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Loss and death affect us all – regardless of age. However, it can be especially confusing and overwhelming to children who lack the life experience to comprehend the meaning of loss and death, the basic understanding of these complex emotions, and the ability to process these big feelings. Our little ones do not have the skills to understand, identify, manage and regulate all that is swirling inside and around them. They need our help.
As children’s caregivers, it’s our responsibility to guide children through challenging times – and big emotions – by validating their feelings and engaging in age-appropriate ways of helping them understand and cope with feelings, such as loss and grief.
Storytelling is a powerful tool to help children through a traumatic event by allowing them to live vicariously – and safely – through the experiences and emotions of relatable characters in a book. To help children ages 4 to 7 cope with loss and grief, I wrote and recently released my first children’s book, “Gilly and the Garden,” which is the first in the series “The ECSELent Adventures of Hemmy and Shemmy.”
In “Gilly and the Garden,” otter siblings Hemmy and Shemmy are so good at caring for their garden, they take on caring for something more. Yet even when they take the very best care of something they love, the unexpected happens. Through the story, children are able to learn, grow, and develop alongside Hemmy and Shemmy as they experience the ups and downs of responsibility, the peace that can come from learning how to manage a range of emotions, and the way joyful memories can help lessen the pain of loss and death.
Managing big emotions is fundamental to learning and thriving. The characters Hemmy and Shemmy are ambassadors of Housman Institute’s emotional, cognitive and social early learning ‘ECSELent Adventures’ curriculum program. They invite children to join them as they explore, discover and begin to understand and manage the big world of their own emotions and those of others.
In the process, they learn to become the boss of their feelings, both big and small. Each book in the series includes tips for parents and educators on how to use the books to discuss difficult topics and suggested guided questions to help personalize the individual experience of each child.
While the death of a pet, parent, or loved one can happen at any time, it’s my hope that “Gilly and the Garden” is an especially helpful tool to the hundreds of thousands of children in the United States and over 10 million globally, according to a recent JAMA study, who have lost a primary or secondary caregiver due to COVID-19.1
When children are experiencing stress, anxiety, and trauma, all of those unmanaged feelings become roadblocks to their mental health, wellbeing and learning. Before any child, no matter their background or experience, can achieve a sense of well-being and be prepared for their academic journey, they need to have the ability to self-regulate, freeing-up their otherwise cluttered emotionally hijacked brain space so they can focus, concentrate, and persist in the face of frustration.
Understanding and processing traumatic experiences, such as loss and death, isn’t just a matter of setting a child up for academic success. It’s a matter of tending to their mental health, which is just as important as a child’s physical health and can actually impact their physical health into adulthood.