Cristina Chipriano on Understanding and Supporting Children's Grief

Nov 13, 2020

Cristina Chipriano, LLCSW-S, is the director of Spanish Programs and Outreach at Bo’s Place, a bereavement center in Houston. She’s developed trainings and workshops for peer bereavement centers across the country that are seeking to provide culturally competent, bilingual grief support for bereaved families. Cristina is a board member for the National Alliance for Grieving Children, a leading non-profit in the space of children’s grief. She’s also featured in WPSU’s Speaking Grief initiative.

We talked with her about how to speak with kids about death, about the unexpected ways children’s grief can show up, and about how to offer support to a grieving child.  

Here’s additional content form this interview in which Cristina address supporting children’s grief in the classroom: 

To watch Cristina’s video from WPSU’s Speaking Griefinitiative, click here

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Welcome to Take Note for WPSU. From my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton. Cristina Chipriano is the director of Spanish programs and outreach at Bo's Place, a bereavement center in Houston. She's developed trainings and workshops for peer bereavement centers across the country that are seeking to provide culturally competent bilingual grief support for grieving families. Cristina is a board member for the National Alliance for grieving children, a leading nonprofit in the space of children's grief, and is also featured in WPS us speaking grief initiative, we'll talk with her about how to speak with kids about death, about the unexpected ways children's grief can show up and about how to support a grieving child. Cristina Chipriano, welcome to Take Note.

Cristina Chipriano:Thanks, Lindsey, for having me here. 

Fenton: Our society isn't very comfortable talking about grief in general, and we can get even more uncomfortable when we talk about it with kids. And, obviously, grief can encompass many things. But let's just take death-related grief as an example, what should that first conversation look like when we break the news to a child that someone they know has died? 

Chipriano:The recommendation would be to do it from a safe, quiet place that they recognize; sometimes their bedroom, living room, and the news should come from somebody that the child knows and trust. Sometimes that can be really hard for if it's a parent to be the one to do that. And so, being able to call in an additional supportive figure to be able to help be there to just give the child an opportunity to rely on someone else. If that's the case, also, I need to note that it's very important to tell siblings at the same time to ensure that what's being shared is being shared collectively in that in that moment, and so starting off by just using what we as a society often fear the D-words. So, that is death, died, dying. Using that concrete language is very important with children and gives words that they're able to tangibly hold on to depending on the age of the child, the use of euphemisms like passed away, they went to a better place, they're no longer with us, we lost them, can be very confusing. And so, the younger the child, you can get reactions, when using the euphemisms in that regard. You can get reactions, like, let's go find them. And, one other thing that we often hear from adults is how, how much information do I give them? And, the key there is to know, children will ask the questions that they're ready to hear the answers to. And so, I would say, first, let them know whoever has been that they have to share really, really hard news with them. That whoever it is in their life has died. And then pausing and waiting and seeing what comes next, what reaction comes next. And then it's going to be varied depending on the child, who they are, how old they are, their relationship to the person who died. So that that one gets a little bit more complicated, but being able to just start off with that, and to reassure the child that they have people that they can talk to if they want to, and just letting them know, like “I am here.” Sometimes kids will have a lot of questions and other times, they might just get up and start playing. And that's, that's also one of the common reactions that we see all depending on age. 

Fenton: So just to recap, we just want to say, “So and so has died.” And, then let the child kind of guide it from there?

Chipriano: Correct.

Fenton: It sounds so simple, but obviously in the moment of great emotion that can be really nerve-racking. And I would think that might be especially nerve-racking if we're talking about a death that maybe didn't result from something like a disease or an accident but was something like a homicide or an overdose or a suicide. What guidance can you offer on answering those questions for kids?

