Helping children in care to process grief and loss

Helping children in care to process grief and loss

As a social worker working with children moving onto adoption and before that with children in foster care, I've long wondered how children can be supported to process the feelings of grief and loss of separation.

"Since my return to the UK, I have developed and rolled-out training in grief and loss for social workers across two local authorities."
The author, Georgina on her Fellowship travels Download 'Georgina Hardy'

Separation is painful, and for many children this is not just from parents, but from foster carers, friends and the community in which they were once a part of. I've witnessed the impact of unresolved grief on children, how it can produce trauma-like symptoms that can carry forward into adulthood and have long lasting effects.

Looking into ways to manage unresolved loss and trauma of bereavement for children in care was the focus of my Churchill Fellowship. It took me on an incredible journey to the USA, Australia, Canada, and Finland to look at the innovative ways in which other countries were supporting children with loss and bereavement.

I had some deeply moving and poignant moments on my Fellowship travels. Arizona saw me bear witness to a grief and loss camp for children who had been bereaved called ‘Stepping Stones of Hope’. The camp leader had lost his daughter in a shooting, and through shared personal experience of loss; the attributes of personal growth and transformation were modelled to the children. Shared rituals and activities remembering the loved one helped keep the memory of the loved one alive.

In Arizona, I studied an evidence-based programme, ‘Resilient Parenting for Bereaved Families’, to support children's processing of grief using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques and through strengthening the family unit with concepts such as shared family time.

In Australia, I travelled to the remote outback to train in ‘Seasons for Growth’. This method related grief and loss to the changing seasons, tracking the children's grief journey from the darkness of winter to the hope and light of summer.

A common thread throughout the approaches I explored was ‘Worden's Tasks for Mourning’. This essentially differs from prior grief and loss models as it accepts that grief is never fully resolved, that a person never truly ‘gets over’ losing someone special. The task becomes one of living life under new circumstances, remembering the loved one, and finding hope and joy in the new situation without needing to forget. Ambiguous loss can often be the case for children who are fostered or adopted, and this term captures the experience of separation from the birth family but without the finality of a death. It is particularly difficult for children to process, and this highlights the importance of moving towards more open adoption; so things such as good quality life story work, letterbox contact and the possibility of the child meeting birth parents in the future. We live in a world where social media has fundamentally changed the face of adoption.

Since my return to the UK, I have developed and rolled-out training in grief and loss for social workers across two local authorities. I've co-developed a therapeutic grief, loss and change programme that was run with adopted children during the covid pandemic.

Going forward, I will continue to share the message that traditional models such as trauma, attachment and child development continue to be vital. But we can't lose sight of the very basic tenet of humanity; the sadness of a child missing someone they once loved.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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