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When a Child’s Parent Dies: Working with Bereaved Children Part 2

“For many parents, understanding a child’s grief while they themselves are grieving demands more energy than they have available.” Arbor Hospice Children’s Program, Ann Arbor, MI

*This blog post is written in the memory of Anise Ojeda Smith, mother, social worker, colleague, friend, daughter, sister, lover of life, metavivor. She lost her battle to breast cancer this last week and leaves behind three children.

Following up on Part 1 of this blog series, art intervention is incredibly helpful to the grieving child/teen in the aftermath of a parental loss. As a graduate school intern at University of Michigan, I got to see firsthand the power of art as a healing modality by providing psychotherapy to children, teens, and families in a hospice setting. Children’s (and adult’s) art is an opportunity to open up a channel of understanding between caregivers and children when words are not enough.

Some of the reason’s why art making is helpful to children who are grieving include:

  • The process of creating art is active, which then in turn provides an opportunity for the child to take an active role in the healing process.


  • The child’s visual image of what s/he understands about the illness (in the event of a terminal illness) allows the therapist and caregivers to clarify misconceptions of the child’s viewpoints, taking into consideration that magical thinking might occur in younger children.


  • A child can physiologically release anger and other “held” emotion by manipulating art materials, such as pounding clay or forming a cancer cell and smashing it.


  • Art serves as a tangible container for internal feelings of grief. Channeling these emotions into art making is guided by the therapist so that it is a safe, healthful experience.


  • The child can create pictures or objects to give to the seriously ill loved one as a way to express caring and loving feelings. 


  • Young children have difficulty verbalizing their emotions because they do not yet have the cognitive capacity to do so in any elaborate way. Older children may feel like it’s hard to express feelings when they feel traumatized by a loss. Because art taps the unconscious, hidden fears, questions, and concerns can comfortably surface allowing the issues to be processed visually so that the child can face and integrate ways to manage the difficulty.


  • The child can gain a sense of mastery and confidence to face any fears they have by giving visual form to imaginary characters in a process known as displacement. The grieving youngster than can talk about the characters and events in the drawing or image rather than about themselves, which can create safe emotional distance.


  • A child can create art, imagining what life will be like after a loved one dies; thus creating a safe arena to explore questions about the future.


  • Because art is tangible and concrete, the child can look at his art again and again, each time gaining a deeper understanding of the grief process (with a trained and skilled grief therapist).


  • A mask can be made to visually depict how expressions generally shown on the outside are often quite different from feelings felt on the inside.


  • Art can be made at the funeral home or place of worship as a way of saying goodbye, placed in the casket or near a memory photo table.


  • Bereaved children can draw memories of the deceased loved one, thus strengthening the memory.


  • Art can be made to explore thoughts and beliefs about what happens to a person’s body and her/his soul/spirit after dying.


  • Memory boxes are helpful to construct in which the child can place treasured objects, photos, and letters to the deceased loved one.


  • Dreams or nightmares can be drawn on paper and talked about as a means of establishing peaceful sleep (constructing a dreamcatcher can also be a symbolic transitional object a child client can take home from a therapy group or individual session).


  • Art is a visual record of the child’s healing through grief.

The above ideas were in part suggested by the Arbor Hospice Children’s Program in Ann Arbor, MI through the University of Michigan School of Social Work. In addition, I can’t stress enough the importance of a child/teen receiving support from a trained compassionate and competent grief therapist who is trained in art intervention modalities (as well as play therapy intervention for younger children). Many hospice programs have anticipatory grief and bereavement programs for children, teens, and adults.


Other helpful references:

The Kid’s Multi-Cultural Art Book by Alexandria Terzian (especially: dreamcatcher, tissue paper flowers, worry dolls)

The Art Therapy Sourcebook and The Soul’s Palette by Cathy Malchiodi

The Child’s Loss: Death, Grief and Mourning by Dr. Bruce Perry

Grief and Children by Kimberly Keith

Grief and Grief Therapy by William Worden

How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies by Therese Rando


When a Child’s Parent Dies: Working with Bereaved Children Part 2

Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently the Lead Counselor at Cal State Maritime Academy, where she counsels college students and leads Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at the integrated Student Health Center. In her private practice, Andrea provides psychotherapy for individuals experiencing trauma and loss. She is also a writer, educator, and podcaster. Website:

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APA Reference
Schneider, A. (2018). When a Child’s Parent Dies: Working with Bereaved Children Part 2. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 Apr 2018
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