Bereavement Program

The Children's Hospital Bereavement Program provides compassionate support and guidance to bereaved parents and family members following the death of a child.

Our program offers individual and family support from Child Life Specialists, as well as education, community referrals and support groups to those who are grieving and searching to find meaning after this devastating life experience. 

The links below offer helpful information about the grief process, support programs, remembrance services and other resources. If you have any questions, please call our Child Life Department at 423-778-6814 or email childlife@erlanger.org.


Burial and Funeral Planning

Preparation for Burial

Before you fully understand your loss, you have to make decisions; calling a funeral home, selecting a casket, choosing clothing.  These tasks are very difficult, but necessary. They may even help to force your grief out.

Children Attending the funeral

The answer to this tends to be yes, children should be made a part of the funeral. As a guide, let the child look (1) who wants to, and (2) who can understand a simple explanation.  Use concrete words with children, like death, not coming back, forever. Avoid words like sleeping, a child may then be afraid to sleep, or God took her, they may then hate God.  The child must understand that death cannot be changed back to life. This may be painful, but the child is entitled to know. 

 
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What to Expect, Ways to Help

The follow are suggested ways to provide support to children after the loss of a loved one. They are only guidelines. It is important to remember that parents know their own child the best and children develop at different rates.

Newborn to Three Years

Child’s Perception: Infants and toddlers can sense when there is sadness, and anxiety in the home.  They can also feel when a significant person is missing. 

  • No understanding of death.
  • Absorbs emotions of others around them.
  • May show signs of irritability; crying.
  • May exhibit changes in eating, as well as in bowel and bladder movements.
  • Requires physical care, affection, reassurance.

Providing Support:

  • Keep normal routines when possible.
  • Frequently give affection and reassurance.
  • Ensure there is a warm, loving caretaker when parent is not available.
  • Model healthy coping behaviors.

Three to Six Years

Child’s Perception: Child thinks death is reversible; temporary, like going to sleep, or when a parent goes to work; believes that people who die will come back.

  • “Magical Thinking”- believes their thoughts, actions or words may have caused the death or that the death is punishment for bad behavior.
  • Greatly impacted by parent’s emotional state.
  • Has difficulty handling spiritual concepts.
  • May experience regressive behaviors, bed wetting, security blanket, etc.
  • Difficulty talking about how they feel, therefore may act out of feelings.
  • Increased aggression and irritability.
  • Will ask the same questions repeatedly in efforts to begin making sense of situation.
  • Only capable of showing sadness for short periods of time, will escape in play.

Providing Support:

  • Keep normal routines when possible.
  • Provide opportunities to play and draw.
  • Read books on death and loss with child.
  • Help to verbalize feelings and fears; gently discuss “magical thinking.”
  • Be honest.
  • Be tolerant of regressive behaviors.
  • Give affection and reassurance.

Six to Nine Years

Child’s Perception: Child begins to somewhat understand death.

  • Fear that death is contagious and other loved ones will “catch it” and die.
  • Very curious about the body.
  • Connects death with violence.
  • Asks more detailed questions.
  • Guilt - may blame themselves for death.
  • Continues to have difficulty expressing feelings, which may cause aggression.
  • Afraid to go to school or be away from home.
  • Continues to have difficulty with spirituality.

Providing support:

  • Talk and ask questions with child.
  • Make sure child does not feel responsible in any way.
  • Identify specific fears; allow them to share bad dreams.
  • Provide opportunity for play, drawing, and art.
  • Be honest.
  • Help them with positive memories of the deceased.
  • Model healthy coping behaviors.
  • Avoid saying things like, “Don’t worry, things will be okay,” and “You are such a strong boy/girl.”
  • Use honest words.  Avoid “Your brother went to sleep and is now in heaven.”  They are not able to understand what that means yet.

Nine to Thirteen Years

Child’s Perception: Child’s understanding is nearer to adult understanding of death. They are more aware of finality of death and impact the death has on them. Concerned with how their world will change with the loss of the relationship, “Am I still a big sister/brother?”

  • Fewer questions and a fragile independence.
  • May at first seem as if nothing as happened.
  • Beginning to develop an interest in spirituality.
  • Disrupted relationships with peers; uncomfortable being at school.
  • Increased anger, guilt.
  • Self-conscious about their fears.

