Providing support for grieving children can overwhelm caregivers, who often spend vast amounts of energy trying to protect children from suffering and pain. The reality however is that children cannot be shielded from death any more than we can stop loved ones from dying. They will grieve in their own specific way depending on their development level, their loved one’s illness, and the support available to them. Instead, what children need most is to be included. They must be prepared and provided with a safe place for emotional expression.
On November 15, we observed Children’s Grief Awareness Day—a day devoted to helping children cope through community, and to carving out space for emotional expression. It began five years ago in Pennsylvania, founded by the Highmark Caring Place. It was set during the holiday season—each year on the third Thursday in November—because this can be a particularly difficult time for those coping with the loss of a loved one. Groups like Hospice and Palliative Care of Western Colorado have found novel ways of using the day to encourage children’s expression. This year they teamed up with local schools to hold events featuring the release of symbolic balloons.
Holistic care that includes palliative care is crucial to this process can be crucial to providing the support needed for children to acknowledge grief in this way. Palliative care enhances the quality of life in the face of terminal illness, focusing on the relief of symptoms like pain, as well as emotional conditions like isolation. This allows children to better cope with the realities of illness, loss, and grief. To this end, the International Children Palliative Care network (ICPCN)—a grantee of Open Society Foundations—is the only international network of organizations and individuals working in children’s palliative care. As Executive Director Joan Martson states, “we have a responsibility to mediate the impact of loss to the best of our ability for every child. Facing the death of a loved one deserves a high standard of total care.”
As with this year's Children’s Grief Awareness Day, we should remember the role palliative care can play in helping children respond to their grief. For caregivers in need of resources, ICPCN has developed a wealth of information available on their website.