When a Death Changes Everything: Supporting Children Through “Secondary Loss”

For kids and teens, grieving the loss of a loved one can sometimes be further complicated by related changes. The death of a parent or guardian might result in the child moving to a new home or school or even having a new primary caregiver. Some children are strongly impacted by the death of a grandparent or other extended family member if the person played a significant role in their daily life.
Secondary loss is a term that counselors use to describe the changes in a child’s life that result from a loved one’s death. Often, the disruption in daily routines or family traditions can be as painful as the loss of that person. It takes time for anyone to adjust to these kinds of major changes. Below are a few ways that families can support children and teens as they transition to a “new normal.”

Getting Back to a Routine.

When possible, focus on reintroducing consistency and routine to the child’s weekly schedule. Major loss or change can create a feeling of chaos, which sometimes manifests as anxiety or other emotional responses. You can reestablish familiar structures such as mealtime and bedtime routines. In addition, consider adding a reassuring new tradition such as setting aside a day of the week to do something fun together.

Giving Space for all Types of Feelings.

It’s normal for a child or teen to experience sadness, anger, confusion or other strong emotions in response to loss and change. Let them know it’s okay to have a range of emotions or to feel “mixed up” sometimes. You can offer ways to express feelings such as pounding play-doh, engaging in physical activity, painting an image about the changes or writing in a private journal.

Finding Ways to Communicate.

Families may find it challenging to communicate during a time of upheaval and increased stress. Consider initiating a routine family meeting during which children can voice their opinions and settle conflict in a fair way. Older children and teens may prefer to communicate in writing, such as by texting you or leaving a note, instead of talking face-to-face. No matter your method of communication, focus on maintaining connection and finding ways to problem-solve together.

Grief Counseling May Help.

Does your child or teen seem to be struggling with changes related to the death or serious illness of a loved one? Kids Path counselors are available for phone consultations at no cost. Individual grief counseling and age-specific support groups are also available at Kids Path. For more information, call 336.544.5437 and ask to speak with any Kids Path counselor.