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Helping Children Work Through Grief

Grief is a complicated mixture of emotions that comes in waves and can be challenging for people to recognize and deal with.

This is true for everyone, and can be especially true for children with autism. 

We spoke to three therapists at Brooke’s Place an Indianapolis organization that provides support groups, therapy services and community education  to find suggestions on how to help children deal with this difficult, and important, response to loss. Erica O’Neil, LCSW, is a grief therapist; Carol Braden, LMHC, is clinical director of programs and services; and Marisa Willard, LMHC, is a grief therapist. 

How do parents help their children with autism who are grieving?

O’Neil: Remember to listen, observe and hold space. Affirm the grieving individual, and try to provide safety and security through routines and concrete information. Social stories may be helpful in explaining a death and the rituals that may occur following a death, such as funeral. 

Braden: Don’t make assumptions about what your child with autism is thinking and feeling, or not thinking and feeling, about an important person who has died. Continue to bring up the name of the person and the relationship of the person who died to your child. Communicate that it is OK to be sad, happy, afraid, angry and confused. Offer ways your child can actively express memories. Create something in memory of the child’s loved one. Take a grief tour of your home and share memories with your child that they had with their loved one who died. Be very specific with your child with autism when speaking about death, which will help them better understand.

Willard: It’important to recognize that each individual grieves in their own way, and there are many different ways kids express grief. It’s also important not to compare one child’s grief with another’s or assume one is doing it the “right” way and another the “wrong way. It is important for the parent to meet their child where they are, and in their most comfortable way to communicate. Using artwork or writing could be a helpful way for a child to express themselves in other ways besides direct verbal communication. 

At what point should a parent consider a counselor?

O’Neil: A parent might consider counseling for their child if they notice significant changes impacting the child’s daily functioning. 

Braden: Even if there are no adverse impacts on daily functioning, your child with autism might still benefit from having a special time with a grief therapist to express and work through understanding their grief even more, learn ways of remembering and having more healthy coping strategies.

When considering the grieving process, O’Neil says: “It is so important to remember that grief is unique to each individual. Although we will all experience death and loss at some point in our lives, the experience of grief is different for everyone. In addition, grief is one’s natural reaction to the death of a loved one, and we all have a natural capacity to heal.” 

The loss of a loved one can be devastating and create a deep well of grief for those who are left to mourn. But with the right resources, emotional support and the passing of time, healing is possible.

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