieve the burden on my grandmother.

    The feeling of pain and loss echoed through the years, with no solace or consolation. As an adult, I began to have anxiety problems, and finally sought out counseling when I was 34.

    It helped somewhat with anxiety, but did not end the deep grief I carried. At the age of 40, I was still grieving and still wept for my mother nearly *every day*.

    Finally I went to a holistic physician, and after learning about my emotional state, he referred me to a skilled psychic medium. I brought a photo of my mother with me. The medium was able to connect with my mother, and told me things no one else could have known about my childhood.

    For some reason, after this single experience, the grief left me and I finally had peace–no anxiety and no grief–just a few cherished memories of my mom.

    Today, because of my experience, I am an intuitive psychic medium; and I often hear stories from adults regarding this childhood pain that so many have carried into adulthood.

    Thank you for helping children while they are still children, to understand and work through their grief and loss, saving them years of sorrow and pain.

  5. Anne Saffron said on July 24, 2010 at 3:54 am ... #

    I wish I had known about this organization when my father first passed away a little over seven years ago. I was a forgotten mourner. My teachers cared but after the funeral and when I finally went back to school no one mentioned a thing. Not many people talked to me. I was treated the same as anyone else by my teachers which I am thankful for but no one questioned my mental health. No one wanted to concern themselves with the girl who had buried her father. The class sent cards that I still own to this day but that was it. I feel it being seven years later, and being eighteen, I don’t think this camp would help me anymore. I pray many children find this camp and heal the proper way!

  6. Linda Reinwald said on August 11, 2010 at 10:27 am ... #

    My 35 year old nephew was found by his mother (my sister) just 4 weeks ago. It is presumed he died from an accidental overdose. He left not only his wife, a sister, brother and a mother, but a set of twin girls one week before their second birthday and a 4 month old son. To say this is a tragic loss is an understatement. Everyone is coping as best they can but the major concern now is for the twins. One is acting out; the other just going with the flow. We haven’t been able to find any reference material which addresses helping with the healing process for 2 year olds. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for all you do!

  7. Shelley Gilbert said on June 16, 2011 at 3:25 am ... #

    Dear Lynne
    Are you going to the Miami Conference next week?
    I run Grief Encounter,one of the leading CB organisations in the UK..and as you could see from our website lots of our ideas resonate with each other-thought wed have a coffee if you are going perhaps?
    Best wishes
    Shelley

  8. kerry neuberger said on June 28, 2011 at 6:49 am ... #

    It’s all very true. My husband died this past December, we have sons – 14 & 11 – there are no grief support groups for kids, all they can do is see a counselor, which insurance will not pay for as they are not diagnosed as clinically depressed – which they are not – they are grieving. The local Hospice does a camp that may be beneficial to our 11 yr old, but they readily admit it is mostly attended by younger children as the teens are less likely to share with strangers, and it is only a day camp.

    suggestions to help them?

    Kerry

  9. Olivia Beck said on July 6, 2011 at 11:28 pm ... #

    I wish there had been such a way to share our grief when my brother and I lost our mother to breast cancer 53 years ago. In my recently published book, Road to Sunrise, I describe the drastic changes in our idyllic childhood with a large extended family, after our mother’s death when I was 12 and he, 11. Filled with our emotions, the book demonstrates how we overcame our circumstances with a self-centered father, and moved on to lead happy lives. The book is suitable for young teens and adults. If you think it might be of help to your kids and the camp, you can get a copy on authorhouse.com, Amazon, or other book sites, or contact me at o.beck@comcast.net. Olivia Beck

  10. lyndsay fleming said on September 28, 2011 at 2:23 pm ... #

    hi their,i recently set up a support group for children experiencing grief at the loss of a loved one,please join and leave your comments on the group wall at facebook.co.uk. my group is called reece’s wish – grief matters in children.thanks in advance

