Helping Kids with Grief, Loss and Death

“Even though someone’s body dies, the love we feel never has to die. Our love remembers them forever.” – Anonymous

“Those who can’t weep with their whole heart don’t know how to laugh either.”
–Golda Meir

Learning to mourn, and to be comfortable with the grieving process, might not seem like a parenting skill. But grief is a part of every life, and how we handle loss has a huge impact on the richness of our family’s emotional life. Our comfort level with loss also gives our children an important role model.

At times, there will be nothing we can do for our child except to sit with him and let him experience his grief: over a sports defeat, an inconsiderate peer, a dead pet, or even an ill or deceased loved one. To work through his grief, our child needs what therapists call a “holding environment,” and we are the ones who do the holding, both physically and emotionally.

If we are so uncomfortable with loss that we cannot allow our child to mourn, we give a destructive message that is far reaching. Accepting loss as a normal part of life is important for optimal mental health for all of us. The more we allow ourselves to grieve when necessary, the more joy we can feel.

Thankfully, grief is never interminable. Like all feelings, if we let ourselves feel it, grief swamps us, and then, eventually, diminishes. Not that grief ever disappears, but we can think of it as a slice of the pie of our lives:  at first an important loss pervades the entire circle of our life; but gradually the slice of our life in shadow becomes smaller and smaller.  Eventually, we can go on with our lives in a healthy way, although we may always revisit the pain of our loss.  But if we fend it off like an unwelcome visitor, grief doesn’t leave. It takes up residence like a shadow in our psyches, and we become stuck in its bitter influence. Unresolved grief compromises resiliency, threatening to burst out at even minor provocations, leaving us fragile and prone to depression.

Our children, therefore, not only need to grieve sometimes, but need our help to do so. Give children ongoing opportunities to ask questions and to talk about their loss. Create large and small rituals of remembrance, and to honor the deceased and help them keep them alive in your child’s heart.  As the months go by, make a point of mentioning the lost loved one’s name in conversation when appropriate.  Don’t insist that your child grieve when he or she is trying to be happy, but don’t act as if the loss didn’t happen, either.

Be aware that children grieve differently from adults. They need rituals that offer safe space for grieving, and then a defined end point so they can play again and go on with their lives without guilt.

The kids who successfully live through loss are the ones who find ways to feel connected to the person they’ve lost AND to go on with their lives.  Even children experiencing severe losses need time off from grief.  They need safe space, such as school, where they will not be reminded of their loss and can forget for a time.  They need to hear that we are there for them when they want to talk, and they need us to normalize talking about the loss, but they also need our permission to go on with their lives.

Books to help you talk with children about death.

More resources for griefcounseling needs: National Alliance for Grieving Children


Family Lives On Foundation supports the lifelong emotional well-being of children whose mother or father has died. Our Tradition Program provides opportunities for intentional remembering, creating a safe haven for grief, communication, and celebration. To enroll in the program as a family in need, donate, volunteer or for more information visit the Family Lives On Foundation website or Facebook Page.

Twitter: @familyliveson

Instagram: @familyliveson


More Than an Endless Bread Basket

Dinner “out” for special occasions is often a family tradition. For children who have lost a parent, continuing family rituals fosters lifelong emotional wellbeing. One family’s annual holiday tradition involves their local Olive Garden restaurant.


A few years ago, the family (a single mom and her seven children) began the tradition with the Olive Garden on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. With such a large family on a modest budget, going out to dinner was a big deal. They would huddle in a big booth for the occasion, excited to be out to dinner with each other. Following dinner, they would stroll through the nearby Christmas Village and admire the light display at City Hall. On the way home, they would drive down two particular streets known to have magnificently over-the-top holiday decorations and “ooooh and ahhh” appropriately.

Since that mom lost her battle with cancer a few years ago, Family Lives On Foundation has made it possible for this tradition to continue. We hire a van to pick up the kids from the three different foster homes they now live in. The van transports them and three foster parents to that same Olive Garden on Chestnut Street. The Olive Garden generously reserves the booth and provides the meal, free of charge. Following the meal, they visit The Christmas Village, City Hall and the same two streets with spectacular displays before being dropped off at their separate homes.

For the past three years, these traditions facilitated by Family Lives On are some of the few times all of the children have been together as a family.

This tradition will be fulfilled every year until the youngest child turns 18. A continuing emotional bond to their deceased parent is a clinically identified need for the healthy bereavement of children and teens who have experienced the profound loss of the death of a parent. We’re proud to be able to bring together the seven siblings every year around the holidays and we are grateful for Olive Garden’s hospitality.

In the United States, more than 2 million children and teens are grieving the death of a parent. One in 20 children experiences this loss before the age of 16—that’s one in every classroom and two on every school bus.

Family Lives On’s “Tradition Program” serves as a therapeutic tool that enables children to move from survivors to thrivers and from “at risk” to “at promise.” Based on research and experience, Family Lives On understands that family rituals can be used to provide structure and routine to the chaos of life impaired by loss. Traditions provide a more natural context for young people to talk about the person who has passed away.