Chipriano: So, with suicide death, and death by overdose, generally, some of the words that we'll use is, “So and so had an illness and their brain was sick, and it caused them to do something that they didn't want to do.” And, so, when they ask what was wrong with their brain, they had it whether it's depression, addiction, whatever scenario it is, but labeling it in that way. And then, like I mentioned, kids will ask the questions that they're ready to hear the answers to, but also knowing that sometimes these questions can get difficult because some kids will ask, “Well, how?” And being able to say like, “I'm not ready to talk about that, but I will soon and I will let you know.” Because the thing about it is, when it comes to those more stigmatized deaths, is that the child will find out in one way or another. Because grownups talk and Joey or Freddy or whoever it is over, hears and then goes back to the child and says, “Guess what? This is what I heard…” And so, what then has happened is that one trusted person, the child feels that they they've been lied to, or kind of misguided, almost in a sense. And really, this is where that that parental bond or that that adult to child relationship is really key. So, to be able to center that on trust, it's needed. That with homicide death, that one it being able to say, you know, “Someone caused the person's death.” And, usually, what happens with homicide death is that we also don't know the answers to the questions that kids may have, or we do as adults. And so oftentimes, it's been able to also confirm, “I don't know the answers to those questions, and I have a lot of unanswered questions myself, too. And my hope is that with time we're able to answer some of these questions.” But then also realizing that a lot of these questions don't have answers. And that's OK to say, “I don't know the answer.” 

Fenton: And so, we're talking obviously, a lot about spoken language here. But as you just said, you know, kids will often go off and play and you've said before that play is the language of children, especially younger children. So, how does how does that manifest in the space of grief? Or how can we understand play in kids and their way of speaking their language and expressing their grief?

Chipriano:I think you hit the nail on the head there; play is the language of children. And so, what we'll see sometimes is that you share the news, and then the kid is like, “OK, I'm gonna go play.” And it could be while they're kicking a ball, when they're riding their bike, that they'll just restate what they just heard, “My so and so just died,” or “I used to love to do this with my person, and I won't anymore because they've died.” So, we'll see them doing these action-oriented things and being able to start telling part of their story, because it's coming out when they're doing something that comes naturally to them. Other times soon, we'll see when kids start playing, we… I once had two little boys playing together in the sandbox. And one of them was holding a football player. And the other one said, “Hey, I used to go watch the football team with my dad.” And he said, “Me too, but my dad died.” And the other kid, “My dad died, too.” And it was this piece of just recognizing, like, “Oh, this is something we used to do together, and it's my person has died.” So, the thing with play, is that our role only when children do that following the news is not to kind of help them share their story, it's to follow their lead and play. And it's going to happen naturally, because it's the way they speak, right? It's the way to communicate with the world. 

Fenton:I think that could be confusing, since play isn't our language, you know, to see that behavior and think, “Oh, they're fine. They're playing.” 

Chipriano: I think there's also the piece that we as individuals often anticipate, oh, if I'm sharing this news with you, this is how I would react. So, this is how I'm expecting you to be able to react as well. And that's the thing about grief is that no two people are going to have the same reaction to when they're hearing the news that someone that they love and care deeply for is no longer here that they that they've died. And even more, I think when we're talking to children, as adults, because half the time, we're, we don't really know what they're doing. And in terms of their reactions in one way or another. And so, trying to follow that can be it can be hard to navigate. But it's always about taking the child's lead in that regard, too. And being okay with whatever reaction they have, because we're all different in that sense. 

Fenton: And. I want to talk more about the differences. But, actually, something you said just triggered a question for me. You were saying, you know, they might start sharing their story if they're playing. And I know some of the families I've spoken with is like, you know, kids are honest in ways that we often aren't. And I've heard of situations where like, just out at a social event, maybe even just like at the store, that kids will just very bluntly tell a stranger, someone they don't know well, like, “Oh, my sister died, my mom died.” And, you know, as adults, like how do we navigate that maybe if we're not even in that child's orbit but if a child discloses a death to us, seemingly out of the blue for us, like how can we respond to that as caring, compassionate people and hold that space? 

Chipriano: That's absolutely true. I can't tell you the number of times I've met with kids in my world that they're like, “My daddy died.” And you're just like, “I was just asking you your favorite color, but cool. Let's go there.” Right? Like it didn't take long before we got there. And us as adults in the same way that we would with another human being that was telling us their story, to be able to respond in a compassionate way and say, you know, “I'm saddened to hear that, would you like to tell me more about your sister?” Or, if the time allows itself, to be able to share favorite memories because it, the other piece two is that oftentimes kids are sharing that in that honest way, trying to gather like, all these different facts about who their person was, right? Because if we think about it, we only know our people within the context that we know them then and there are people that they interact with outside of that, that hold completely different stories and memories of them. And so, it's part of it is also to try to information gather and keep the memory alive in one way or another. And then other times, it's just, they're honest. And that's the thing that they want to say in that moment. And they want to share their story. And it's just being present to listen, sometimes it's in the grocery store, while you're pushing [inaudible] to respond and just say, you know, “I'm really, I'm saddened to hear that,” or “It makes me sad to hear that.” And I think that's the, the honest reaction, because it is really sad to hear that a child has experienced the death of someone and that must be hard is to all according to the age of the kid, of course, in your response, but I can never go wrong with just saying, “I'm sad to hear that.”

