Have we taught our children the wrong lessons about grief?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Grief Recovery

In my article about the book Hatchet, I discussed the impacts of unresolved grief. In addition to the immediate emotional pain, we also find ourselves limited in our ability to experience joy. Our ability to concentrate - or to connect with those around us - is also frequently impacted. We can even find that colors, scents, and everything around is muted.

The good news is that grief recovery is a powerful way of “completing” grief and regaining joy and vibrancy in our lives. I've experienced this myself and seen how it's benefited others I’ve helped.

This personal recovery has been profound. However, there are even more profound reasons to pursue grief recovery: the impact of adverse experiences on young people.




What are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?

Per Dr. Colleen Bridger, ACEs fall into the following broad categories:

  • abuse (physical, emotional, and sexual) and/or neglect (physical and emotional), and 
  • household dysfunction (mental illness, mother treated violently, divorce, incarcerated relative, and substance abuse).

(Graphic from the Center for Disease Control.)

Despite our greatest desires, divorce can have long-lasting impacts on our children.

In studying ACEs, people are asked to consider their life experience and count how many apply to them to determine what their ACE score is.

One study found that only 36% of people had zero ACEs, while over 20% had 3 or more. ACEs cause toxic stress in a child’s body, stress that is strong, persistent, prolonged and/or frequent without support from a trusted adult. In the developing mind of a child the toxic stress from having experienced multiple ACEs can cause significant and life-altering damage.

Dr. Bridger explained: “We know that increased stress hormones leads to chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation leads to chronic disease” (source).

Under such heightened stress, the brain is constantly telling the body that it needs to be afraid. As a result, the minds of the children are developing in an environment of ongoing fear and anxiety. As this child develops in these circumstances, they are in search of things that allow them to block or not feel these difficult feelings. This very frequently leads to them engaging in very risky behaviors.

(Graphic from the Center for Disease Control.)

As more is learned about the effects of ACEs, some schools are training their staff to approach differently students that are acting out. Instead of saying: “What’s wrong with you,” they ask: “What’s happened to you?” This leads to very different types of interventions which often yields much better outcomes for these young people.


There's more to consider

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, Surgeon General of California, pediatrician, and stress researcher provided the following graphic in a 2021 written statement. It shows the factors by which a person with at least 4 ACEs are likely to have the 10 leading causes of death in the United States.

(Link to graphic.)

One study showed that high cholesterol will increase a person’s likelihood of dying from heart disease from 39%. Dr. Burke Harris’s research shows that 4 ACEs increases the risk 210%! The risk of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia is 11.2 times greater and suicide is over 37 times more likely for people with at least 4 ACEs.

She further states:

Research has also indicated that the higher the ACE score, the more likely the individual is to experience mental health issues such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, sleep and eating disorders, and to engage in risky behaviors such as early and high-risk sexual behavior and substance use.


You can see why this is such an important issue.

For greater detail on this topic, I highly recommend these three videos (all from the same presentation given by Dr. Bridger).


So, How Does Grief Recovery Relate?

The first time I heard about ACEs was during my certification training to become a Grief Recovery Specialist — and specifically in relation to one of the programs I offer: Helping Children With Loss.

Unlike the Grief Recovery Method (which focuses on healing a specific loss), Helping Children With Loss is an education program which provides adults (parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, anyone that works with or has children in their lives) with tools to help children.


How Does Helping Children With Loss Help?

The child benefits when teachers, parents, aunts, and church leaders know how to support them during tough times. This prevents them from carrying the weight of unresolved grief, reducing the impact of ACEs. Instead of causing harmful stress, negative events, when guided by caring adults, can become sources of strength and resilience for the child.


Are we ready to help our children cope with grief?

Here are some weighty questions to consider:

  • What do we say to our children when there’s a suicide in their school?
  • When the parents of their closest friend get divorced?
  • When they don’t get into the school or sports team of their choice?
  • When they grandmother or pet dies?
  • Do we try to fix everything?
  • Do we use intellectual ideas to address emotional pain and loss? Probably, because that’s what have heard or experienced throughout our lives.

    But there are much better approaches.

    Wouldn’t it be a wonderful gift to their to have the skills and confidence to help them in those times of profound need?

    Here’s a testimonial for the Helping Children With Loss program from the Grief Recovery Institute’s website:

    I have only briefly tried to apply these learnings as our class recently finished. The program opened my eyes to things that I had not considered. It helped reframe how I thought about certain things.

    The first time I read about a couple of the ideas I wasn't in agreement and so I questioned them and even after the answer was given I still wasn't sure, however by the end of the course and having read the book and done the work I was convinced.

    I have a new and I believe better perspective that will help me be a better teach for children and a better person overall. e.g. knowing that I don't need to "fix it" is a huge relief. Confirming things I already believe and try to practice e.g. listening with love and kindness gave me confidence and flexibility to absorb and practice new/different ideas.

    Of particular importance are the foundational tools: Emotional Energy Checklist and "Letter". These tools will help ensure that I stay of track with the best way to help children. Lastly, this class led me to sign up for The Grief Recovery Method course which I believe will help me help children better because I will soon be in a better place myself.

    An Invitation

    ACEs are very common in our society. The unfortunate truth is that children of divorced parents will likely have at least some ACEs and may suffer long-term negative impacts as a result. We should remember that these lasting impacts can be much more serious than sadness and a heavy heart. They can cause serious health problems and contribute to unhealthy behaviors.

    We have it within ourselves, along with the Helping Children With Loss program, to aid these children at the moment of their greatest need and greatly reduce the effects of ACEs. The Helping Children With Loss program is a powerful tool for change.

    Reach out today to get started.

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