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SAMHSA’s Award-Winning Newsletter
July/August 2010, Volume 18, Number 4 

image of young boy with forlorn expression

Responding to Childhood Traumatic Grief

A car accident. A neighborhood shooting. A long battle with cancer. Children can lose loved ones—parents, siblings, grandparents, even friends—in a heartbeat. What happens then?

When someone special dies, it can be an extremely painful experience for children. And when the death results from a traumatic event—or when children experience the death as traumatic—they may show signs of both grief and trauma.

Experts from SAMHSA’s National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) have studied children’s traumatic grief experiences and released a free information package, The Courage to Remember: Childhood Traumatic Grief Curriculum Guide with CD-ROM.

The materials provide specific guidelines and options for interventions to:

  • Educate providers about the symptoms of childhood traumatic grief to guide care and treatment.
  • Introduce others—medical and psychological professionals, parents, caregivers, school personnel—to principles of treatment that have been identified as helpful. Effective treatment requires attention to both the child’s traumatic stress over the circumstances of the death and the child’s grief over the loss of the loved one.
  • Offer practitioners an opportunity to enhance their treatment skills.
cover of The Courage to Remember training curriculum

What Is Childhood Traumatic Grief?

According to NCTSN, childhood traumatic grief is a condition in which children who lose loved ones under frightening or unexpected circumstances develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress that make it difficult to move through the typical grieving process.

Symptoms like replays of frightening thoughts about the event, nightmares, anxiety, anger, withdrawal from friends and family, and emotional distance can hinder the child’s ability to grieve the loss fully.

Children experiencing traumatic grief may have extreme or intrusive thoughts or recurring images associated with the death of their loved one. In addition, they could replay over and over again a car accident they witnessed. Or, the child may experience stressful physical reactions, such as fatigue, illness, or changes in eating habits. And, children may try to avoid thoughts, feelings, or places that remind them of the trauma and, by extension, the loved one who died.

Traumatic reactions make it difficult for children to remember or enjoy positive memories, cope with their loss, and continue with normal development. They may become “stuck” in the grieving process, perhaps coming to believe, for example, that they can’t cope with their emotions so they bottle them up inside throughout their lives.

Helping Children Move On

For caregivers, medical personnel, and educators, being able to recognize the problem is the first challenge. And with appropriate help, children experiencing traumatic grief can recover and move on.

You’ll find the following materials in the training curriculum.

  • “It’s OK to Remember,” a video meant for a general audience, provides an overview of the causes and consequences of childhood traumatic grief along with information about the promising treatments.
  • “The Courage to Remember Training Video” is for those seeking advanced training in treatment techniques for childhood traumatic grief. It is recommended for either individual or group training use by medical, mental health, bereavement, and pastoral care personnel.
  • Accompanying curriculum guide materials are provided in print as well as in PDF format for printing from the CD-ROM.

Each video is 35 minutes long, and the print materials total more than 80 pages. To order this curriculum, call 1-877-SAMHSA-7 (1-877-726-4727). Ask for publication number SMA-4303.

For more information, download NCTSN’s Childhood Traumatic Grief Educational Materials.

About the Network

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) is a SAMHSA-funded initiative that seeks to raise the standard of care and improve access to services for traumatized children, their families, and communities throughout the United States.

Established by Congress in 2000, NCTSN is a unique collaboration of academic and community-based service centers. Its Web site provides information for health care professionals, parents and caregivers, educators, and the media, as well as an entire section of resources for military families.

Visit NCTSN’s Web site to download fact sheets, training curricula, and other products for helping children heal from trauma.

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