Helping children cope with the loss of an important person in their lives is an ongoing challenge that lasts well beyond the first days and weeks after the death. Delivering the news that someone has died, explaining what happened, and offering words of comfort are challenging tasks. What can be even more difficult is knowing how to keep supportive conversations going over the long-haul as children attempt to learn to live with their grief. Children who are grieving need opportunities to explore the rough edges of their feelings and to find ways of making sense of a changed world.
Activities allow children alternate ways of communicating about their grief which verbal conversations do not always get at. Whether supporting younger children who have yet to develop language skills or helping teenagers who, for a variety of complex reasons, may be reluctant to articulate what is going on in their heads and hearts, activities can help children understand and express what they are experiencing. Well-designed activities can afford children opportunities to safely explore strong, sometimes scary, emotions. Activities can also offer children creative ways to remember and memorialize the person who died. Generally, grief-oriented activities fall into two categories: 1) those that help children express, explore, and cope with their feelings and 2) those that help them preserve memories. Some do both.
Several factors need to be considered when selecting an activity – the age of the child, their temperament, their likes and dislikes, as well as their interest in participating in a particular project. It is also imperative to consider the relationship the child shared with the person who died. Was the person a beloved grandparent who was an integral part of their lives? Was it a parent who shared an exceptionally close relationship with the child? Or perhaps the parent-child relationship was complicated by a substance use disorder or mental health challenges? Think, too, about the cause of death. Old age and illness-related deaths may be less complicated than those resulting from sudden deaths like suicide or overdose. (In the case of these kinds of deaths, memory-keeping activities need be thoughtfully considered and modified so as not to force a child to build a false narrative of the person.) We also need to be thoughtful about the impact our selected activities will have on children for whom the death circumstances were traumatic. Children should always be given the opportunity to opt-out or to alter an activity to meet their own unique needs.
The examples below can all be easily adapted and modified. The materials are all readily available household items or can be purchased at reasonable prices in craft shops or online stores. Each can be done with a single child or with a group of children or even with families. Some may be so popular that children ask to repeat them many times; others can be revisited and modified over the course of time. Not all children want to produce a finished art project. Children like activities that involve a variety of their senses. Try incorporating games, books, food, crafts, music, writing, or even drama. Certain activities may resonate more with some children than others. It is always a good idea to be prepared to offer a few activity options, just in case. Remember, too, that children working in a group tend to vary in the amount of time needed to complete any given activity.
Feather Balance (For all ages)
- Peacock tail feathers
- A cardboard poster-tube or tall vase for storage
Children select a peacock feather (careful not to bend them!) and practice balancing it in the palms of their hands. Once mastered, ask them to try balancing the feather on an elbow, the chin, or even the tip of the nose. Discuss that when we are grieving, we sometimes do not feel particularly “balanced.” Talk about feelings that might make them feel unbalanced (e.g., anger, sadness, worry, fear, really missing the person who died, etc.). Discuss about how when we practice balancing both feathers and feelings, we get better at it. This can also be a fun ice-breaker exercise for groups of children who are just getting to know each other.
Build it, Smash it, Repeat it Game (For all ages)
- Plastic Solo cups and/or paper cups (the more the better)
- Beach ball or bean bags
Depending on how many people are involved in this activity, children can work by themselves or in teams to build a wall by stacking cups as high as possible without letting them fall over—but sometimes they do, much like in our lives. Walls can be as wide and high as space will allow. Once built, the children stand a reasonable distance (about 6-8 feet for young children, 12-20 feet for older children) from the wall. Next, using the ball or bean bag, wind up and SMASH the wall. Rebuild and repeat. Discuss that grief sometimes knocks us down, making us feel like we must keep rebuilding ourselves over and over.
Safety Shield (For younger children but can be modified to suit teens)
- 12”x12” plain scrapbook paper or some other stiff paper (preferably white or another light color)
- Washable colored markers
Cut the paper into the shape of a shield. Draw lines dividing the paper into four equal quadrants (top to bottom and left to right). Each quadrant becomes a “safety zone.” Number each quadrant. Ask the children to draw pictures or write words (adults can do the writing for younger children) which correspond to the safety zone number:
- Safety Zone One: A person who makes you feel safe
- Safety Zone Two: A place where you feel safe
- Safety Zone Three: A time when you feel safe
- Safety Zone Four: Things I can do to make myself feel safe
Discuss that grief can make us feel frightened and unsafe. Shields can be used as a form of protection. Talk about characters who use shields, such as superheroes. The safety shield is meant to remind us of the people, places, times, and things we can do ourselves, to help us feel safe and protected.
“When I Feel” Sentence Starter Game (For all ages)
- Your imagination!
This is a circle game that can be played with two to twenty or more people. The first person names a grief feeling or situation and the next person names something they can do to help with the problem. It goes like this:
- Person 1: When I feel … sad …
- Person 2: I … draw pictures.
- Person 2: When I feel … mad …
- Person 3: I … scream into my pillow.
- Person 3: When I feel … upset in school …
- Person 1: I … ask to go to the nurse’s office.
And so on…
This game can also be done using cards with pre-printed “When I feel” statements and children can take turns selecting cards and answering questions.
Funeral Flower Press (For all ages)
- Funeral arrangement flowers
- Parchment paper
- Picture frame or shadow box
This simple activity can be done with children following the funeral. Children are offered the opportunity to select a particularly meaningful flower from one of the funeral arrangements. Flowers can then be pressed between sheets of parchment paper using a dry iron set on low heat. For a more permanent memento, the flowers can be placed in a picture frame or shadow box once they are dry. Flowers do not necessarily need to be from a funeral arrangement. They can also be picked outside or purchased from a florist. Talk about why the chosen flower reminds them of the person who died.
The Question Box (For all ages but teens especially love this)
- Cardboard box decorated by the child or children or wrapped in decorative paper. Be sure to leave an opening in the top large enough for a child’s hand to reach inside.
- Index Cards
There are lots of different ways the question box can be used. One way is to write memory-related questions onto the index cards, fold the cards in half, and then place them inside the box. Then, the children take turns drawing cards from the box and answering the questions. Used cards should be left outside of the box until the activity is over. Children can also be invited to write their own questions to be added to the box. Ideas for questions can include “What was the person’s favorite song?” “What was the last thing you did with the person?” “What do you miss the most?” This activity is great for getting difficult conversations started.
My Family Before, My Family Now Picture (For all ages)
- Drawing paper
- Markers and/or colored pencils
Children are asked to draw two pictures. The first is what their family looked like before the person died; the second is what their family looks like now. Ask children to describe what they have drawn and be sure to discuss the differences and similarities.
These are just a few examples of the many types of activities which can be used to help grieving children adjust to the loss of an important person in their lives. Look online for other ideas or create your own. Be creative! The following websites provide more information about resources and activities which may be used with children and teens.
New York Life Foundation: https://www.newyorklife.com/foundation/bereavement-resources
The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Families: https://www.dougy.org/
National Alliance for Grieving Children: https://childrengrieve.org
Hello Grief: http://www.hellogrief.org/
What’s Your Grief?: https://whatsyourgrief.com