Editor's note: This article was adapted from Barbara Schiller's "A Grip on Grief: How to Help Children Cope with Loss" on the Center for Single Parent Family Ministries. It was reprinted from Single-Parent Family, August 1995, a Focus on the Family production.

With downcast eyes, 11-year-old Chad walked into the classroom one Monday night during “Just Me & the Kids,” a 12-week support ministry for single parents and their children.  He was pale and had dark circles beneath his eyes. 

Chad began to argue with the other children, insisting he didn’t need to attend the class. Determined to convince the others they didn’t need to be there either, he jeered, taunted and lashed out at everyone. 

Chad was angry.  But determined as Chad was to leave, Michael, his leader, was just as determined to be his friend.  Over the next three months, Chad’s grief began to unfold.  Confused and disoriented by his parents’ emotionally charged divorce and the family’s subsequent relocation, he even tried suicide.  His mother took the advice of a caring psychiatrist and enrolled him in “Just Me & the Kids,” where Chad wrote this poem: 

Questions 

Should people hate me because I’m white? 

I can’t understand why people want to fight. 

Is Jesus really God’s Son? 

Will I ever reach 21? 

Why is my heart trampled and torn? 

And why does my dad not love me anymore? 

Is it something I did or something I said? 

And why is everyone only interested in getting to bed? 

So I say to the world with all my heart, 

Keep us together or we’ll be far apart. 

As the author of “Just Me & the Kids,” I offer leadership training and conferences to church staffs and educators to help them understand the unique needs of single-parent families.  My conferences provide beneficial information to single parents and their children.  While conducting these seminars, I see and hear stories like Chad’s too often. 

How can we help our children grieve following divorce?  Why do they exhibit certain behaviors?  Are there practical ideas we can use in the home, school and church to assist our children?  I believe there are, and with God’s help, children like Chad can again find hope. 

Claudia L. Jewett, in her book Helping Children Cope With Separation and Loss (1982, The Harvard Common Press, Harvard, Mass.), says that children often experience three “phases of grief” when they go through a loss.  With each phase, she identifies behaviors and practical ideas to assist in understanding these stages.  The phases are early grief, acute grief and integration of loss and grief.  The duration of each depends on how many losses the child has suffered and how much continued strife occurs between the parents.

Phase 1: Early Grief 

According to Jewett, there are four common reactions in children – shock, alarm, denial and hyperactivity that is physiologically related – that indicate whether they are experiencing early grief. 

Shock and Numbing.  Children who find out Mom and Dad are getting a divorce go into emotional shock.  These children, normally outgoing and gregarious, become sullen and withdrawn.