Fenton: And in that, that responding to kids in that behavior, and like you said, just expressing, “Yeah, that is sad.” I think it’s this idea of, you know, our role as adults in our own grief and what we're modeling for the children in our lives. So you know, if you're in that space, where you're around a grieving child, maybe you're also grieving, what does that look like in terms of modeling our own sort of healthy and grief-aware behavior for the kids who might be watching whether or not we know that they're watching? 

Chipriano: Probably the number one thing we often tell parents is the number one indicator of how a child's going to respond in their grief journey and how they're going to adapt to what's going on is parents modeling healthy coping with their grief. And so, what that looks like, is both normalizing the child's experience to be able to say, “I, too, feel sad,” right? “I, too, feel angry,” and being able to say like, these, these emotions that don't know, aren't necessarily just sadness, and does like this desire to see that person again, or almost like longing, but really anger and guilt and frustration and confusion. Bigger words, but for but for kids being able to say like. “I'm mad too, and it makes me really, sometimes I'm really, really sad that it makes me mad, that I'm so sad.” And being able to give words to the feelings that are being felt, but also to normalize them and say, “Me, too,” gives an incredible weight is lifted off of a child's shoulder to know that they're not the only ones who are feeling that emotion, but to also validate their feelings and in such a way that is, “It's OK to not know how you're feeling. Because you feel so much all at the same time. And that's OK. It's OK to want to scream into your pillow, because you're so mad about what's happened. When I get so mad I do I go into the closet. And sometimes when I'm sad, I cry here, like, what do you do when you're sad?” And that just assuming that the way that we reflect our emotions are going to be the same way our kids do? And so asking, like, “When you feel a certain emotion, what do you do?” And then that also opens the door as the adult to be able to share, like, I'm giving you an example, “When you get mad, you hit the wall. OK, so how about instead of hitting the wall, you can hit a pillow, or we can, you know, get this, this stuffed animal or something that can let that out or let's go throw a ball as hard as we can towards a brick wall?” to try to get that outlet that they're looking for. And so, to the adult, it's trying to understand or see what the child is feeling and then helping them model like what is a healthy coping skill to this way that I'm feeling. And if I just need to cry, then let's cry together and it's and it's OK to do that. 

Fenton:  If you're just joining us this is Take Note on WPSU I'm Lindsey Whissel. Fenton and our guest is Cristina Chipriano, the director of Spanish programs and outreach at Bo's Place, a bereavement center in Houston. It's almost funny, I mean, it's not funny but like this, this is so counter I think to how so many of us perceive our role as adults as like the protectors and you know, like how many times in life or in movies do we hear like, “don't cry in front of the kids” or like, “You have to be strong in front of the kids. Don't let the kids see you get angry or upset”? 

Chipriano: Yeah, no, we're conditioned to be strong for everyone else, right? And that's, that's the number one thing is, there's this societal expectation that you must be strong to get through this. And what's coincidentally really funny is that most children will try to be strong for their parents as well. And so oftentimes, just because we don't see our kids crying, doesn't mean they're not, it just means we're not seeing when it's happening. I have had a number of kids tell me, “Oh, I tried to be really happy when my mom's around, because then I'm not gonna make her more sad.” So, it's this really funny dynamic, where everyone's just trying to be strong for each other. And so, if we could just say, like, “I'm sad, and it's OK to be sad. And it's OK that I'm sad right now. And I'm not sad all the time. Or maybe I am sad all the time. But sometimes I feel this. And sometimes I feel that,” and gives kids the OK to be able to process what they're feeling. And then it's also helpful for parents or the adults in a child's life to help the child identify, “If I'm not here, who can talk to, if you want to talk to someone, if I'm not here to go? And, you know, if we're throwing the ball at a brick wall really, really hard, who can you do that with? When you're at school, and you can't really just get up from your chair and go do that? What can we do instead?” And so, it's almost coming up with a support plan of some type, like, “What can we do when I'm not here to try to help support those waves of grief that are coming? They're coming? So how do we ride the wave in a healthy way?”

