Tag Archive | bereavement support group

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 http://www.apa.org/pubs/magination/index.aspx.)



Tough Boys

When I was a boy and would see scary things in the news, my mother wold say to me, “Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.”

To this day, especially in times of  “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers.  So many caring people in this world.

– Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers)


A few weeks ago I brought my kids to a local park to enjoy the beautiful weather.  My heart began to beat faster  when one boy flew off the merry-go-round and onto the ground. He looked to be around 6 years old.  The boy was trying to be brave and not cry.  His father responded by saying, “If his mom was here, he would be bawling.”

I thought about this incident during the ride home.  Why is a boy more likely to cry in front of Mom, but not Dad?  I have encountered boys in school that grew up with the notion that “boys need to be tough” and “boys don’t cry.”  I recall one boy being told that he is now “the man of the house” after the death of his father.  It was tremendous pressure for a grieving boy in elementary school.

My counseling experience has taught me that boys grieve differently from girls.  Teachers often report more behavior issues in the classroom with grieving boys; such as, not focusing and aggression.  Girls would sit down and discuss feelings openly, even after meeting with me for the first time.  It proved to be more difficult with boys.  Parents and teachers sometimes struggle in helping boys who are grieving a loss.


How can parents, teachers, and counselors help boys who are grieving?


1.  Talk during an activity.  Take a walk, play a game, or throw a ball back and forth.  

When I was a school counselor in Maryland, I met with a second grade boy to shoot hoops once a week.  He was experiencing the death of his father and the loss of not seeing his mother.  The teachers in that school were amazing and realized the importance of counseling.  I was encouraged to meet with students during instruction time, instead of only recess and lunch.  He was in a comfort zone and easily talked about his feelings while we payed basketball.


2.  Teach boys that no matter how emotionally painful life becomes, violence is NEVER an option.

Have a plan in place.  What will he do when he feels angry?  What will he do when he feels sad?  These discussions need to begin in elementary school and continue through every grade.  I already began this conversation with my 4-year-old son.  He hides under our kitchen table when upset, but I never know the reason.  I help him to talk about it.  When his sister teases him and he feels like punching her, I teach him to use his “words.”

I had the opportunity to attend a conference by the United States Secret Service at Penn State.  The agent interviewed boys that were involved in school shootings.  I will never forget what he said.  Every boy wished that one adult would have acknowledged him at school.  Simply said “hello” in the hallway.  They thought no one cared about them.  Some were bullied.  I can’t even imagine how that feels.

Not every boy who is bullied will engage in violence, but it is important to be proactive and reach out to every boy in a school.  Teachers and adults in the school need to make it a priority.  For example, after class a teacher could take a minute to check in with a boy that has appeared to be more withdrawn than usual.


3.  Teach boys to find the “helpers” in life.

Who can he talk to about his feelings?  I was surprised to see the negative association with school counseling when I began a career in Pennsylvania.  I invited students to have lunch with me during the first few months.  A few parents called me about it.  It was a big deal to see the counselor.  After talking to me, they appreciated that I was trying to get to know everyone.  However, it took time.   Call your pediatrician for a referral to a therapist if your child could benefit from counseling.  Counselors can be certified in play therapy, which is a type of therapy that uses sand, puppets, and art.


4.  Contact the school counselor to inquire if there is a bereavement support group offered at your child’s school. 

Support groups are beneficial because they support the notion that “I am not the only one going through a loss.”  If a support group is not offered, the school counselor should be familiar with groups available in the community.  During the summer months, bereavement camps might be available in your area. 


5.  If you are a teacher/educator in a school, be aware of bullying that may take place during lunch and recess. 

Boys may be vulnerable to bullying because they are in an emotional state.  Grieving children can be the target to bullies.  It is difficult to believe that a child could be teased for the death of a parent, but sadly it is a reality.


6.  Continue with a normal routine.

If your boy is involved in a sport or activity, do not take a break from it.  He will benefit socially and emotionally by being around friends and coaches that can show support.  


If you are a parent or guardian of a boy that is grieving a loss, let him know that he is not alone.  Tell him there are many helpers in this world that care.