Thursday is Children’s Grief Awareness Day, launched seven years ago by grief-support professionals and volunteers. It’s observed on the Thursday before Thanksgiving Day because the holiday season can be an especially difficult time for grieving children and families.

As one dad told me, “That first Christmas without Amy was sadder than I could ever have imagined.”

Amy was his wife, the mother of two young daughters. When she collapsed and died suddenly, their elder daughter was 4 and their younger child just 2.

In the months after their mother’s death, one of the girls became very withdrawn while the other started having angry, violent outbursts. Says their dad, “None of us ate well, and our sleep was interrupted nightly by bad dreams. Despite the help of wonderful friends and family members, we struggled to enjoy life.”

Children’s grief is real, and not uncommon.

Before turning 18, one in five children in this country will experience the death of someone close to them. One in 20 kids will have a parent die before he or she graduates from high school. Seven in 10 teachers have at least one student who has lost a parent, guardian, sibling or close friend in just the last year.

Grieving children feel alone and fearful as well as sad. They often feel set apart, different from their peers and not understood. Inner turmoil can be invisible, yet rage inside a grieving child’s heart.

Research shows that young people left alone with their grief are more likely than others to suffer anxiety and depression, have problems in school, abuse alcohol and drugs, and die by suicide.

Many people don’t realize that it takes most children longer to deal with their grief than we expect. No child who loses a parent or sibling can “get over it” in a set time period – or ever.

Loss will make itself felt, again and again. It can be triggered by a birthday, a first driver’s license, a graduation, a wedding. News of another death can set off a painful reaction. And as they become older, a young person’s deeper understanding of loss and “forever” can reignite sadness.

Grieving is a lifelong process.

Yet, with support and the chance to truly mourn, grieving children and adults can find their personal resilience. They can move forward in their newly rearranged lives and reclaim hope and joy.

The most helpful grief support is acknowledgement of feelings, the listening ears of family and other caring individuals and peer support from those also grieving a loss.

That’s what we offer at the Center for Grieving Children, in a safe and comfortable setting. Thanks to committed volunteers and financial support from the community, our services are free for children, teens and their families. Peer grief-support groups meet at our home in Portland and our service site in Sanford. We offer education and crisis support throughout southern Maine.

“There is a lovely magic at work in the center,” says the dad I mentioned. “I would walk in with the girls once a week, beaten down by my grief and the strain of single parenting, and somehow walk out a little bit lighter, a little bit more hopeful. My girls would emerge from their peer support group of other children somehow a little happier, a little more confident.

“Perhaps the magic lies in the extraordinary compassion and kindness of the staff and volunteers, or the balm of talking with another grieving adult, a peer who truly understands the quality and extent of your loss. Maybe it’s the power of crying your eyes out in a truly safe place. Who can say?”

On Children’s Grief Awareness Day, I hope you will take a moment to consider tips for how you, too, can support a grieving child:

 Speak honestly and simply about death and grief.

 Be aware of your own feelings, and express them safely.

 Be patient with the child’s questions.

 Respect the child’s way of expressing grief.

 Provide time and a comfortable place to listen.

 Encourage the child to share feelings and memories.

 Maintain familiar routines, schedules and relationships, but also offer the child choices whenever possible.

 Help the child identify people, objects and activities that provide comfort.

During the upcoming holidays and throughout the new year, the Center for Grieving Children can help you or anyone you know who may need our services: 775-5216 and cgcmaine.org. Please help grieving children and their families not feel alone.

— Special to the Press Herald