Fenton: So, we've been talking to about like the “me too” and that kids and adults will feel the same emotions, and we need to share that. But on the other hand, you know, you have this quote that you say in speaking grief, that I love, that “Children's grief is not a mini-adult grief.” So, what does that mean? And how is children's grief different? And you know, how might it show up in ways that are unexpected or unfamiliar to us as adults?

Chipriano: So oftentimes, as adults, we assume, right, that because you've experienced the death of someone in your life, you're going to feel sad. And that that is the primary emotion that we're going to feel now with kids. It's… sadness exists. And it could look like that. But it also can look completely different. Because they're still learning how does this manifest itself within in my body, and that's, that's a really big, because I don't think many of us sit back to look at how do these emotions manifest themselves within my body, but kids are very physical in their grief. And so oftentimes, we'll see an uptick in stomach aches and headaches and just not feeling well. And that, in that is coming back to an emotion that we're seeing. So, it's more whereas an adult will say, like, “I hear the emotions that I'm feeling and here's I'm responding to it.” With kids, it can look in some very different than it does when you're an adult. There's also at times, we're adults, and life continues, right? I think in Speaking Grief, we hear of how the bills showed up the next morning, and that the world is still continuing. And there are responsibilities that adults powers through to get to done. And with kids, it is much more difficult to make that assumption that they have the ability to do that, not to say that they can't, but some kids have trouble going back to school and other kids really want to go back to school the next day. And so there are elements there that just look in some very different with adults, you'll have those within the first couple of weeks of their grief journey, who can't even fathom what laughter would ever sound like again, and you turn to your kids and they're like running around playing. And so, we then assume OK, they're laughing, so they're fine. But really, it’s another manifestation of their grief, like their grief story is going to come up in that in that piece. And I'm always amazed at how kids almost have the ability to say like, “Whoa, this emotion is a lot. So, I'm going to go do what I have fun doing because that was a lot.” Versus when we become an adults as much as we want to try to contain our feelings within the box. It is really hard to do that to go say, “Look, let me go do something that I enjoy. Because the intensity of that emotion is so much.” So, with kids, the intensity is there and they're able to say to some extent, “That's a lot. I'm going to go on and go ride my bike or play with my friends. And it's going to come out in that way but I'm at least doing something that I enjoy doing or coloring or in that piece.” So, I would say that those pieces are probably the biggest that I've seen when it comes to adult grief not being… kids’ grief and kids grief not being adult grief. I think we as adults could learn a lot from our kids and the way they grieve, I mean, able to really turn to the things that we, we know, bring us some form of joy it as a way to be able to continue to process what's happening.

Fenton:Well, in continuing to process, I mean, we know that grief in general doesn't end you address that. It's not like something we overcome, but it can change, as you know, as time goes by. What does that look like in children's grief and how, especially if you're talking about maybe a younger child, how that grief might show up, you know, throughout the span of their life? 

Chipriano:So, at each developmental milestone, kids will reprocess the grief through the new lens that there's almost seeing the world. So, for example, we have like a six-year-old, who has experienced the death of someone significant than their life, between eight to ten, they'll reprocess it again. And that's because the permanency of death is there. So, it's no longer like, “Oh, they died. And when are they coming back?” It is now, “Death is final, and they're never coming back.” And so, now I'm processing the fact that I never be… in this life never, or to whatever belief, “I'm never going to see them again, that physically. I'm never going to see them again.” So, we have that element of it. And then as teen years arise, we have it again, where it's, “Who am I, without this person in my life? And what is my identity kind of look like? And in how this makes me different than everybody else? And how do I deal with that?” And then we start getting into the larger life milestones of realizing there's a key person that's missing from my high school graduation, from my new job from wherever life takes you in those in those milestone moments of our lives. The grief is reprocessed in one way or another because we're coming to terms with that person not being here. And so, it goes back to that piece, that person no longer being here, it's just looked at through a new lens of what life is bringing in that sense. 

Fenton: So, Bo's Place, the bereavement center where you work, offers grief support groups, and I know many other services. So, for people who are grieving, but are nervous about pursuing some sort of formal grief support or going to a bereavement center or group in their area, what can they expect from f that experience and that process? 

