Taking notes from Option B: Tips for families facing loss.

With the release of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Option B, co-authored by psychologist Adam Grant, a new public conversation about grief, loss and resilience is being ignited. Sandberg, who unexpectedly lost her husband Dave two years ago, shows unfiltered vulnerability and brings us into the disruption, uncertainty, and confusion that the death caused her and her family.

As a clinician (Donna) and bereavement program administrator (Joe), we witness every day the serious and enduring impact that grief can have on children – particularly when it goes unaddressed. New York Life Foundation research shows that bereaved children frequently express feelings of guilt, loneliness and worry, and often act out in unproductive and potentially dangerous ways.

For children to thrive in the face of loss, it is critical for the family to serve as a safe haven, a place and space that is protected, encourages and builds resilience, finds joy and learns to live in a newly reconfigured structure. The following tips from New York Life’s bereavement partners illustrate how families coping with a loss can build a healthy environment where children and parents can work together toward a “new normal.”

  1. Embrace a New Family Dynamic

    The death of an important person in our lives can deconstruct our family identity and the way we relate to each other. A component of healthy adaptation to the “new normal” means forging meaning and embracing both who we were and who we are becoming.

    In Option B, Sandberg attests to the importance of building new family traditions within a new family structure. She and Grant call attention to Dr. Irwin Sandler’s Family Bereavement program at Arizona State University – a partner of the New York Life Foundation. Designed to promote resilience in bereaved children and their parents, Sandler’s program is one of the most thoroughly evaluated of its kind, with proven lasting benefits for children and adults alike.

    Sandler emphasizes, “The most powerful resilience resource for children is their surviving parent.” And how do parents accomplish this monumental task of building resilience in their kids? “By picking up the pieces and developing a new family structure that is safe and supportive.” Tips on positive parenting from the program include:

    • Create routines of positive and warm interactions among family members
    • Regularly schedule family time, an opportunity for the family to be together, take a break and just enjoy activities and each other
    • Practice active listening with your children; listen to what is happening in their lives and what they‘re feeling and show you understand
    • Catch your children being good – praise and reward children’s successes and accomplishments
  2. Encourage Children’s Empathic Capacity

    Children have the capacity to be empathetic, even at a very young age and even at the most difficult times in their lives. They show us that they can take the perspective of another person as well as imagine what they might be feeling. In Sandberg’s case, awareness of her children’s capacity for empathy was a source of personal hope.

    New York Life Foundation partner Dr. Julie Kaplow, Director of the Trauma and Grief Center for Youth at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, studies protective factors that help bereaved children adjust to their “new normal” following the death of a parent. Kaplow’s work shows that, incredibly, over time children are naturally able to transform their tragic circumstances into meaningful life lessons.

    Kaplow identifies strategies parents can use to help facilitate their children’s grief:

    • Meet your children where they are; remember that family members can, and usually do, grieve in different ways
    • Identify positive traits, characteristics, or behaviors that your child has in common with the parent who died
    • Help your children maintain a healthy connection to their deceased parent; use videos, letters and photographs as comforting reminders, when they’re ready
    • Model good self-care and give yourself permission to enjoy life again
    • Help your children identify “life lessons” and make meaning of their loss
  3. Draw on the Power of Community

    Sandberg and Grant propose that resilience is an investment in our children, our future, and ourselves: “Collective resilience requires more than just shared hope – it is also fueled by shared experiences, shared narratives and shared power." While the death of a loved one might be intimate and personal, our way forward and through grief is something that takes community.

    Our society pays close attention to public tragedies, but rarely takes note of the deaths affecting families and children that occur every day. Until our culture engages with and understands all losses – common and universal – we need to keep building external support systems.

    In many ways, Option B is a rallying cry for more resources to support families, parents, and children to persevere through an experience that puts them at risk during their acute grief and for the remainder of their lives, if they go unsupported.

    Community programs where kids can be with others who are going through similar experiences are critical – they can be found in nearly every state, although many more are needed. Key community stakeholders also need to be educated about how to support those who are grieving in their midst. For example, children spend the majority of their waking weekday hours in school, yet school professionals are often not prepared to care for their grieving students. New York Life recently spearheaded the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, a major collaborative effort to bring industry-endorsed online resources to educators across the nation so that grieving children can be better supported within their school communities.

    “To fight for change tomorrow we need to build resilience today,” according to Sandberg. The stories within Option B and the work supported by the New York Life Foundation point to one clear and final case statement: we become resilient and endure adversity by building community. There is much to be done, together, but we all have to get to work for the sake of our kids and the sake of our humanity.

Dr. Donna Gaffney

Dr. Donna Gaffney has long addressed loss and grief in the lives of children and their families; as a psychotherapist she has counseled young people in the aftermath of individual tragedies and national disasters such as the Challenger explosion, the Pan Am 103 crash, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. In addition to academic publications, Donna is the author of The Seasons of Grief, Helping Children Grow Through Loss. Donna holds masters degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University and Rutgers University and earned her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. Her post-doctoral work includes the Prudential Fellowship for Children and the News at Columbia Journalism School and the International Trauma Studies Program. In addition to her role as Managing Director, Education and Programs at Project Rebirth, she is a consultant for the New York Life Foundation and works with families, schools and professionals affected by trauma, loss and violence.

Joe Primo

Joe Primo is the CEO of Good Grief in Morristown and Princeton, New Jersey, and the former president of the National Alliance for Grieving Children. He is the author of “What Do We Tell the Children?: Talking to Kids About Death and Dying.” Primo was a hospice chaplain at both the Connecticut Hospice and the Hospice of Southeastern Connecticut. He received his masters of divinity from Yale University.