Providing support:

  • Encourage discussion, writing or drawing of their feelings.
  • Allow for regressive behaviors.
  • Be honest and tell a child when you do not have the answer.
  • Relieve child from attempts to take over adult responsibility.
  • Model healthy coping behaviors.

Thirteen to Eighteen Years

Child’s Perception:  Adolescent has adult perception of death.

  • Increased risk taking in effort to reduce anxiety.
  • May act indifferently to the death of someone close as a protection against fear.
  • Wants to grieve with his/her peers, not adults.
  • May need permission to grieve.
  • Feels anger, depression.
  • Escapes; drives fast, uses drugs or alcohol, sexually acts out.
  • Denial - tries not to think about it, doesn't’t want to talk about it.
  • Questions religious beliefs.

Providing Support:

  • Don’t assume they can handle everything themselves and their problems without support.
  • Be available, but don’t push.
  • Help them find peers who will support their feelings.
  • Give permission for regression.
  • Be honest and say when you do not have an answer.
  • Assist in relieving adolescent burden of adult responsibility.
  • Help with reckless behavior.

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Celebration of Life

Children’s Hospital holds a Celebration of Life every two years. This is a time the staff of Children’s invites families who have lost a child at Children’s Hospital to come and remember them and celebrate them. This remembrance is usually held in September or October at the Children’s Hospital on a Sunday afternoon.

The event features refreshments, memory tables to share items and a picture, a balloon release, gifts, and a special ceremony. If you would like more information on this event, please contact: childlife@erlanger.org or call 423-778-6814.

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Camps

 

  • Camp STARS (Sharing Together as Real Support) - When a loved one dies people grieve and often struggle to cope. Camp STARS helps families understand that their feelings of loss are normal and that they are not alone. We provide a safe environment for families to meet others in similar situations and learn how to grieve in emotionally healthy ways. 
  • Camp MAGIK - This camp gives children and teens the opportunity to meet to talk and process their grief. Six counseling sessions are held by professional counselors throughout the weekend. However, time will also be spent on play and fun activities such as archery, canoeing, a ropes course, hay rides, campfires and a talent show. Each camp session is divided into two groups, one for ages 7-11 and one for ages 12-17.
  • Camp Cocoon - This is a weekend camp for children and adolescents, ages 6-17, who have experienced the death of a loved one. Campers have the opportunity to meet peers who are going through similar loss situations. While having fun in a safe and caring environment, campers begin to feel comfortable sharing their stories and learning from their peers who understand what it’s like to experience bereavement. 

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Support Groups

The Compassionate Friends of Chattanooga

When a child dies, at any age, the family suffers intense pain and may feel hopeless and isolated. Compassionate Friends provides comfort, hope and support to every family experiencing the death of a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, or a grandchild. It's mission is also to help others better assist the grieving family. Learn more on the Compassionate Friends website or Facebook page.

Perinatal and Neonatal Bereavement

The Perinatal and Neonatal Bereavement Program sponsored by Children's Hospital is available 24/7. To learn more, call our Bereavement Coordinator at 423-778-5149.

Moments to Share

This free, no commitment, support group is for parents, families, and friends who have experienced a pregnancy or neonatal loss. The group meets at 7 PM on the fourth Thursday of each month at the Ronald McDonald House.

Healing Hearts Family Night / Hospice Programs

This is an excellent family support group offered by Hospice of Chattanooga. The group meets at Hospice from 5 – 6:45PM on the first and third Thursday of each month. Each session includes dinner, followed by break-out meetings for children 5 and up, teens and adults. For more information, visit the Hospice website, or call 423-805-7112. Hospice offers many other programs to help adults and children deal with grief. Learn more on the Hospice Calendar of events.

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National Resources

  • The Dougy Center provides a safe place for children, teens, young adults and their families who are grieving a death to share their experiences. This is done through peer support groups, education, and training.
  • Healing Hearts for Bereaved Parents is dedicated to providing grief support and services to parents who are suffering as the result of the death of their child or children.        
  • Open to Hope Foundation is a non-profit foundation with the mission of helping people find hope after loss. We invite you to read, listen and share your stories of hope and compassion

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