Letter Writing to Loved Ones

Dear Dad,

I am having a good time in third grade, but I miss you very much.  I’ve been sad a lot.  Remember how you used to call me Smiling Sammy?  I wish I could smile and be happy again.  Mrs. Cooper says it’s okay to be sad sometimes but that you would want me to be happy sometimes too.  I think she’s right.  Maybe I should start doing all the fun things I used to do, like playing with my friends and telling jokes and dancing and laughing.

I will tell Mom that she doesn’t have to be sad all the time either.  Maybe Mom can even pick berries with me like we used to do.  That might cheer her up a little.

I know that we will be okay.  I love you, Dad.  When I miss you, I know I can look around and remember the fun things we did together, and it’s kind of like you’re with me all the time.

Love, Your Smiling Sammy

-A letter that Sammy Jane wrote to her dad in

Samatha Jane’s Missing Smile by Julie Kaplow and Donna Pincus



Families will be celebrating Father’s Day this weekend.  Children will be making special cards and giving presents.  As a little girl, I remember surprising my dad with poems written in homemade cards.   However, Father’s Day can be a sad day for children who are coping with the loss of a dad.  A few months ago we read a picture book to our bereavement support group called Samantha Jane’s Missing Smile.  Grieving children often feel like Sammy Jane in the story.  Sammy Jane lost her smile when her dad died.  She struggles with guilt wondering, “Is it right to feel happy when my dad can’t be here to enjoy life?”

Mrs. Cooper, a neighborhood friend, helps Sammy Jane to remember the happy memories.  Then, Mrs. Cooper encourages her to write a letter to her dad.

After we read the story to the children, ages 7 to 10, each child had an opportunity to write a letter to a loved one who died.  Letter writing is a technique that can aid in releasing feelings that a child may be keeping inside.  Unresolved feelings of guilt and regret may occur if a child was not able to say good-bye.  Younger children will sometimes blame themselves for the death.  The child can be encouraged to write about their feelings in a letter.  Or the child may write about the events going on in his or her life.  Reading the book first was a helpful way to lead into our letter writing activity.  The children in our group identified with Sammy and the book brought up several topics to discuss.

Jane Annunziata, Psy.D. includes a Note To Parents at the end of the picture book, under Practical Techniques.  She writes, “Sometimes children find relief by expressing their feelings in nonverbal ways, including crying to “wash away” the sad feelings, artwork, (even young children can get relief from scribbling), and writing or journaling (which the child may or may not choose to share with others).  Giving the child control over the ways that feelings can be expressed is important, since the child has just endured the highly out-of-control experience of losing a parent.”

The letters they created to their loved ones were thoughtful and beautiful.  A few of the children also drew pictures in the letters. The details and pictures they added were remarkable.  I had to hold back my tears as the children shared their letters.  It is also a therapeutic technique for adults.  Letter writing is a personal experience.  The child may wish to NOT share- that is perfectly okay.   Finally, your child can choose WHAT to do with the letter.  For example, they may wish to frame it, bring it to the grave sight to read, or read the letter/then release balloons.


Father’s Day can be a day of remembrance.  A day to celebrate Dad’s life- the things he loved.  Eat his favorite ice cream, release his favorite color of balloons into the sky, take a trip to his favorite place.  Tell your child a “DAD story” that he or she has never heard before.

(I purchased Samantha Jane’s Missing Smile by Julie Kaplow and Donna Pincus from Magination Press.  Most of the books are written by mental health professionals.  Free shipping in the United States.  You can visit the website at

I’ll Always Be With You


     She took Chester’s hand and carefully wrapped his fingers around the kiss.  “Now, do be careful not to lose it,” she teased him.  “But, don’t worry.  When you open your hand and wash your food, I promise the kiss will stick.”

     Chester loved his Kissing Hand.  Now he knew his mother’s love would go with him wherever he went.

-The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn

Mother’s Day can be a sad reminder to children that a loved one is not able to physically be with them.   They may be missing a mom because of a death, deployment, or incarceration.  Certain circumstances may not allow a child to see his or her mother.  Talk to your children about ways to remember their mom.  Allow the child to decide.  Giving the child control can help with the grieving process.  Children often feel as though their entire world has been turned upside down.  Something terrible has occurred that was beyond their control.

