Learning to Grieve
How to Help Children Navigate Through Loss
by Sandra Yeyati
Adults often want to shield children from suffering, but that isn’t always possible or advisable. Loss and grief are natural parts of life. Acknowledging and expressing uncomfortable feelings are necessary lessons in being human, and while there is no right way to grieve, adults can provide gentle guideposts. Most importantly, kids need to know that they aren’t alone as they process complicated emotions and integrate lessons of empathy and acceptance.
In My Yellow Balloon, an award-winning children’s picture book, a little boy named Joey comes to love the lemon-colored balloon he receives at a carnival. Tied to his wrist, it isn’t just Joey’s favorite toy, it also becomes a loyal companion through many fun adventures.
One day, the string slips off his wrist and Joey’s best friend flies away, catapulting him on a journey through grief.
“The yellow balloon is a metaphor for all kinds of losses—divorce, death, grade school graduation,” explains the book’s author and certified grief worker Tiffany Papageorge. “We think of loss as the death of a person, but loss can also be any change, transition or disappointment—big or small. The older we get, the more we shake them off, but some disappointments can feel big in the moment, especially for little kids.”
The beginning pages of My Yellow Balloon are rendered in full color to illustrate Joey’s innocence. He has never known pain. After he loses the balloon, the ensuing pages turn black-and-white. “Loss is disorienting. I wanted to give kids that visceral understanding that it feels like the whole world turns upside-down and you just have to sit there helpless and watch your balloon float away—watch your life as you knew it getting away from you,” Papageorge says.
“At first, Joey misses his yellow balloon all of the time, then he misses it most of the time, then a lot of the time and then just some of the time, and the color slowly comes back into his world. At the end, when he says, 'I still miss you, but whenever I see the sun, I’ll feel you with me,’ that’s when the color has shadow, light and range, because when you go through a profound loss and feel your feelings, you can see the world with greater depth and empathy for those around you.”
According to Papageorge, her book is intended to serve as a roadmap through grief that parents and kids can read together. “It’s important to acknowledge and validate the pain a child is experiencing,” she says. “When a toddler throws a tantrum at the store, instead of ignoring them or telling them to stop it, say 'I know you’re disappointed and sad. I understand that; it doesn’t feel good. I’m here with you.’ Something magical happens when anyone at any age is acknowledged and understood.”
According to Brittany Collins, an educator, curriculum designer and author of Learning from Loss: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Supporting Grieving Students, “Grief elicits a fight-or-flight stress response, and chronic exposure to high levels of stress hormones can have deleterious effects on development, especially in adolescents when the prefrontal cortex is still in development. At the same time, neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to grow, change and adapt at any point in life, is also at play. So, adolescence is a wonderful moment to introduce teens to coping strategies they can use throughout their life, whether that’s mindfulness, different types of emotional regulations, storytelling activities, meditation, journaling or yoga.”
Expressive writing (journaling using emotion words) promotes regulation of the nervous system, which in turn lowers that stress response and creates physiological relief, Collins notes, adding, “Scientific data suggests that the metacognition involved in identifying feelings and writing feeling-based words in narratives improves immune and liver function, elicits higher quality-of-life scores and improves psychological well-being.”
When we lose a loved one, we lose what psychologists call hidden regulators—sensory facets that subconsciously make us feel that things are okay in the world. It could be the sound of a parent’s car pulling into the driveway after work or the smell of a loved one’s cologne. Collins says that teachers and parents can counterbalance a destabilizing loss by introducing routine and predictability in children’s schedules, perhaps starting class the same way every day with a five-minute free-write, or scheduling regular visits with a special mentor or relative every Saturday. Kids come to rely on such anchors in times of stress, upheaval and loss.
Collins suggests that caring adults shift their mindset away from being a savior, because grief is not something to be fixed or solved, and instead serve as a facilitator of connection. “Think about what form of outlet might resonate with young people and shift the onus away from one adult being the person that says and does the right thing, and instead wrapping a community around them for support,” she says. Helpful resources include mental health professionals; youth engagement programs where kids experiencing loss can share and learn from each other; and activities that offer release and friendship, such as theater, dance, sports or music.
Adults should resist the temptation to jump in and assume they know what’s best for a grieving child, Collins counsels. “Ask open-ended questions like, 'What would be most helpful to you in this moment?’ or, 'What makes you feel calm or connected?’ Find ways to inspire introspection and reflection without telling young people that we know the answer.”
Making space to remember a lost loved one or to honor something we’ve lost can be healing for both kids and adults. Collins suggests that we ask kids how they’d like to memorialize a loss, preferably in community. Maybe they want to plant a tree in honor of someone’s memory or create a fundraiser for a cause that the loved one cared about.
Ultimately, the greatest gift we can give grieving children is our presence. According to Collins, one of the best predictors of adjustment is a psychological concept called “perceived support availability.” Letting young people know that we’re thinking about them and that we’re there if and when they need us can go a long way.