The statistics on childhood loss are alarming. For example, did you know that one in fourteen children in the U.S. will experience the death of a parent or sibling before they turn eighteen?
In some states that number is even one in nine. That makes a total of five million children in the U.S. who experience a significant loss every year.
The effects of loss during childhood can be devastating. Bereaved children are five times more likely to experience long-term mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation and attempts. A child who loses a parent to suicide is three times more likely to die by suicide too.
In addition to mental health and emotional difficulties, many children who experience loss also end up struggling with behavioral issues. They’re more likely to drop out of school, abuse substances, and engage in risky/illegal activities than children who do not experience a significant loss.
Connection Combats Grief
Atwood prescribes an antidote to childhood loss and grief: connection.
“Connection can reframe the grief experience,” Atwood says in her Ted Talk. “It can make grief not just ok, but good. How we guide children through the grief experience makes all the difference…and it can help us stop the cycles of despair.”
What does Atwood mean by connection?
She means connections with peers, with family members, and to others who faced similar loss. Atwood, who started Kate’s Club – a Midwest nonprofit that helps grieving children and adolescents who experience loss – says connection is a critical element to the healing process of grief.
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Most importantly, connection means helping your child get in tune with their feelings. It means validating their struggles one-on-one, and not choosing to ignore the loss after its immediate impact fades. It means getting your child mental health assistance, whether it’s through a trauma specialist or grief counselor, as soon as possible after the loss.
Myths About Childhood Grief
In her discussion, Atwood says many parents forego seeking professional mental health assistance or support for their child after such a tragedy. She says this happens because parents in the U.S. operate under two very common but false myths about childhood grief.
Myth Number 1: Children don’t grieve. They’re too young.
Atwood says that many people misunderstand the emotional depth of children, thinking that children don’t have the developmental capacity to understand the complexity of loss at their young age. So, they figure, why make it worse by bringing it up?
However, this idea is false.
“All kids who experience loss, grieve,” Atwood clarifies.
Evidence shows that children who experience a tragic death are susceptible to emotional distress for an average of two years after the loss.
Myth Number 2: If the child doesn’t look like they’re grieving, they’re okay.
This is a dangerous erroneous myth, Atwood says, because the fact is that all grieving children need support.
“Kids grieve in spurts,” she says. “So when we label them as resilient too soon, it [shows them that] they are rewarded for keeping [their grief] tucked away, or they should be over it by now.”
To illustrate, Atwood compares loss to a physical injury.
“When a child breaks an arm, parents don’t just sit around and say, ‘Let’s just see how this turns out; let’s see how the bone settles and we’ll deal with it later if there’s a problem.’”
Of course, no responsible parent would take this approach. Instead, they would immediately take the child to the hospital or emergency room to get medical care for the broken bone.
If that’s the case, Atwood argues, “Why don’t we do the same when a child has a broken heart?”
Untreated, the painful emotions related to the trauma of losing a loved one can increase over time. This can create severe mental health issues that may necessitate intensive care later in life. Which is why early intervention for childhood loss and grief – including mental health counseling and support – is the most effective and beneficial path to recovery.
For more on adolescent grief, read: Helping Teens With Grief and Loss.