Grief and Children with Special Needs:
with special needs may express their grief and feelings differently, but their grief is still just as powerful.
Keep these strategies in mind when
working with these students:
Be open and honest. Use appropriate words such as “dead” and “death” and avoid
euphemisms. Don’t lie to the child or tell half truths.
· Beware of telling a child that the person is “just
Be available to listen, to talk or simply spend time with the child.
· Be patient
as the same questions may be asked over and over again.
· Allow the child to show their grief in whatever way
they want, as long as it is safe. Some want to just ignore it and have fun. That is okay too.
Enable the child to say goodbye and see the body of the person who died if at all possible, and encourage
parents to allow that. Research shows that when children see the body, they show less behavioral acting out in the future.
Don’t exclude the child from helpful rituals of death, which will help them understand someone
important in their life has died. Children with developmental disabilities need more concrete rituals and
explicit directions, and simplified activities.
· Rituals that are abstract may be confusing, frustrating
and of little value.
· Please don’t try to protect the children from
grief, but rather try to support and reassure them, acknowledge their losses and help them to find healthy ways to express
Often those who lack the grief vocabulary to talk about feelings, tend to express their feelings through
Avoid too much change at this confusing and distressing time, if possible.
Always give LD children space and time to express feelings.
Some helpful ways to help bereaved children with
1. Look together
at photographs of the person who has died and share memories.
2. Sending greeting cards to the family,
Encourage the grieving child to wear an article of clothing that may be a linking or comfort object to
the person who died or is gone.
Having a pillow or blanket made from person’s clothes helps too.
5. Listen to the
person’s favorite music
Make a book about the person who died
7. Light a candle on special days and
Make a memory box. Child chooses what memories go inside.
9. Read books,
Badgers Parting Gifts: sadness and joy in memories
10. Prepare them for the funeral, how to behave, what they will experience.
Grief issues specific to people with autism:
Each person with autism will react individually to bereavement and the approach to support needs to be
a unique as the individual.
· People with autism may share the common responses to
death and bereavement such as denial, anger and despair.
· The grieving process of people with autism may be profoundly
affected by their disabilities.
· Skilled support is an important factor in helping individuals
move through their grief.
It is difficult to generalize how each child will experience loss through death, but such
a loss can give rise to phobias, fears, obsession, lack of understanding, and resistance to change, which can be considered
by others to be inappropriate reactions or even callous indifference. Children on the Spectrum depend on
the security of familiarity. Often these children may have difficulty to find words to express their feelings, which is why
goodbye rituals are so important.
It is important to balance how much information is given. Too much or too little information may make it difficult
to voice concerns or ask the right questions. There is the chance that the person will develop clinical
anxiety and/or depression.
When to refer to a professional:
· They deny that anyone has died, or act as if nothing
They threaten or talk of suicide (particularly difficult as many with autism also suffer with depression
and may generally have thoughts to suicide)
· They become unusually and persistently aggressive or
engage in anti-social behavior.
· They become withdrawn and socially isolated.
Remember that those with a very
limited number of close relationships experience the death of a friend or family member sometimes as a catastrophic loss and
the idea of re-investing in other people is very difficult. Many of these children become highly attached
and dependent to their teachers or school staff so when a staff member leaves the job or has died, it may
be very difficult for the child.
Staff needs to empathize and not try to make the person “get over it”. Encourage the
students’ family to allow them to ‘see the dead body’ to help them understand that the death is irreversible
and that he/she is not coming back. Staff can anticipate reactions, listen and read cues, intervene, ask
how the person feels, talk about the deceased and explain the normal grieving process. Encourage the child
to keep a feelings diary to help deal with all of the feelings. Commemorating anniversary days by developing ritual can help
provide the children a time to remember and help cut down on obsessive behaviors.
Continue routines, keep decision making to a minimum and encourage
connections. Returning to school or work after a loss can be very stressful. Some worry about their surviving parent at home
is directed at the person who shared the news of the death or it may be generalized. Anger may also be apparent when activities
provided by the deceased are no longer available. Enable students to express this anger without hurting themselves, others
or property, for example using exercise or a punching bag.
some won’t react at first or reacts in a way that is different that you would expect.
Discuss with children that it is common to feel it was “their
fault” someone died, get headaches, feel numb, ask many questions, worry etc. Remind them that they
need social support and help, someone to talk to and a place to remember.
“We should never underestimate, and we
cannot overestimate, the simple power of acceptance, affirmation and validation. It is the key to supporting grief.”
Guidebook on Helping Persons with Mental Retardation Mourn by Jeffrey Kauffman (2005)
and Don’ts for School Staff:
· Offer time (brief but regular meetings can
mean a lot)
· Be available to listen
Talk about the good and bad memories
a student’s feelings
· Say “I don’t know” in relation
to questions you really don’t have the answer for.
students to cry
· Watch for behavior changes
Be aware of previous bereavement and/or depression
sensitive to beliefs and cultural backgrounds
· Use rituals
Assume that the person with autism can cope without support
Thing they do not ‘feel’ the loss
their thoughts or views on the death
· Use cliche's such as ‘You need to be
strong’ or ‘You are coping well’
· Make new or sudden changes to the routine
Think that you cannot support them
Helpful Rituals for Developmentally Disabled Grievers
The use of photographs in ritual.
Have students sit in a circle and pass around a photo of the person
who died and share memories. If the child is non verbal the facilitator can share the memories “for the child”
about the loss.
storytelling in ritual.
Write a story about the person who has died in collaboration with the individual with the
of memory objects in ritual.
Put a group of objects together that remind them of the person who
died, such as photos, books, clothing articles, papers etc. For someone less verbal, let child choose what goes in pile. Leave
the objects for several days. Limited time for those easily distracted.
Use of Drawing in Ritual.
the child draw a picture of the person who died or memories of the person and share it with others. Even if the child has
limited fine motor skills, encourage the child to draw what he/she remembers.
Use of Music in Ritual.
to music that the person who died liked or that reminds her of the person who died. The song may relate to the person’s
job or personality trait. Can listen, or move to music or draw.
Use of Writing in Ritual.
The child can write or dictate a letter to or about the
Perhaps provide child with a letter with sentence starters.
Use of Stones in Ritual.
Share a memory of the person and then place a small stone in a decorative
fountain or paint the rock or write a word on it. Take time daily to remember the person.
Use of Daily Memory in Ritual.
an activity that the person used to do with or to the child. This may be self-care or taking a walk, cooking or playing a
game together. As the teacher does this activity intentionally talk about the person who has died. This can occur immediately
after the death or delayed for weeks. Pay attention to student’s cues in order to help the child in the healing process.
(Adapted from : Helping People with Developmental
Disabilities Mourn: Practical Rituals for Caregivers by Marc
A. Markell, PhD, 2005)