Children and Grief

By David Selberg, CEO Hospice of Santa

Anxiety is the number one mental health factor among children today. They are exposed to information, news, and imagery at a rate that was inconceivable 20 years ago – and most not suitable for their age. Their self-esteem and ‘world view’ can be wrapped up in issues well beyond the schoolyard as they spend more and more time online, playing video games, and on social media. Their top fears include terrorism, kidnapping, and not being accepted by their peers.

So, when you factor in the loss of a parent, sibling, or loved one, the stress for children is only that much greater. In our community, one in five children will experience the death of someone close to them. By the age of 18; one in 20 children will experience the death of one or both parents.

Hospice of Santa Barbara’s Children & Family Services provides no-cost counseling, programs, and outreach designed to address the unique grief of children – led by professional youth counselors and therapists. Our counseling for children offers age appropriate interactions to help them cope through one-on-one dialogue and activities with our staff professionals. The goal is to really help children open up about their loss so that their grief begins to lessen and is normalized to some extent... as well as to minimize the likelihood of unresolved grief manifesting later in their lives.

Hospice of Santa Barbara also offers a safe and nurturing space for children who share a similar loss to interact with one another. Children and teens also develop skills from support groups that allow them to cope with their losses through games, art, crafts, and music. It’s incredibly heartwarming to see these kids as they realize they are not alone in their loss and reach out to each other. You can actually see the healing begin.

Hospice of Santa Barbara has also become active on local school campuses providing professional weekly support groups from elementary to college age students. Our on-campus counseling services create an atmosphere for honest communication. We also work to educate teachers and staff on how best to deal with students’ questions about traumatic death, such as a peer’s suicide or tragic accidents. We are currently able to respond immediately to any and all of the 65 schools from Carpinteria to Goleta who call on us when a traumatic death occurs which impacts students.

One very unique and successful children’s program at Hospice of Santa Barbara is a mentor program called “I Have a Friend.” It was created by my friend and former Hospice of Santa Barbara Executive Director, the late Gail Rink, after she overheard a young boy, who had recently lost his father, speaking to his mother. He asked her, “Will I ever feel normal again?” Gail had the spark of an idea...

A trained adult mentor who experienced the death of a parent or sibling when they were young is matched with a child newly coping with a similar death. The similar journey creates a special companionship with someone who truly understands the loss and related issues and obstacles that may come about as a result of the death. Their common experience can lead to communication and insights that may not be possible with family members or friends. The benefits are two-fold as the mentor him/herself may discover and address their own unresolved issues of grief in the process.

I encourage anyone in our community who has or knows a child that is experiencing the loss of a loved one to contact us. Of course our free programs and services are available to everyone of any age who is experiencing the impact of life-threatening illness or grieving the death of a loved one. For more info call 563-8820 or visit

David Selberg, CEO Hospice of Santa Barbara