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Helping Children Navigate to the Other Side of Grief

A child life specialist at Cook Children's shares how to navigate the grieving process as a family.

By Ashley Pagenkopf, MS, CCLS, Child Life Specialist at Cook Children's

The purpose of this series is to provide an understanding of grief in adults and children. Our world is filled with many things that are worthy of our grief. It is helpful to identify grief, experience and process the grief, and then understand the other side of grief which is not the absence of it.

Grief: The Other Side

Our first family dog died in 2018. It was absolutely soul-crushing for me and our family. For me, he was my sidekick and walking buddy. He had been there for every big milestone and there when I brought each of my babies home from the hospital. He had protected and guarded their doors and been their jungle gym. He was a constant in the midst of chaos. There was a tangible, physical grief that lasted for several days following his death. Then there was an extreme sadness that set in – I missed that I couldn’t give him crumbs or a bit of leftovers. I was destroyed when I wanted to go on a walk and he wasn’t there. While most people end up getting a new dog and that quickly helps you move to the other side, we waited almost three years before getting a new dog. I can confidently say that there was another side of the grief. I will miss him forever, but there was another side where walks were easy again and our children were not sobbing every time they saw another dog. There is a place where the new circumstance begins to feel somewhat normal – this is the other side.

It’s hard to imagine that there could ever be another side to your grief. In the beginning and in the middle, it can feel so life-altering and paralyzing that there seems to be no way that you will ever get your breath back. For our kids, we may believe that their behaviors and challenges are never going away.  They may feel that too, though they are probably not able to verbalize it. Grief can run our lives at such a level that we believe we will ever get out from under its control. While you begin to see glimpses of a new normal, triggers still exist and can take you right back to the middle or even sometimes the beginning of grief. This is why we often say that grief doesn’t leave. It is true that is always there at some level. There is a loss, and loss cannot be replaced. That person, that event, that circumstance exists – it is not changing. However, how we respond and how we carry our grief can and should change over time. Just like we move from the beginning of grief to the middle, we can also move from the middle of grief to the other side. This is a new chapter, a new normal, and a future hope.

When looking at the same grief image that we have been using, this is the acceptance stage. Stages of Grief

Getting to this next stage can be difficult, and it’s true that every circumstance and loss has its own timeline. We do not want to rush the process, but we do want to keep moving and help our children to keep moving toward healing and peace. 

The WARM Place says, “Most grievers do experience sadness, shock, anger, and guilt, but the process of grieving is unique to each person. There is neither a road map for grief nor an end that everyone reaches.” 

Grief doesn’t have a true end. Grief changes and this other side is just a changed, emotionally stable grief. There will still be moments on the other side where your or your child’s heart needs all the things it needed at the beginning. That is more than okay. When we experience triggers and return to a previous place of grief, it does not mean we have regressed or will stay there. It means that our heart still acknowledges the loss and needs to be tended.

So, what are some ways that you can experience the other side for yourself or with your children.

