Not long into my child life career, I realized that regardless of what unit I covered or area of the hospital I worked in, I would be doing some form of grief and loss work with children and families. That work has varied depending upon the setting and families I’ve worked with over the years but the fact remains both inside and outside of the hospital, children and families are facing various types of grief and loss every day.
According to a 2012 study done by the New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers found that “7 in 10 teachers (69%) currently have at least one student in their class(es) who has lost a parent, guardian, sibling, or close friend in the past year.” In light of the current pandemic, the likelihood is that number is likely higher in the current state of our world. As a child life specialist, the types of grief and loss most commonly seen in the hospital is medically related however it’s also not unheard of for a child to present for a medical need and have experienced a loss or some type of grief completely unrelated to their medical experience.
Child life specialists are well trained and versed in the effects of grief and loss in children as well as providing bereavement support to pediatric patients and their families. Most child life specialists receive specific education during their education program on this topic as well as hands-on training during their internship and initial employment training. Additionally, many child life specialists seek additional training and certifications related to this.
So how do child life specialists support children and families experiencing grief and loss? Educating children about death and dying in a developmentally appropriate way is often a cornerstone of our support. While this may sound dark, for many children their ability to cope with a loss can be directly tied to their understanding of the event. Most children’s first experiences with death are through cartoons and TV exposure, the death of an extended family member such as a grandparent, or the loss of a family pet. If developmentally appropriate explanations and education are not provided related to these events, kids will take what they know and add in their own imagination to fill in the gaps. Depending upon the developmental age of the child or children affected by the loss, a child life specialist will typically utilize a host of resources to educate on this topic including books, creative arts activities, and role rehearsal or role-play, to name a few.
Additionally, child life specialists often promote coping with bereavement by facilitating legacy building. Legacy building has been defined in some research as “a collaborative activity that helps children and their families create lasting memories during difficult healthcare experiences” (Sisk, Walker, Gardner, Mandrell & Grimson , 2012) or “the creation of legacy items which record the physical existence of a person, in hopes of aiding healing for the bereaved” (Cacciatore & Flint, 2012). In a setting such as a hospital or setting where a child life specialist can meet directly with a family such as a funeral home setting, child life specialists are able to facilitate these activities, engaging the entire family in the process.
One common legacy building activity is creating hand molds of the individual who is dying which can also be completed in conjunction with other family members. There are many variations to this technique however the outcome provides the survivors of the loss with tangible memory pieces that can be cherished after the loved one has passed. Additionally, child life specialists are trained to adapt these techniques to accommodate the family dynamic and needs of the dying individual.
Child life specialists are also able to support and educate parents and caregivers who are caring for children on how best to support these children during and after the loss. We recognize that children process and cope with grief in many different ways and what works for one child may not for another. Child life specialists are available to offer interventions and supportive techniques to help children as they process this information and cope with the loss of a loved one.