Supporting Grieving Kids – An Opportunity And An Obligation

Supporting Grieving Kids – An Opportunity And An Obligation

The holiday season is known as a festive and joyful time – but for some, it’s the most painful time of year. For children who have lost a close family member, the holidays can be particularly difficult, evoking past memories and traditions and magnifying feelings of grief.

Unbeknownst to many, grieving children are all around us. An estimated one in 20 American children will lose a parent before age 16 – and the vast majority of children will experience a significant loss of some kind by the time they complete high school.

The death of a loved one often has a profound impact on a child – one that is felt over the course of a lifetime. In a 2010 survey conducted by the New York Life Foundation and Comfort Zone Camp, more than half (57%) of adults who had lost a parent growing up said that they would trade an entire year of their life for one more day with that parent.

The death of a loved one engenders complex, difficult emotions in children – including sadness, anger, loneliness, confusion and guilt. When it lingers unresolved, grief can lead to depression, poor school performance and increased involvement in risky behaviors.

Grieving children desperately need support from their family, peers and trusted adults to help them cope with death. But unfortunately, too many grieving children suffer in isolation. Despite the prevalence and long-term impact of childhood loss, grief remains under-the-radar in our death-averse society.

As a result, most adults who work with children – including educators, school professionals, and many in the social service profession – have little or no training about how to help kids process their grief. Awareness, education and resources pertaining to childhood grief – particularly on the national level – have historically been scarce.

Recognizing the critical need to provide greater support to grieving children and their families, the New York Life Foundation established childhood bereavement as a key focus area in 2008. As a life insurance company that deals constantly with families in times of grief, New York Life found that the bereavement support space was a natural way to extend our philanthropy – as well as an area in which we could make a particularly significant impact. Since 2008, we have committed over $30 million dollars to childhood grief support.

The more we have invested in the space, the more we’ve become convinced that grief support is a critical yet currently underfunded area of philanthropy. Funders have an important opportunity to engage and invest in the lives of grieving families in order to continue moving the needle on this complex and multidimensional issue.

Today, we see certain crucial unmet needs in the field holding back progress: namely, the need to truly build out grief support as a “sector” and to raise awareness and understanding of the issue among multiple stakeholder audiences. As a result, in addition to direct service, our support has evolved to focus on two other key areas which we believe are in serious need of further funding and attention – and would provide an ideal entry point for other funders interested in supporting the issue as well.

First, more capacity-building initiatives are necessary in order to deliver better support to grieving children across the country. As long as grief support is viewed as a sporadic, localized issue rather than a sustained, universally applicable one, we will see little action to increase the level of engagement from institutional organizations. It’s necessary to build and sustain a national movement around grief support for children.

One example of a national initiative leveraging institutional support is the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, a collaboration among leading professional organizations representing K-12 educators and school professionals. By creating a new vehicle for national grief support – often delivered via local grassroots efforts that include New York Life’s field force – the Coalition provides a platform to educate a key audience that has the power to influence grieving kids around the country.

The second area in which we see a great need for further support is that of research and evaluation. Standard metrics and assessment from the field around childhood grief have historically been very sparse. In order to better understand how to make a difference in the lives of grieving children, it is imperative to build out the field’s standard models, protocols, metrics and assessments.

Even as we continue to broaden our bereavement support, progress in the field can’t come fast enough. The reality remains that many grieving children across the country are not seen or heard as they confront devastating losses. As a philanthropic community, we have an opportunity and an obligation to ensure that grieving families receive adequate help and care.

In order to truly give grieving kids the attention and support they deserve, we all must acknowledge that, too often, grief is still an issue that hides in plain sight – and do our part to bring it further out into the open.


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