U of T nursing researcher partners with children’s grief network to understand childhood grief in Canada
Kimberley Widger, an associate professor at the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing at the University of Toronto, is partnering with the Canadian Alliance for Children’s Grief (CACG), to better understand the prevalence of children’s grief across Canada, and the types of support or lack thereof, available to children who experience grief at a young age.
To paint a picture of what childhood grief looks like across the country, the study, funded by a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will look at the prevalence of childhood grief in specific populations and regions, using data from Statistics Canada to identity what Widger describes as a baseline, for how many children are experiencing grief. To do this, the researchers will adapt the Judi’s House/JAG Institute Child Bereavement Estimation Model to the Canadian context and Widger and the CACG, will also look to map out where child grief support services are available geographically to determine if there are major gaps in support resources that need to be addressed.
“Not every child needs formal grieving supports,” acknowledges Widger, who’s own research expertise focuses on pediatric palliative care, “but without knowing how many grieving children are out there, it is very hard to have a plan for the resources needed to provide optimal support.”
Previous evidence indicates that children may experience delayed grief reactions or grieve in what Widger describes as “grief puddles.”
“They can jump in and out of grief. One day, or even minute, they might be super happy, another they might be deeply immersed in their grief and sadness. CACG and their partner organizations can provide important tools for the children themselves and for parents and professionals to help them cope with those big feelings,” says Widger.
How children are supported in their grief has significant impact on their life trajectory, with research pointing to links between childhood grief and an increased risk of anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns over the short and long term.
Deirdre Thomas the Executive Director of the Canadian Alliance for Children’s Grief notes that very little research on children’s grief is available for a Canadian context, which further emphasizes the need for and importance of this study. It is also, she says, an important step in building a greater network of supports and resources for grief professionals that can reach Canadians from coast to coast.
“As an alliance, our mission has always been to bring a sense of unity to what is really a fragmented sector, so that we can also provide the best resources and support for children,” says Thomas. “Digging deeper into the data will tell us how many children are expected to experience the death of a family member from an illness like cancer, where there may be opportunity to provide support even before the death happens, versus the number expected to experience a more sudden death from a car accident or suicide which will allow us to advocate for greater customization of services.”
These supports are often community based and can include children’s grief camps, children’s grief centres, psychologists, school counsellors, and parental support. In populations where death rates are known to be high, particularly in communities that remain heavily impacted by the opioid crisis, intergenerational trauma, and high rates of youth suicide, a lack of grief support and resources can be particularly detrimental.
As part of the study Widger and Thomas will be joined by a study team and advisory group made up of diverse set of researchers and representatives of various populations and communities including two young adults who have experienced grief as children, to ensure that the findings of the study are communicated in a way that is beneficial for the population it is meant to serve.
“This study is truly a launchpad for future research around children’s grief,” says Widger. “It will also raise awareness not only of how many children are grieving but will also help the adults in their lives recognize the potential issues that can arise from unaddressed grief and ignite further conversations about grief supports and resource access.”