Kids and Grief: What Other Cultures Can Teach Us


Photo Credit: LA Johnson/NPR

It’s undeniable that the loss of a parent or sibling is a life-altering event. In a New York Life Foundation survey from a  few years back, most Americans (58%) who lost a parent or guardian growing up said that the experience was “the hardest thing (they’ve) ever had to deal with.”

Hard as it is for a child to lose a parent, it’s even more challenging here in the United States, where we really haven’t developed the cultural or institutional tools and understandings to help children cope. Or as the comic strip character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Obviously, the way children are allowed to grieve can make a critical difference in how well they cope and adjust.  The problem is, in the US, grief is typically a private process that happens behind closed doors. After funeral services and a few days of condolence calls, grieving families are expected to “move on.” In the case of a grieving child, that typically means returning to school where kids spend most of their waking weekday hours.  Unfortunately, America’s schools are woefully unprepared. Small wonder that among school-age children, grief often manifests itself in poorer academic performance, social withdrawal, and new behavioral problems. Educators want to help, but lack the training or resources.

So much of this is cultural. We are a grief-averse society. We want mourners to move on with their lives and ignore the implications of sending children back into educational and social systems that don’t provide proper support or outlets for expressing their grief.

In contrast, other societies openly incorporate mourning and remembrance into social constructs and educational settings which ultimately helps children express feelings, integrate the experience, and move forward. Here are but two examples.

Dia de Los Muertos is an annual Mexican holiday with Aztec and Catholic roots during which mourners are afforded a grieving ground to celebrate and remember the lives of lost loved ones. Families build beautiful, brightly-colored altars honoring those who have been lost, allowing the spirits of the deceased to live on in communal celebration. The loneliness and isolation that grieving American families experience is absent at these celebratory, colorful festivals.

In the Maori culture of New Zealand, public expression of grief is actively encouraged. Children understand the meaning of grief and of the life cycle from a young age through ongoing recognition of ancestors via carvings that carry legends and stories that live on generation to generation.

For all of our sophistication and knowledge and technology, we remain painfully and woefully behind the grief curve. It’s time for a more open, positive conversation – most importantly for our kids’ sake. Maybe looking at other cultures is a good place to start.

Photo Credit: LA Johnson/NPR

– Lindsey Jordan, social worker and Tiller consultant

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