Chipriano: Yeah, the way I tend to describe what a grief support center kind of looks like is being able to be in a group with people who get what it is, without you having to describe what it is, is quite incredible. I've oftentimes will hear people say, “Well, I have my family who's also we all knew who they were. And so, we can share those memories with one another.” But within that, what I will tell people is each one of you had a unique relationship with the person who died. So, to be in a group with others who also had a similar relationship with their person who died, though the stories may not be exactly the same, it's to be able to talk to another mother, who's also experienced the death of their child, another father, another spouse, another teen, another six-year-old, where we often hear from our kids is that sometimes they're the only child in their class grade or school who's had a death of someone significant in their life, and they feel very different. And by coming to a bereavement center, the thing that makes you different is one thing that's similar for everyone. So, that stops being the elephant in the room that you're this, you're the kid or the person who had this person died. And it's the one commonality that everyone shares. So, you can put that aside and one way or another, that piece of your identity, and really delve into what this means and how this is affecting or how you're managing it. And for kids, it's “OK, everyone knows me knows that that's why I'm here.” So, you don't even have to try to bring that up. Like it's, it's a membership to the club that no one's to be a part of. And I also will tell people that is, I wouldn't wish Bo’s Place and grief centers on anyone, but because death is a part of life, and it's the one thing that we're promised the day that we are born, I’m grateful that we exist because we're able to provide a space that normalizes the experience validates it and is the one place where oftentimes parents don't have to continue to be strong free their kids. It's that time that they're there. I will tell parents like, “Your kids are taken care of, like, we're working with them. We're doing their grief journey. They're in their groups. This is the hour and 15 minutes, two hours that you have for yourself to be able to process your grief journey.” Because that, oftentimes, what happens with adults is that because they're now taking care of everything, and everyone and ensuring life continues, their grief goes on the back burner. And so, by coming to this designated place to this designated space and time, to be able to process their own grief, it's this relief of being able to say, “Hey, this is the place where I get to do this.” For those that who are hesitant, it is quite possibly one of the hardest calls that any person will have to make is to call to say, “We need grief support.” But I speak not only for our agency, but for many others, these bereavement centers are places where people… our sole purpose is to be able to walk this journey and accompany the bereaved on their journey. And to do that with the warmth and the support that we have, we’re there. 

Fenton: One of the things we're doing with Speaking Grief,as you know, is trying to give grief supporters some guidance and help on building some real skills that we can all use to apply to these situations. So, if we're in the position of supporting a grieving family, you know, not as a professional as a as a friend and neighbor, a church member, in there might be a family that we're supporting, where there's a grieving adult, but also a grieving child or children, how can we be mindful of that and find ways to show up for each member of that family as we seek to support them?

Chipriano:So in the beginning, it's offering to help with pickups and drop-offs and the day-to-day that happens to try to continue some form of a routine because that is also very, very helpful in the grief journey is specially within at the very beginning when it feels like your world has been turned upside down and you're just walking through chaos. It's how can we provide the child as… school is very important because it provides that routine. How can we provide the family some sort of a routine? So, stepping in to say, “I can help with pickup. I can go drop them off at whatever practice, whatever extracurricular activity, if you need that, I can do that on these days.” And then a little bit longer term is being mindful of the big and small holidays right, not just the winter holidays that we have coming up, but Valentine's Days and Patrick's Day, Passover, Easter, Mother's Day, Father's Day, birthdays, those holidays have been able to check in and say, “What can I help with?” Or, “Here are the things that can help provide.” Or, “What is your family's plan for this day? And is there anything I can do to help support that plan?” Right? And those are the things that we, as not the grief professionals, but the grief supporters of people that we love and are there for it's a matter of showing up and not just showing up within the first couple of weeks, because that's where a lot of the support comes in, but showing up consistently. 

Fenton: Cristina, thank you so much for talking with us. 

Chipriano: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me. 

Fenton: Cristina Chipriano is the director of Spanish programs and outreach at Bo's Place, a bereavement center in Houston. She's a board member of the National Alliance for Grieving Children, a leading nonprofit in the space of children's grief and is featured in WPSU's Speaking Grief initiative. To hear more from Cristina about understanding and supporting children's grief, visit wpsu-dot-org-slash-take note. From my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton, WPSU.

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