By: Christine Cavalieri, Executive Director, Family Lives On

Family Lives On Foundation supports the lifelong emotional well-being of children whose mother or father has died. Our Tradition Program provides opportunities for intentional remembering, creating a safe haven for grief, communication, and celebration. To enroll in the program as a family in need, donate, volunteer or for more information visit the Family Lives On Foundation website or Facebook Page or follow us @familyliveson Twitter Account or @familyliveson Instagram. To check out our 30-second PSA click here:The Family Lives On PB & J PSA.

United By Grief, This Couple Felt Whole Again After Blending Their Families

Re-Posted from The Huffington Post 

By Brittany Wong

Deb and Chris Gottschalk are a bit different than your average blended family. The couple, who has seven kids between them, met at a support group after they lost their former spouses. United by their shared grief, the shared experience of single parenthood and lots of shared tears and tissues, the pair eventually fell in love.

Below, Deb shares more of the family’s inspiring story of love and resilience.

Hi Deb. Please introduce us to your family.

We have nine family members in all. There’s me, my husband Chris and our seven kids: Lily (23), Nick (21), Alex (21), Grace (19), Jacob (15), Sam (13) and Josh (11). The youngest three live at home with me and Chris.

I had Nick, Alex, Jacob and Sam with my late husband. Chris had Lily and Grace with his first wife. They divorced. He remarried and had Josh with his late wife.

How long have you and Chris been a couple?

We started dating in January of 2012 and eloped June 20, 2012 — then had a big wedding celebration on June 22, 2013 with the kids, family and friends.

We tell people we met at The Cove.”The what?” they alway respond. “By the water? What’s that?!” “The Cove” is actually the Cove Center for Grieving Children. It’s an amazing local organization that helps children who’ve lost a loved one, usually a parent. It’s a safe place for kids to meet other kids who are grieving and also for parents to meet other people going through similar circumstances.

One night in December 2011, a fellow Cove friend threw a holiday party and we both showed up. We quickly realized how much we had in common: a love of the arts, music, travel, hiking, Maine, cooking, family, wine and really good aged gouda! More importantly, in our new unrequested role as single parents, we shared stories, strategies, challenges — and lots of tears and tissues. We eventually decided to meet for dinner and we haven’t missed a beat since.

How would you say the experience of blending a family after widowhood differs from blending a family after divorce?

One of us had prior experience with divorce, remarriage and step-parenting. That is its own delicate, sometimes tense and even unpleasant, journey. The difference between that and being a double-widowed family, is — in a word — loss. The loss of a spouse and parent are huge, there’s simply no way around it. Each person in our family has experienced incredible pain and no two the same. We each go through our own healing process at a different pace and intensity.

The loss is permanent and you never get a break from the blending and the butting of heads that sometimes comes with that. It’s not an every other weekend shift. There’s no chance for reprieve from the new family dynamic. One of the biggest factors we had to take into consideration is that, for us, once you’re in, you’re in. There was no way Chris and I were going to possibly put our children (or ourselves) through additional loss — so we had to be sure of this relationship. (Or as sure as one can be.) We met with a family therapist (actually two) to help us feel as confident as we could that we were doing the right thing.

Being a full time mom or dad to children who never asked to have their family change forever is both an amazing blessing and seemingly unachievable. As a step-parent, you never want to make a child feel as though you’re here to replace anyone — especially someone who is no longer physically here. Time has stopped for the kids and their relationship with their lost mom or dad — and now there is a new surrogate who needs to create a living relationship with a future in place of those. And how do you live up to a beautiful soul who is no longer here on this earth? You don’t. You can only try to be the most loving person you can. Chris and I have both tried to learn about each others’ late spouses so we can maybe — just maybe — incorporate shadows of what we believe was important to them into their children’s lives. Virtually impossible, but we try.


What are some of the biggest challenges of blended family life?

Like many blended families, one of the biggest challenges has been that our kids were raised differently. The meshing of different household rules, interests and expectations has been a hurdle for all of us, especially the youngest kids. I tend to want to understand the kids’ feelings about everything — which is good some of the time, but not always. Chris is more clear and concise, which can pose a challenge when someone wants to discuss everything. We’re getting there.

What’s the best thing about being part of a blended family?

Lots of extra love to go around. When we got married we gained each other’s extended families as well as our late spouses families — so we are overflowing in such a good way. Embracing a wide range of personalities and interests among the kids is actually fun.

We feel whole again — at least some of the time; compared to the constant sense of loss or something missing or elephant in the room when living as a family after loss, the moments of balance that occur are a real blessing.

What makes you proudest of your family?

We’ve been together long enough now that there are people who are new in our lives who don’t know we are not an “original” family. I think that’s pretty cool! It’s kind of like a dance and it just takes time to build enough trust to let someone twirl you without wondering if they’re going to drop you! Chris and I talk a lot — we continuously adjust and tweak the way we interact with the kids.

What advice do you have for other blended families who are struggling to click?

Whether your family has changed due to loss or divorce, this is such a fluid situation that needs as much stability as possible. Really take care of each other. The couple is the core that needs to be strong and committed so the relationship and children can go through what they need to and you’ll both be there, united.


Family Lives On Foundation supports the lifelong emotional well-being of children whose mother or father has died. Our Tradition Program provides opportunities for intentional remembering, creating a safe haven for grief, communication, and celebration. To donate, volunteer or for more information visit the Family Lives On Foundation website. “Moving Towards the Pain of Loss” is one of our organization’s process goals.