Create rituals and traditions for the family on Mother’s Day.  The National Alliance for Grieving Children wrote “Ten Ways to Help Grieving Children.”

Item number nine discusses creating rituals and new family traditions.  “Rituals can give your family tangible ways to acknowledge your grief and honor the memory of those who have died. Lighting candles, recognizing special occasions, sharing stories about those who have died or volunteering with a local charity as a family are some ways you can incorporate new traditions or rituals.”

It is my hope that your family will be comforted by memories of your loved one.

How will your family remember a loved one on Mother’s Day?  Please share your ideas and comment below.

If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together….There is something you must always remember.  You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.  But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart….I’ll always be with you. 

– Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne


National No One Eats Alone Day In Schools: Friday, February 13, 2015

“It is raining still…Maybe it is not one of those showers that is here one minute and gone the next, as I had boldly assumed.  Maybe none of them are.  After all, life in itself is a chain of rainy days.  But there are times when not all of us have umbrellas to walk under.  Those are the times when we need people who are willing to lend their umbrellas to a wet stranger on a rainy day.  I think I’ll go for a walk with my umbrella.”

Sun-Young Park

Lili Smith, born with a cranial facial syndrome, was socially isolated by her peers during the middle school years.  Lili died at the age of 15 from complications of her condition.  After her death, a group of teens connected together to bring a change at their schools.  They did not want anyone to ever feel left out again.  The parents of Lili founded a project called Beyond Differences to carry a simple message to cities across the nation: For all kids to feel included and valued. 

Beyond Differences is encouraging schools to hold a National No one Eats Alone Day on February 13, 2015.  If you are interested in the program, complete a form on the website and they will send you information on how to get started.  A few parts of this program stood out to me.  First, the kids are in charge.  (A teacher/counselor has to supervise and coordinate.)  Second, schools can add their own “uniqueness” to the program.

I found lunch and recess to be insightful as a school counselor.  Eating lunch with different classes in the cafeteria proved to be helpful.  It was easy to observe the students that were socially isolated.  One particular afternoon, I noticed a student sitting alone.  This girl was usually a social student, but that day appeared withdrawn and sad.  I was dealing with a few incidents that needed my immediate attention.  I did not have the opportunity to meet with her.  Already having a rapport with her mother, I made a phone call to the mom at the end of the day.  I thought it was important for the mom to ask her daughter if anything was going on at school.  The next day, I received a call thanking me.  The girl was experiencing online bullying and the content was extremely inappropriate.  The mom was not sure if her daughter would have told her.  Her mom was supportive and open to listening.  She gave her daughter the opportunity to discuss her feelings.

I discussed attending a life changing conference in a previous post.  A psychologist for the FBI gave a presentation on school violence.  The report included an analysis of 13 shooting incidents that occurred in United States’ middle and high schools during a 7 year period.  In the article, the authors present a hypothetical behavioral profile of the “Classroom Avenger.”

A few of the statistics stood out to me.  100% of the classroom avengers’ felt like a social outcast, 80% felt teased and victimized, 60% were suicidal, 67% used a gun from home, and 87% felt chronic anger.  The profile concluded that the typical avenger was not extremely violent in school or involved with the police.  The shooters reported that the teasing and the feeling of isolation went back to elementary school!

As a school counselor in an elementary school, this information was essential.  We have to reach these students at a young age and be proactive!  The FBI psychologist gave a recommendation:

* Reach out to the socially isolated students.  A few of the shooters mentioned that even teachers never said “hello” in the hallway.  He recommended developing a program where a staff member would be assigned to a particular isolated student.  The staff member would reach out to the student once a week.  It could be as simple as having a conversation.  The school counselor could be the coordinator for this program.

Other ideas:

*A Recess Buddy Bench: My daughter’s school has a bench that was made for a student to sit on when he/she does not have anyone to play with at recess.  The idea is that another student will then ask that child to play.  My daughter has observed the bench being used.  I love this idea!

* New Student Lunches: Entering a new school can be scary and isolating for a child.  During the middle of September, the school counselor will invite the new students for lunch according to grade level.  I included these lunches into my counseling program, then sent home a letter explaining the purpose of the lunches and my role as a school counselor.  After the lunches were conducted, I displayed their pictures in the main hallway for everyone to see.  It also helps to have a new student paired up with a child in the class for lunch/recess during the first week.

