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1 in 13 Mass. kids face death of parent, sibling by 18: The Children's Room helps

Kara Baskin of Arlington, a writer for The Boston Globe, has written a caring tribute to the work done at The Children's Room, a longtime nonprofit in town. Titled "The Children’s Room in Arlington wants to normalize the last taboo: grief," her Parenting Unfiltered column has been republished with the author's permission.


As parents, we sweat the small stuff, even when deep down we know it’s pretty meaningless. Missing homework. Carpools gone awry. The struggle to get your kid to wear a coat from November to March.

But death is a great leveler; it puts the small stuff in perspective. In Massachusetts, 1 out of 13 children will experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18. The Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model (CBEM) reports that 6 million kids in the United States will lose a parent or a sibling by 18.

Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey proclaimed Nov. 16 Children’s Grief Awareness Day, responding to the growing number of kids coping with childhood bereavement. Sometimes it’s due to suicide caused by a mental health crisis in a system that’s stretched to the brink. Other times, it’s addiction. Or else it’s random bad luck, like an accident in a crosswalk or a cancer diagnosis. During the holidays, the losses seem more acute. Life feels unfair.

Death in the family

When my mom died, I wanted so badly to cross back to the realm of innocence, where my biggest worry was which brand of toothpaste to ask her to put in my kids’ stockings. I resented all the merry people, untouched by reality. At least I was an adult, though. People knew how to express sympathy (more or less). Kids don’t. When my seventh-grader’s friend lost his dad, I urged him to send a text or ask his friend to hang out. But it was awkward: What if the friend didn’t want to be treated differently? What if he just wanted to forget it? There wasn’t a script.

Sometimes, you just need to be surrounded by people who get it. The Children’s Room, based in Arlington, is a haven for grieving families in Massachusetts, offering peer and family support groups and social-emotional learning curriculums and events for area schools. They want to normalize grief — and empathy — at a crucial developmental time.

“Childhood bereavement [is] a ‘toxic stressor’ that can be equivalent to the effects of abuse or neglect. Without support, grieving children and teens often experience a drop in grades, difficulty concentrating, isolation, risky or unhealthy behaviors, truancy, anger, or an overall decline in caring about school or other activities,” says executive director Jon Gay.

The Children’s Room recently launched Pathways of Change, a free curriculum for elementary-schoolers, showing them how to be empathetic, supportive friends and explaining what loss means, in terms they can understand. Children’s Room clinical staff visit classrooms to conduct four-hour-long lessons, teaching empathy and naming emotions through play, movement, and art. (Schools can reach out to The Children’s Room to sign up for sessions.)

Still, according to the CBEM, 57 percent of people who lost a parent say that support from family and friends wanes in the first three months, even though it takes them an average of six years to move forward. So be helpful.

Be present; here’s how

Don’t avoid the topic. People who are grieving already feel different and alone. Combat that by acknowledging the loss. You’re not reminding them of it; they already know.

“Grief is so isolating. When kids and teens have this experience, they already feel like something in their life is so out of their control and so out of order,” says Children’s Room schools and community program director Christine Lambright. “Let them know that you’re still their friend and that you’re open to hearing about their person if they want to share. Give that invitation,” she says.

Be precise about logistical support. When it comes to adult friendships, concrete offers are best, especially during the overscheduled holidays.

“‘Hey, I would love to drive Lucy to soccer practice on Thursday, if it’s helpful for you.’ Offer concrete ways that you’re able to support, and check in first. Ask, ‘Is that something that will be helpful for you or not?’ Sometimes grieving families feel like the onus is on them. Everybody says, ‘Let me know what I can do.’ And families sometimes have such a tornado of those questions. … If people can reach out with concrete ways to help, that can be really supportive. It’s one less thing for them to think about,” Lambright says.

Offer useful gestures of sympathy. Skip the flowers and offer something unlikely to expire, like restaurant gift cards. Children’s Room families appreciate cards to services like Uber Eats and GrubHub.

“Rather than bringing over all the casseroles and filling up the fridge, go with something really practical,” she says. (I still remember a friend who lost her husband telling me that throwing out dead flowers was depressing and made her house look like a funeral parlor.)

Provide outlets for joy, because grieving people have needs, too. Just because someone’s grieving doesn’t mean they can’t experience happiness. It’s not insensitive to offer a dose of normalcy, whether it’s a kid asking a friend to hang out at the mall or an adult suggesting going out to dinner.

“Families and students are sometimes surprised by the reminder that a grieving family still needs to have typical day-to-day interactions. … They’re probably getting lots of support very specific to the person who died: people showing up for the funeral services; people bringing food right away. What can really be helpful is saying: ‘I’d love to go with you to a movie sometime. Let me know when you’re ready.’ … Offer them things that they can still look forward to,” Lambright says. “Treat them as people, rather than as [someone] who had this big, astronomical thing that happened in their life.”

Talk about the missing person. Most grieving families who come to The Children’s Room say that they actually appreciate the opportunity to share memories. At Pathways of Change, kids are taught to ask friends: “Is it OK for me to share something I remember?” This takes the pressure off the grieving person to bring up their loved one, unsure of how people might react.

“They don’t know if their peers, friends, or even family members are going to act awkward, strange, or get quiet, so giving them the space to just casually name it oftentimes takes off that pressure. They feel like: ‘Oh, it’s OK to talk about them,’” Lambright says.

Don’t fade away. Please, don’t ghost.

“Families share that people kind of drop off within the first few weeks, then within the first few months, and most definitely within the first year. And a lot of families actually find that after the first year, in some ways, it’s the hardest time,” says Lambright, because reality fully sinks in. They’ve slogged through the first birthdays and holidays; now, it’s a new, endless normal.

The Children’s Room teaches people how to move forward while still honoring memories and emotions. It’s a tough duality for outsiders to grasp; after a fashion, they might not know whether to approach someone in sympathy or like it’s just another day. There’s no wrong way to be present, though: Just don’t disappear.

As time goes on, kids and adults can reach out on important days — a birthday, Mother’s Day, or Father’s Day. Nothing fancy; a “thinking of you” does the job and doesn’t put anyone on the spot.

“It can just be a simple text: ‘Hey, how you doing today? I’m here,’” says Lambright. “It doesn’t have to be a big statement. Sometimes, it’s just the offering.”

July 5, 2022: Medford author shares her story of grief and loss


This advice column was republished Tuesday, Dec. 55, 2023.

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