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Helping Children Learn to S.M.I.L.E. After Loss

My mother’s passing was my first intimate experience with death.  Gathered in the living room, our family surrounded her to say goodbye during her final moments.  There was an unbearable sadness in me that day. I was heartbroken. It was hard to imagine how my life could go on without her.

Over the next four years, I experienced personal death twice more: Poppo, my graduate school professor, and my father-in-law, a man I affectionately called Bucko. With each loss I gained greater insight, and through the consistent practice of meditation, reflection and prayer, I began to see death with a new perspective.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that saying goodbye is not really what death is about.  Of course in one sense, I did need to say goodbye to my loved ones.  How could I not? They left my physical world.  But with time and healing, I found truth in the age-old adage “time heals all wounds.”  I learned that with love and patience my sadness would eventually lessen, and the loss I felt would unexpectedly transform into acceptance.  In fact, I discovered that I really didn’t have to say goodbye at all. Our relationship hadn’t ended. I just thought it did.

Death is a difficult but natural part of life that impacts everyone. Children mourn and yearn for their loved ones just as we do.  As adults, our natural desire is to protect and shield them from the sorrow and pain that arises when loss occurs. Through the death experience, we have an opportunity to teach our children how to grieve. Our personal religious or cultural beliefs can be helpful to us, but these beliefs vary, as do the explanations of death.  We need to find a way to offer a spiritual framework for children to understand death, while providing them the tools they need to help them to move beyond their grief and feel happiness once again.

As a school counselor, I have worked with many grieving children.  Parents often seek guidance when a loved one has passed. Some struggle to find the words that will help their children understand. I offer to create a memory book with the child, one that embraces the lessons I have learned. In this book, the child explores S.M.I.L.E. – Share, Memories, Imagine, Love, and Enjoy, an approach that provides children with a healthy way to cope with grief.  After all, when we lose someone we love, the best we can hope for is to be able to smile again.

Five steps to help children move forward after loss

Share:  Share your feelings with someone you trust.
Share all your feelings with the people that love you.  Whatever you are feeling, express it through writing, drawing, or talking to someone that you trust. And don’t be afraid to ask questions.  Everything you have to say is important!

Memories:  Remembering keeps your loved one close.
Memories are also important!  Look through old photographs, participate in special traditions, share stories and spend time in places that remind you of your loved one.  It doesn’t matter how you remember, simply that you do!

Imagine:   Use your imagination to create mind-magic.
Imagine! Use mind magic to keep your loved one close in your heart.  Imagine your loved one is with you keeping you company, just like you did when you could really be together. Feel your loved one’s spirit close to you and loving you. Your love for each other will never die.

Love:   Love yourself and others too.
Love and show kindness to yourself and others in every way you can. Remember the love you shared with your loved one, and allow yourself to feel it in your heart now. Practice kindness by smiling, helping others, and by doing things that make you feel happy inside.

Enjoy:  Enjoy your life in a new way.
Enjoy your life in a new way.  Keep your loved once close through your memories. Imagine your loved one is still with you, and feel all the love in your heart.  Find reasons to be grateful for each and every day and for all the good things that come your way.

Moving on after someone dies does not have to feel difficult and scary.  With love in your heart, you can build your own bridge, one that connects you to your loved one.  It’s my hope that everyone reaches for this, and learns to live joyfully in the memories of those they hold dear to their hearts.

Annie Macdonald, M.Ed., is the author of “Poppo’s Memory Book: A Child’s Guide to Remember and S.M.I.L.E. after Loss.”  Visit for more information.