*Talk to your own children about social isolation.  Ask your child, “What will you do if someone is playing at recess alone?  What will you do if someone asks to play in your group, but your friend says no?” 

*Even if you don’t work in a school, reach out to someone who may be socially isolated.  Maybe it is an individual at your workplace.  Maybe a neighbor dealing with a loss.  Send a “thinking of you” card.  Just saying “hello” could make a difference to them.  Be that person who offers an umbrella on a rainy day.  

Make a difference!   


Memory Placemats


” If ever there is a tomorrow when we’re not together…..there is something you must always remember.  You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.  But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart….I’ll always be with you.

-A.A.Milne (Winnie the Pooh)

The first Thanksgiving without my grandmother felt like the last piece of a puzzle was missing.  Sometimes I help my five-year-old son put together challenging puzzles.  We get to the end of the puzzle and realize that we are missing the last piece.  We look for it on the bookshelf with all of the other puzzles, but can’t seem to find it.  (My guess is that our mischievous dog, Belle, chewed it up!)

My grandma’s house looked the same during the first Thanksgiving and Christmas without her.  The house even smelled as though she lived there.  I could still smell the scent of her coffee that she made.  My grandfather put out the same tree and decorations, just as she did.  However, her absence at the dinner table was the missing piece of the puzzle.

Last year I created an activity to use with our grief support group before Thanksgiving.  For a few children, it was the first Thanksgiving without their loved one.  The children made memory placemats to use during Thanksgiving dinner or another special dinner.  One child traced his hand three times and wrote things about his mom that he missed.  A few children wrote/drew favorite hobbies and characteristics about the loved one.  They looked beautiful when they were completed!

This is an activity that a child could create for a birthday dinner or the anniversary of the death.  A child could make a placemat in honor of a parent that is deployed or hospitalized.  We used foam sheets, stickers, and paper leaves for our support group.  Use materials available around the house.  Your child could browse through magazines and cut out pictures to glue.  Scissors that make the curvy edges could add a special touch.   Before you eat dinner with your special memory placemat, everyone at the table could say a favorite memory of the loved one.

My memory of my grandma would go something like this:

“I remember how Grandma always made holiday dinners special.  She would have a favorite appetizer that my sister and I loved- black olives!  Melissa and I placed the olives on each finger, eating the entire bowl.  I will always remember a Thanksgiving when my sister and I dressed up like turkeys in our ballet leotards and tights.  We stuffed socks with toilet paper to make feathers.  (My idea, of course!)  We laughed and enjoyed every minute with our grandma.”



Scared of Monsters and Ghosts

“Sometimes I’m scared of monsters and ghosts.  I’m not scared when I see that they aren’t real.”

Excerpt from the I’m Not Scared Book by Todd Parr


Belle, our chocolate Labradoodle, developed a fear.  We own a dog that is terrified of going on walks!  I should clarify that this fear is restricted to our neighborhood.  My sister watched Belle for a few days in the summer at her house and she enjoyed walking.  For a period of time, she would not even leave my yard.  Sometimes, Belle will walk around our circle, but then stops every time I try to walk up the street.  She becomes a statue and I can’t get my scared dog to move an inch!   Hopefully, one day, Belle will become comfortable walking around our neighborhood again.  At the moment; however, we are limited to our short circle walks.

I have my own share of fears.  Spiders and heights.  My fear of heights was finally conquered at the age of 29 when I went skydiving with two best friends.  Needless to say, you probably will never see me skydiving again!  The conversation of “fears” is a common topic with children.  Monsters, the dark, and ghosts often rank high on the list.  Nightmares are typical in young children.  We recently covered the topic of fears in our grief support group for children ages 7 to 9.  A parent or teacher may notice fears develop in children who are grieving.  For example, a child who experienced a father’s death may now fear the death of his or her mother.

Six ways to help children who are experiencing fears:

1.  Decorate a plain pillowcase with fabric markers.    We recently used this activity two weeks ago in our group.  The kids loved it!  They were excited to go to sleep that night!  Some children drew relaxing pictures.  (The beach, clouds, stars.)  Other children drew pictures of things/people who help them to feel happy.  (Puppies, rainbows, family members.)