  1. Tell your story and encourage your kids to also.  Our story of loss is our own and how we tell it allows our hearts, brains and bodies to process it. Encourage your kids to tell their loss and grief stories and don’t shy away from talking about the hard. Sharing in a comfortable, safe space can be very healing. I have found over my lifetime, that my stories of struggle and grief have brought much encouragement to others that have walked a similar road. I have also found that when others share their stories with me, I feel validated and understood. It is important for kids to feel heard when they do choose to share their stories. Often you will see people tell their stories through writing, art, or music. Some people tell their stories through establishing honors or organizations in memory of another person or experience. We see scholarships and awards come out of the hardest stories. This is a beautiful way of telling the story of loss while also honoring and blessing the person and/or loss. I know someone that does an incredible job of telling her story of several losses in her life. She honors those that she has lost on milestone birthdays and takes the opportunity to tell about these special people in her life. She includes her kids in celebrations to share in their favorite food or go to their favorite place. This kind of honor and celebration allows us to continue to process our grief and reframe the loss into the beauty of what we experienced before the loss or grief. It is also important to acknowledge changes in ourselves and our kids because of our grief. By telling my daughter’s story of her brain tumor, I can acknowledge her bravery and resilience. I can also acknowledge the ways our family has grown and changed because of this struggle. With any grief or loss, there is an opportunity to find the beauty and celebrate it.  
  2. Be prepared for random things to trigger re-grief and take the time to address them. Triggers are a very real thing. It may be a certain place, smell, movie, food that makes all your memories and thoughts about a struggle come rising to the surface. I cannot eat a canned biscuit without thinking of my grandmother. There is a certain song that takes me right back to the beginning of learning about our daughter’s brain tumor. I also see triggers in my kids. We had to pick them up early from an event when my grandfather died. Now if plans change and someone else picks them up or I pick them up from school when someone else was supposed to, their brains immediately revisit the moment that I told them about their great-grandad dying, and they are convinced that something terrible happened. It is important to pay attention to these triggers. Often, they are met with extreme emotion and can often take you back to the beginning of grief where you physically feel your grief all over again. It is normal to have triggers and for them to be different for everyone. It is important to name the trigger and the feeling that is attached to it so that you can process it without getting stuck back in another stage of grief. Doing this with your kids will help them to recognize when beginning or middle grief is bubbling back up and allow them to process it in a healthy way so that they can continue to move towards healing. Triggers are the very reason that grief never leaves. However, over time triggers can turn to memories that bring joy and peace as opposed to the flood of emotion and grief that accompany them initially. However, there are some triggers that may always lead to sadness and grief. It is important to know what these are and name them.
  3. Don’t be afraid to move on. This sounds a little rough, however, we often do not give ourselves or our kids the permission to truly move to the other side. The thought that grief will surprise you and hurt you worse than before can often make us stay in that space longer than needed, and it quickly becomes unhealthy. We don’t want to move on because there is fear that letting go will mean we forget something precious, or we are caught off guard when a new struggle comes. You’ve heard people say that they are just “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” We start to feel that struggle and pain is so inevitable that we don’t want to celebrate or live joyously because there is inevitably another struggle around the corner. While this may be true, living this way becomes very unhealthy very quickly. We live in a constant state of fight or flight in response to something that has yet to happen. We often anticipate the worst-case scenario. This place can make us and our children bitter and fearful. It is okay to move on to the other side. It is okay to live and live fully in the reality of the new normal. It does not mean that you forget or pretend that something didn’t happen. It means that you acknowledge the loss and struggle and embrace your current circumstances too. Our children need to hear us and see us live on the other side as much as they need to. The pandemic comes to mind when I think about this. There has been another side to the pandemic – a better, more stable and healthier side. Yet many of us weren’t sure when to embrace the other side or let our children embrace it. We debated for months about sending our children back to school or choosing to take our masks off. There was so much pain and change that came with the pandemic that it felt that if we moved to the other side of it, it would knock us back down again and we would have to experience it all over again. While pain and suffering are inevitable, there is so much to be gained by living in the current peace and joy. If you find yourself able to feel joy and peace, know that this is okay to embrace that and encourage your children to embrace that same joy and peace. Children often find themselves on the other side more quickly than adults, but our ability to move to the other side or not can greatly affect our children.

Moving to the other side is like taking a deep breath – 10 deep breaths. There is a knowledge that everything is okay in the present and that there is a future waiting to be lived. It is hard to be human knowing that another struggle or loss is inevitable, but as humans, we also have the gift of feeling joy, peace, and hope. Embracing these feelings and living on the other side will ultimately be the best place to bring honor and celebration to your loss or pain. Your grief and pain don’t magically disappear, but I hope that you find yourself on the other side able to take a deep breath and embrace future hope.

Get to know Ashley Pagenkopf   

Ashley PagenkopfAshley Pagenkopf is a Child Life Specialist in the Emergency Department at Cook Children's Medical Center. The Child Life program at Cook Children's offers a variety of services, all designed to make your experience at Cook Children's the best it can be. Our services include educating, preparing and supporting your child through tests and procedures, as well as coping with any life challenges you and your child may face. Child Life specialists work with kids and families to make their visit to the medical center easier and more comfortable. We offer your child and your family an opportunity to express and work through any fears and concerns you may have. We'll also provide an explanation about what's going to happen during your visit and work with parents, brothers and sisters and other family members who may be involved in your child's daily care.