Resources in Resilience


Talking With Children About Loss by Maria Trozzi

By Steve Hardy, Member of One Summit Board of Directors

By Steve Hardy, Member of One Summit Board of Directors

Maria Trozzi was a featured speaker at the Mentor Dinner the night before One Summit’s first Climb for Courage in 2014. She has counseled grieving children since the 1980s, when she founded the Good Grief Program at Boston Medical Center. She soon became a nationally renowned speaker on resilience after loss — for children, families, schools, and communities. Talking With Children About Loss (Penguin 1999) put into writing all the knowledge and experience she had accumulated in her first fifteen years of working in the field.

While informed by research, the book unfolds largely through stories about the kids and families Trozzi has counseled. Stories of Janie, Sally, and Valerie, of Keith, Joseph, and Sam, of DeeDee and Paulie, of Ryan and his family. Of dads and moms trying to make homes for their children after their spouse dies. Of siblings struggling to make sense of life — and their life — after the death of a brother or sister. She offers chapters on loss to chronic illness, stigmatized disease (AIDS or suicide), events with multiple casualties — whether by natural cause or terrorism – and what she calls “nonovert losses” of parental love and presence through divorce, estrangement, or disease.

Long ago, researchers and counselors moved away from a stage-based model of grief. Instead, Trozzi adopts Dr. Sandra Fox’s four tasks that children work through as they mourn: “(1) understanding what caused the loss, (2) grieving or experiencing the painful feelings associated with the loss, (3) commemorating the value of the loss, and (4) going on with life by accepting and integrating the loss psychologically and emotionally within themselves.” (Pg. 10) She devotes separate chapters to each task, offering stories that illustrate how adults may hinder or help children impacted by loss. She is clear that the tasks are not linear and vary in complexity depending on the child’s experience and age.

A good example of Trozzi’s narrative is the story of the McCormick family — parents Beth and Scott and siblings Amanda, Jodie, and Ryan. Seismic trauma struck them when Ryan was diagnosed with Hepatocellular Carcinoma at age seven, triggering a courageous two-year battle of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Trozzi’s fifteen-page chapter describes the family’s journey of “anticipatory loss” through Ryan’s struggle, death and beyond. It poignantly depicts the difficult discussions about prognosis, the new normal of uncertainty and debilitation and the loops of anger, withdrawal and resilience. Ryan asked many hard questions about life and death that no parent is fully prepared to answer. Trozzi’s advice is helpful:

“Remember that kids ask only what they are prepared to hear. Our job, a difficult one, is to listen carefully in order to make sure we understand what they’re asking…We need to let the child lead us!” (Pg. 139)

Sisters Amanda and Jodie experienced the complex life shared by many One Summit siblings: the loss of parental time, the mixture of confusion, concern and jealousy about the attention paid to Ryan. Each girl faced their new, harsh reality in their “own individual style” based on “their unique relationship with [Ryan], their ages and stages of development, their temperaments, their needs, and their coping skills.” (Pg. 135)

Each Climb for Courage includes siblings, who we hope can bond with their brother or sister and their mentor in ways that build their resilience for this long, hard journey. And as Trozzi notes, all too often, the siblings become survivors. In this and other sections, she offers lessons to parents. In this case:

"Don’t overwhelm surviving siblings with parental grief, which blocks their ability to mourn and realize that you are a safe person who can help them work through their loss."

"Recognize that survivors might experience guilt and think of themselves as inadequate brothers or sisters."

"Encourage survivors to share their confusion, jealousy, and fears, although these feelings might hurt or distress you."

"Don’t expect or encourage survivors to compare themselves with, live up to, or replace a brother or sister who has died."

"Encourage survivors to be the unique youngsters they are, and value them for who they are."

"Recognize that survivors have suffered a double loss: that is: they have lost the sibling and their parents as they knew them before."

Talking With Children About Loss is filled with compelling stories and helpful lessons for all of us.Have a Resource in Resilience you would like to share? Email