2.  Encourage your child to discuss the nightmare.  Don’t just say, “It was just a dream….forget about it.”  Instead say, “Tell me about your dream.  Were there any people or animals in it?  How did you feel in your dream?” Documenting the details in the nightmare may reveal a pattern that is associated with the loss.

3.  Turn “scary” into “funny.”  The kids in our group had fun with this one during the pillowcase activity.  They drew pictures of their nightmares by adding funny details.  A few had watched the Harry Potter movies and recalled a scene in the Prisoner of Azkaban.  A creature in a box popped out and turned into the person’s greatest fear.  Then, the person had to use a spell to turn the fear into a funny image.  Have your child make up a new version of the nightmare that has a funny scenario.  Click on the link below to view the scene from the movie:

4.  Relaxation.  Apps for the I-PAP/ I-POD.  I discovered a cool app to use with kids, even adults!  It is called Relax Melodies.  You pick the sounds and create your own relaxing music.  I particularly love the “campfire” and “rainstorm” sounds.  You have 50 to choose from.  Icy snow, afternoon, seaside, frogs, cavern, and butterfly are some choices.  I play this app in our group while they are completing an activity and they enjoy choosing the sounds.  It is a great way to fall asleep as you pretend to be listening to the ocean.  The link to the free app is listed below:

5.  Reassure your child that he or she is safe.  My own kids have night lights and my daughter even has a pillow that lights up, then shuts off after a certain amount of time.

6.  Teach your child that a little fear can be helpful/ too much fear can be hurtful.  For example, a little fear will help you practice more for a piano recital because you fear of playing the wrong notes.  I explained fear to our support group by having each child write a fear on a bug.  We talked about how having a large amount of fear can make you feel “stuck.”   It might feel like you are stuck in a spider web.  You can’t move or think.  You feel frozen with fear.  We then placed our bugs onto a big spider web.  As a conclusion, the group discussed what it means to be “brave” and ways they have been brave for themselves or for someone else.  When you act brave, you will never feel trapped in a web.


Don’t leave me! I want to stay with you!

Chester Raccoon stood at the edge of the forest and cried.

“I don’t want to go to school,” he told his mother.  “I want to stay home with you.  I want to play with my friends.  And play with my toys. 

And read my books.  And swing on my swing.  Please may I stay home with you?” 

Excerpt from The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn

I will never forget my school counselor years in Maryland, especially a second grader who refused to attend school.  His mother enrolled him into public school half way through the year.  The little boy was home schooled and never even went to preschool.  He spent most of his first days with me.

I vividly recall him picking up my phone, shaking the receiver in the air.  “For the love of God, call my mom!” he screamed over and over.  Even though he made progress over the week, his mother decided to home school.  Again.

Both of my kids experienced separation anxiety when beginning preschool.  It was not expected of my daughter.  She was a social butterfly who talked to EVERYONE!  I left preschool a few times in tears, even though I knew they would be fine in a few minutes.  I could hear my son crying and screaming for me as I walked down the hallway.  Before I reached the door, his crying always stopped.  This went on for an entire month, but then he ran into school every morning.  He was excited to be there, trusting that I would pick him up after lunch.

Separation anxiety is typical for preschoolers.  It is also typical for a child, who is grieving a loss, to suddenly develop separation anxiety.  A parent or caregiver should be concerned if the anxiety significantly interferes with the child’s social, academic, or physical needs.  A phone call to the child’s pediatrician would be required at that point.

There are a few ways to help a child with separation anxiety:

1.  Remember the word “QUICK.”  Make a QUICK exit after a QUICK good-bye.  (I am guilty of this mistake!)

2.  Read the book The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn.  Trace the child’s hand onto paper, draw a heart, and then kiss.  Cut it out and place it in the child’s book bag.  You could also attach it to your child’s book bag with string.

3.  After reading the book, kiss your child’s hand and place a sticker or temporary tattoo on the spot.  Remind your child that the love never goes away.

4.  Reassure the child of the pick up time after school.  (Right before lunch, after lunch, etc…)  Don’t be late!

5.  Tell your child that YOU will be okay when he or she is at school.  I was paged to the office on a spring afternoon before the start of kindergarten.  My assistance was needed to calm a girl who was having a HUGE meltdown as her mom was attempting to leave.  For the last few days, she was refusing to attend school.  Mom was completely confused about her behavior.  I managed to bring her into my office to find out what was happening.  Mom waited with the principal.  It turns out that she was worried about her mom.  Apparently, she was recently sick.  The girl worried that something would happen to Mom when she was at school.  After asking her mom to talk to us, the girl discussed her feelings.  Mom reassured her daughter that she was better, then I walked the girl to class.  No more meltdowns ever again!

