Traveling to see our grandsons’ basketball games is a fairly regular weekend event. This Sunday was one of those days. After the fast paced middle-schooler game, we filed out of the gymnasium. A small gathering of boys and their dads intently looked at a phone. Still dripping with sweat in his team uniform, one boy said, “Kobe Bryant is dead.” He held his phone up and revealed the words on the screen confirming the loss of the basketball legend. As other young players heard the news, they expressed their disbelief, shock and anger. For anyone who thinks we can shield children from loss and grief in the world, we can’t. But we can talk about death, have a plan and resources at the ready.
Kobe Bryant may not have been physically present in children’s lives, but they watched him play basketball and covered countless bedroom walls and notebooks with stickers of his image and Laker’s jersey. In retirement he reached out beyond the basketball court with his Oscar-winning short film Dear Basketball and new book series, The Wizenard. He was a part of our culture; one that surrounds children and embraces sports. His loss is a loss for all young people who “knew” Kobe. For children who have experienced a loss in their own lives, Kobe Bryant’s death can exacerbate and intensify previously existing grief.
Although children’s bereavement has not been a prominent concern in child rearing, our world brings tragedy into homes and classrooms each day— violence, disasters and 9/11 have caused thousands of children to grow up without a parent or sibling. There are thousands more who know of a friend or peer who is grieving. We need to make childhood grief a priority.
It is not an easy road for grieving children; they face stigmas, bullying and a loss of resources. In fact, childhood bereavement is a significant public health issue, placing kids at greater risk for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use as well as poor academic performance. And if the loss is sudden or under traumatic circumstances the risks are even greater.
Childhood bereavement is a truth for millions of children.
Last fall Population Review published a ground-breaking study on parental loss. Dr. David Weaver, formerly of the Congressional Budget Office, investigated parental mortality and outcomes for surviving children. It is the first U.S. study to directly estimate the number and characteristics of children and adults who have lost either or both parents. Two million U.S. children under the age of 18 have a biological mother or father who is deceased. While many of them receive Social Security death benefits, most do not — especially children of color. In fact, black children are more likely than Hispanic or white children to have a deceased parent. Bereaved children who receive Social Security, health insurance and food/nutrition programs are less likely to experience poverty and hardship, but grieving black children are less likely to receive such benefits, threatening their economic, social and educational well-being.
Weaver’s study also finds that parentally bereaved children are more likely to have academic problems and less favorable health outcomes or some form of disability. These findings are not surprising. The death of a parent is considered one of the most stressful events in children’s lives. In some ways it’s more surprising that most bereaved children are so resilient and go on to lead healthy, fulfilling lives.
People often think of resilience as an inner strength that some human beings are born with and others lack. Recent studies indicate that such ideas are mistaken. Children’s resilience is cultivated when families can restructure after a parent’s death, providing a stable and supportive environment. This is no easy task for parents who face multiple challenges — managing finances, a household, and adapting to new work schedules. All of this, in addition to coping with their own grief.
Fortunately, there is encouraging evidence that bereaved parents can be helped. A recent study funded by the NIMH found that the Resilient Parenting for Bereaved Families program leads to positive changes for children that last up to 15 years later. In 10 sessions, grieving families reap long-term mental health benefits, minimizing distressing grief and enhancing well-being.
Many of our communities already have the infrastructure to support grieving children. In addition to houses of worship that have traditionally supported families in crisis, there are hundreds of programs throughout the country dedicated to supporting grieving children and their families. These programs are free of charge, but they need our support.
Good Grief, a New Jersey based nonprofit, is one of the programs working to ensure the emotional and physical health of bereaved children. Grieving children can stay in the program for several years because it takes time to integrate new experiences. Each child’s grief is unique and shaped by their development and environment. Children don’t “get over it,” instead they carry the loss and its consequences with them, requiring comprehensive support. The responsibility of caring for grieving youth falls to all of us who have children in our lives. Given that children’s educational and health outcomes are dependent on how society responds — psychosocially and financially — it is critical that benefits are properly allocated towards the support and care of grieving children. As more critical data is released, programs like Good Grief can educate communities and families, ensuring emotional and financial support for those who endure the hardships caused by death.
Despite localized efforts, our country has not put systematic attention to caring for those most in need of support. Grief support centers, evidence-based parenting programs, and Social Security are exactly the right kinds of resources, and we know they provide real help to bereaved families. We call on more systematic attention to addressing the gaps — the places where there is no grief support program or where the programs do not have enough funding or capacity; where parents are not well supported in their efforts to rebuild their families; where bereaved children who are eligible for Social Security never collect it. These gaps follow predictable patterns: Low-income communities of color that are the most beleaguered by violence and systematic disinvestment are also financially and institutionally under-resourced to cope with parental death. We can do better.
When it comes to childhood bereavement, we know the stakes and the moral case is clear. Grief touches everyone, from the children of national treasures like Kobe Bryant to those who are economically destitute. We know why our society should support grieving children, and we know how to do it. New York Life Foundation has made funding for grieving children a top priority by backing community grief support centers as well as evidence-based programs; we call on other funders to join them. Bereavement centers have made community support for grieving families a top priority; civically-minded people should support their local grief support center through the National Alliance for Grieving Children and contribute. Social Security was established as a safety net for children in case the worst happens — the death of a parent or sibling certainly meets that criterion.
For young people who are upset by the death of sports icon Kobe Bryant, recognize that they are grieving too. Encourage them to talk about their feelings with parents, teachers or coaches and each other, give them time to reflect, hold moments of silence, or write condolence notes. There is no doubt that attention and resources should be put to ensuring that every grieving child receives vital, economic support, but we can all begin with even the simplest, small steps. Children’s lives depend on it.
Donna Gaffney, DNSc., is a psychotherapist who works with bereaved families. She served as an advisor to Families of September 11 and was a faculty member at the International Trauma Studies Program and Columbia University.
Joe Primo, MDiv., is CEO of Good Grief, advisor to Optionb.org, and spokesperson for the Funeral Service Foundation.
Irwin Sandler, Ph.D. is a Regents’ Professor Emeritus and Research Professor, directing the Resilient Parenting for Bereaved Families Program at the REACH Institute, Arizona State University.
Jen Sandler, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.