November 21st was National Children's Grief Awareness Day, when we talk about how we can better support children and teens who are grieving the death of a loved one. At the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), we specialize in supporting military children who are grieving the death of a brother, sister or parent in service to America.
More than 10,000 children have lost a loved one serving in our Armed Forces since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with nearly half of them losing a parent. We find that the unique nature of military loss impacts how children and teens experience grief, and their experiences can differ from other grieving children in the civilian world without a military connection.
Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population serves in the military and many Americans do not personally know active duty service members or their families. Military children are a small population, and children who experience the death of a parent in the Armed Forces are an even tinier group. Troop deaths are lower in today's wars than in previous conflicts, but military deaths continue even in peacetime, with training accidents and other losses occurring, because of the high state of readiness our troops must maintain.
Many military children experience a physical separation from the military family community that has nurtured and supported them for their entire lives. They leave the military base and its community after the death of their parent. This dislocation can contribute to feelings of social isolation in the grieving child and can have a profound and long-lasting impact.
Loss of military culture impacts children and teens who are grieving. Instead of being a child who lived on post and was part of a cohesive military culture, the child instead becomes a civilian living in a "hometown" that their family may not have called home for a decade.
Prior to the death, military children are already exposed to the hazardous nature of military life at a young age. They are impacted by frequent and prolonged stressors, such as deployment, or the loss of a friend's parent or member of a unit their loved one served in. For the child, the service member often becomes a superhero who is revered as "larger than life." When that person, especially a parent, dies in uniform, the military culture that was the child's reference and bond, is often fractured.
A military death is a public loss, and it sometimes carries politicized baggage. Children may be confused by how the death is reported or framed within their families, in their school, or in their community. For example, a child who overhears a conversation that a parent died "needlessly" in an "unnecessary" war may find it much harder to accept and integrate that death, than a child whose parent's death is described as "noble" or "heroic." Older teenagers may have their own opinions and feelings about war, which may either ease or complicate their grief.
The manner of a parent's death, and the child's knowledge of the circumstances, can complicate their grief reactions. Whether a military parent dies in combat, or as the result of an accident, risk-related behaviors, homicide, medical illness or suicide, the military child who loses a parent may be unable to say goodbye to the parent. Children may find it difficult to integrate their losses and mourn.
Age and development play major roles in how children respond to grief and loss. Surviving children express their losses in many ways: sleeping or crying more, carrying unrealistic guilt about the death of their loved one, engaging in some risky behavior, assuming adult responsibilities, worrying about their surviving parent, and hiding their true feelings.
Children tend to grieve in spurts and throughout their lives. There is no time table for when mourning will end or grief's impact will stop. Grief may ebb but then as children reach milestones, they may feel it surge anew. Milestones like realizing that Dad or Mom will not be there to help them learn to ride a bike, will not sit in the stands to watch them play a sport, will not attend their high school graduation, or will not give them away at their wedding, may trigger new bursts of grief, as well as new moments of reflection and understanding.
Assuring children that grief is a normal expression of loss is important. While military children are very resilient, it is important for parents and caregivers to pay attention to how children are responding. Children and teens may want to try to "protect" their surviving parent from grief and even the pain that the child is carrying. It is important to both talk with and observe your child.
It can be easy for parents, school teachers or caregivers to miss common signs of grief among children and teens. Children and teens who are grieving may have an inability to concentrate on schoolwork, absence of feelings, preoccupation with death and worry about health issues, fear of being alone, cry at unexpected times, become a class clown or class bully, experience head and/or stomach aches, reject old friends, withdraw from others, or act out.
At TAPS, we find that providing grieving children with peer-based emotional support is a key part of helping them normalize their grief experiences. When children walk into the TAPS Good Grief Camp and meet other children who have experienced a similar loss, they know they are not alone in what they are feeling and experiencing. These connections with peers provide vital support, long after camp ends. Many children stay in touch through email and social media.
Giving grieving military children a connection back to the military, by pairing them up with a "Good Grief Camp mentor" at the TAPS Good Grief Camp, is another key part of our program. Trained in how to support a child who is grieving, this person becomes a valued supportive adult for the child. He or she also provides a connection back to the military culture and its community for the child. If the child's parent was a helicopter pilot, the mentor may be able to tell them what it feels like to fly an aircraft, and answer their questions about being a service member and military training or deployments.
Giving children and teens coping skills that help them manage their grief reactions when they bubble up, helps them navigate difficult days when they are at home and away from the supportive environment of a camp filled with peers. Activities that help children express feelings, manage stress, share memories, and honor their loved one can help children manage their feelings when grief surges.
Being observant about child behavior, keeping communication lines open with military children who are grieving, helping children normalize their grief, linking them with peers for support, giving them relationships with caring adults who can reconnect them back to the military culture they lost with the death, and helping them develop coping skills for addressing their loss can assist military children who are grieving. While none of us can take away the pain and sorrow that a child carries who loses a parent or sibling in the Armed Forces, we can help these children cope with their grief and find a way to integrate the loss within their lives.