6.  Have your child give YOU a “Kissing Hand.”  This is a morning ritual before school in our house, even if we have a crazy morning getting out the door on time.  It gives me a peace of mind knowing that we said “I love you” to each other.  One day it will be me experiencing separation anxiety as I drop my daughter and son off at college.  Hopefully, it will be a driving distance away.  But if not, I will be kissing their hands and asking if they remember our morning ritual.  My kids will probably laugh at my silliness, but deep down in their hearts, they will love the reassurance.  Our love will last forever.

Chester took his mother’s hand in his own and unfolded her large, familiar fingers into a fan.  Next, he leaned forward and kissed the center of her hand. 

“Now you have a Kissing Hand too,” he told her.  And with a gentle “Good-Bye” and “I love you,”

Chester turned and danced away.

Excerpt from The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn

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Screams in the Night

“The stars on high are shining bright-

Sweet dreams, my darling, sleep well…good night!”

Author: Mem Fox from the book Time for Bed


The house is quiet.  The kids are sleeping soundly in their beds.  Well, actually my daughter is sleeping in my bed.  I need to be honest.  This has become a nightly ritual, but that can be saved for another post…

It is an hour past my usual bedtime.  I started watching a scary movie on television.  Not a smart move on my part.  After drifting off, an hour goes by of peaceful sleep.  Suddenly, I hear a sound and believe someone has broken into my window.  Panic sets in and radiates throughout my body.  Getting out of the room is the only option.  Somehow I run in the pitch dark room, throwing my blankets onto the floor and smacking my arm on the nightstand.  Now I am awake and standing in the hallway.  My heart is racing so fast.  Am I having a heart attack?  The episode feels like an eternity, but has only lasted a few minutes.  My throat hurts from screaming.  As I walk back into the room, my scared daughter has no idea what happened.  Two words.  Night terror.

My recent night terror was unexpected because I have not experienced one for years.  They began in childhood and became more frequent during college.  My college roommates must have loved me!  The change in sleep patterns of college life may have caused them to occur.  Staying up late and not enough sleep.  They also happened during times of emotional stress; for example, after the death of my grandfather.  During a psychology class in college, I realized my screaming episodes were actually night terrors.   We were learning the criteria for various sleep disorders.  I did not meet the criteria for a “disorder” because they occurred infrequently and were not interfering significantly with my life.  However, I did feel relieved to know there was a name for these episodes.

The following are a few suggestions to help a child who experiences night terrors:

1.  Keep a written diary of the dates the night terrors occur.  Write any details that stand out.  For example, if your child went to sleep later than the usual bedtime.  A diary may provide a pattern and will be helpful if you need to speak to the pediatrician.

2.  Remove any toys on the floor in your child’s room, in case he or she gets out of bed during a night terror.  (I would jump out of bed and run into the hallway!)

3.  Don’t try to wake up the child during an episode.   Night terrors only last a few minutes and children usually do not remember the next morning.  Night terrors are more frightening to the parent.  Trying to wake up the child can further agitate him or her.  In addition, it might take longer for the child to fall back asleep.

4.  Reassure the child that he or she is safe after the night terror.   You may need to sit with your child for a few minutes.

5.  Encourage your child to discuss his or her feelings during the day.  If your child is dealing with a loss, contact the school counselor to inquire of any support offered in the school or community.

6.  Establish a relaxing bedtime routine.  Give your child enough rest time during the day.  Try to put your child to bed at the same time every night.

7.  If  the night terrors become more frequent, look at your written diary to see if there is a pattern.  If your child wakes up at the same time, set an alarm to 15 minutes before they occur.  Wake up your child for a few minutes.  This may prevent the night terror.  (My night terrors always occur 30 minutes after I fall asleep.)

Do you have any strategies that have worked with a child who has night terrors?  Please share your ideas.

Night terrors appear to be a frightening experience, but remember the child usually has no recollection in the morning.  They are more frightening to others who witness the night terror.  (My husband and daughter would agree!)  Night terrors typically end by adolescence.  (Unfortunately, not for me!)