Children who have lost a parent or sibling bear a burden of sorrow and anxiety, yet they strive to be resilient in the face of their grief and greatly value the support of friends, family and the community, according to the results of a first-ever nationwide poll of bereaved kids released today by the New York Life Foundation and the National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC).
The National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC) promotes awareness of the needs of children and teens grieving a death and provides education and resources for anyone who wants to support them. The New York Life Foundation has, since 1979, provided more than $155 million in charitable contributions to national and local nonprofit organizations. Through its focus on “Nurturing the Children,” the Foundation supports programs that benefit young people, particularly in the areas of educational enhancement and childhood bereavement.
Dealing with the death of a loved one is crushing, the findings show. Three-quarters (75%) of the kids surveyed say they are currently sad – even though, for the survey sample, the loss was experienced on average more than two years ago. Nearly seven of 10 kids agree the death of their loved one was the worst thing that ever happened to them. More than two in five (41 percent) said that in reaction to their loss they had acted in ways that they knew might not be good for them either physically, emotionally or mentally.
“The death of a loved one is incredibly hard and isolating for children,” said Chris Park, president of the New York Life Foundation. “It engenders sadness, anger, loneliness, confusion, guilt – emotions that all too often are suffered in isolation. Kids in grief are trying hard to cope and heal, but it’s clear that they desperately need our help to do so.
“But we are a grief-averse society, apparently hoping that if we just ignore grief, it will go away,” Park said. “As a result, families in grief – children in particular – often are left to suffer alone and in silence, without sufficient understanding and support from the people and institutions that could truly make a difference for them.”
The New York Life Foundation /NAGC poll of 531 kids age 18 and under who have lost a parent or sibling was conducted in-person at bereavement centers nationwide between November 21, 2011 and January 5, 2012. It is believed to be the first public opinion poll of grieving children.
“The poll results are clear,” Park said. “Friends, neighbors, teachers and counselors – and society at large – all have a crucial role to play helping kids regain some equilibrium.”
More children may be struggling with loss than may be commonly thought. A survey of 1,006 adults conducted in late 2009 by New York Life with Comfort Zone Camp, a leading provider of bereavement support services for children, found that one of nine Americans had lost a parent before age 20; one in seven had lost a parent or sibling before turning 20.
“We need to bring childhood grief out of the shadows,” Park said. “It’s critical to help kids give voice to their struggles and hopes – and in the process, shed light on what each of us can do to help. We can’t eliminate their grief journey, but we can ease their burden along the way. ”
Lives Shaped by Sadness
Kids in grief are weighted down by stark emotion, with nearly half saying sadness is their overriding feeling in the wake of their loss and four in 10 indicating they are “sad inside most of the time.”
“The emotion that bereaved kids are experiencing might not always be overt, but for many it is always present, coloring their view of the world as well as their ability to pick up the pieces following the death of a parent or sibling,” said Andy McNiel, executive director, National Alliance for Grieving Children. “One of grief’s most insidious impacts is the degree to which, for many kids, it introduces a gnawing uncertainty and concern into a world that might have previously seemed completely secure and safe.” Nearly three-quarters of bereaved kids said their loved one’s death taught them that “life is not always fair.” Four in ten said they sometimes now worry about their surviving parent or guardian dying as well.
The Daily Challenge of School
For grieving kids, resuming normal life following loss demands successfully navigating the school day. For many, this task becomes harder.
Nearly half of kids say they are having more trouble concentrating on school work and about three in 10 say they are not doing as well in school as before. Just 27 percent say that going to school after their loss was helpful.
The poll suggests that schools are challenged to provide meaningful support to kids in grief. When asked to grade their school and teachers on “helping me deal with my loved one’s death,” most kids assigned them either a “C” (15 percent), a “D” (10 percent) or an “F” (23 percent).
Bereaved parents confirmed this view in a poll conducted by the NAGC and the New York Life Foundation in summer 2011. In that poll, about four in 10 parents said their children’s school was not well prepared to help their children deal with their loss.
“During the week, kids spend as many of their waking hours in school as they do at home. In many ways, school becomes the public frame of reference for their grief,” said David Schonfeld, MD, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “Kids are pretty good at picking up on social cues. If their teachers and other adults at school seem uncomfortable or uninterested in their loss, they learn quickly they will have to deal with their grief alone.