  11. Jaye said on June 12, 2013 at 11:46 am ... #

    I wish that your camp and your insight had been available 28 years ago when my husband died of cancer. My son was 7 and my daughter 11 at the time. I kept telling myself that I would be ok if the kids are ok, but the kids were never ok. Professional therapists were worse than useless. They made my kids furious. The well-meaning people at church added fuel to the fire instead of comfort. They made my kids even angrier with their comments about “God’s will” and “God needed your dad in heaven more than he needed to be on earth.” I stayed in a whirlwind of working full time, maintaining all of the kids’ activities so that their lives could go on, and struggling with my own grief. I admit that I was mostly a robot going through the motions. They developed into angry adolescents who stopped being straight A students, used drugs, and said things to me like “I wish you had been the one who had died.” Reading your articles has helped me understand things that no one explained in 1985. My children are 35 and 39 now and still emotionally impaired. I’m forwarding some of these articles to them. Maybe it will give my son insight into his non-stop anxiety and my daughter insight into her turmoil. I encourage all surviving parents to seek out your camp — it must be very helpful and healing for the children.

  12. Wade McRoberts said on October 29, 2013 at 6:26 am ... #

    Fantastic work you are doing, I lost my mother and father at 9 months and then lost my adopted mother and father, who happened to be my grandparents, and my sister at 9 years old, I’m 45 now and am having to go through the grief at this late stage. It is very profound how society seems to think that kids have a strength to be able to get over it very quickly, kids need protection and guidance from adults who can help get them to understand what they need to do.
    Great work, I would like to keep following your work and will keep checking your website.

  13. Therese M.Craig said on November 16, 2013 at 9:12 pm ... #

    I am a 54 year old woman who works in Mental Health. I have 13 years with a non-profit organization. Before that I worked 17 and a half years working in a Mental Institution until it closed it’s doors. I have over-come severe panic attacks with therapy and medication. I have 2 sons ages 20 and 24. Never married. I this evening experienced a lost feeling. Sorrow a hole in the pit of my stomach. It amazes me what the brain blocks but still remembers. My birth parents were killed in a car accident when I was 2 years old. I have no memory of them. There were 9 children left without their parents. We were one to age 13. It occurred to me 20 minutes ago tomorrow is the anniversary or their death. I still am amazed at what I find difficult to put me finger on.

  14. MARY said on November 18, 2013 at 4:58 pm ... #

    I lost both parents when I was 8, they died suddenly in a car accident. I’m 50 now but every now and then still feel sad at my loss. Never had time to grieve or morn over their death. I am one of the Forgotten Mourners. I grew up to be very strong, sometimes to the point of being cold, so they tell me. I am/was labeled an orphan. I wish this site existed back then. I’ve read many post and it makes me feel good to know why I still grieve the death of both parents.

  15. Cindy said on July 28, 2014 at 11:24 am ... #

    I am married to a 58 year old man, who lost his mother of sudden heart failure when my husband was nine. He has mentioned more than once how he wondered if he and his life would be different if his mother had lived longer.

    He saw her taken away in an ambulance, and he remembers seeing blood on the driveway. That, in and of itself, would be horrifying, particularly to a nine year old!

    Now that his father has passed, too, it’s almost like he wants to remember good times, but he is unable. I guess I’m looking for suggestions to help my husband. He’s very functional but continues to bring up his mom.

    I appreciate any suggestions. Thank you.

  16. Marina Miller said on July 28, 2014 at 5:40 pm ... #

    I just turned 19 not too long ago. I lost my mother when I was nine and watched my father die when I was twelve. I didn’t think I would ever find something that I could emotionally connect so well with. These feeling were all too real for me and sometimes still are. I struggle with the loss of my parents the more I get older and see the things that they are missing out one. Extra curricular activities, my first love and heartbreak, graduating high school, going to college, getting married, and so on. I had to grow up way faster than I planned and it hurts looking back to seeing that I didn’t really have a childhood. We should pay more attention to our children’s grief.

Leave a Comment

Your email is never shared.

*
*

By submitting a comment, you are agreeing to our Terms & Conditions.