Adult and two children kneeling down talking in the outdoors

What is Happening to the Brain During Grief

After the death of a loved one, you may experience many changes in your mental and emotional state of mind. Grief affects the brain in many ways, causing changes in memory, behaviour, sleep, and body function2

Completing routine or simple tasks may seem overwhelming, impossible or might take longer than usual. When you are grieving, your brain is overloaded with thoughts and your memory, concentration, and cognition are all affected, leaving little room for everyday tasks. Grief has such a powerful effect on us, it rewires the brain.

What is grief?

Grief is a natural response to loss, and it is a normal protective process2. Grief involves our emotions, thoughts, behaviours, and physiology. You can experience grief in relation to the death of a loved one (called bereavement) but you can also grief in relation to change and loss, such as grief after a significant relationship ends, or grief after changes to your role in life, such as retirement.

 Grief can also lead to cognitive impacts, such as brain fog. So, lots of different parts of the brain are orchestrating this experience that we have when we feel grief 1

What is happening to the brain during grief?

In response to traumatic events like the death of a loved one, the brain creates connections between nerves and strengthens or weakens existing connections depending on the duration and degree of the emotional response2

A process called neuroplasticity occurs, whereby the brain rewires itself in response to emotional trauma, which has profound effects on the brain, mind and body 2 After a loss, the body releases hormones and chemicals reminiscent of a “fight, flight or freeze” response. The pathways you relied on for most of your life take some massive, but mostly temporary, detours and the brain prioritizes the most primitive functions.

The brain regions affected by grief3

  1. The prefrontal cortex – The decision-making, reasoning and control part of the brain becomes underactive. The limbic system, which is all about survival, takes over.
  2. The anterior cingulate cortex – The emotional regulation part of the brain becomes underactive
  3. The amygdala – The fear part of the brain becomes overactive

Create reasonable expectations

It is important to be gentle and patient with yourself during this time. It may be unreasonable or impossible to expect to complete your normal tasks as you did before your loved one died. Be mindful about setting reasonable expectations and build form there.

When you can complete a task, give yourself a pat on the back and recognise it as a step towards healing. If large tasks are overwhelming, break them into smaller, more manageable chunks. You may also need to rely on strategies such as visual reminders, checklists, calendars and other supports, while your memory takes time to recover.

Healthy brain rewiring

Grief can reinforce brain wiring that effectively locks the brain in a permanent stress response. To promote healthy rewiring, you need to break the cycle. This can involve a whole range of creative and contemplative practices, from painting, to meditation, positive affirmations, or expressions of faith.

Aim small by accomplishing tiny goals which will offer you enough of a dopamine kick to reinforce behaviours. Also, remember that anything is better than nothing. If you find yourself stuck in the stress response, or find yourself avoiding things, consider getting help from a mental (https://psychology.org.au/find-a-psychologist), who can help you reframe your negative thoughts and find ways to cope with stress in healthy ways.

Even though grief has an effect on the brain, it may be helpful to follow strategies to help you navigate your way to a new normal. Feel the Magic offers grief education programs, camps and resources to help grieving children heal. Click here to enquire now.

References

1 Shear, K. M (2012) Grief and mourning gone awry: pathway and course of complicated grief, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 14:2, 119-128, DOI: 10.31887/DCNS.2012.14.2/mshear

2Shulman, L. M. (2021, September 29). Healing Your Brain After Loss: How Grief Rewires the Brain. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://www.americanbrainfoundation.org/how-tragedy-affects-the-brain/.

3Silva, A. C., de Oliveira Ribeiro, N. P., de Mello Schier, A. R., Arias-Carrión, O., Paes, F., Nardi, A. E., Machado, S., & Pessoa, T. M. (2014). Neurological aspects of grief. CNS & neurological disorders    drug targets, 13(6), 930–936. https://doi.org/10.2174/1871527313666140612120018

Mother’s Day Without Mum: Growing with Grief

Grief is a natural response to loss and can be an extremely challenging experience, especially on significant days like Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day and Grief

Mother’s Day can be a difficult day for children and teens who have experienced the death of their mum, or other maternal figure in their life like a step-mum, auntie or grandmother. It can be a time when grief is brought to the surface, emotions are heightened and may be a confronting reminder that their loved one is no longer here.

Despite the sadness and challenges that a day like Mother’s Day can bring, many grieving children can also experience ‘post-traumatic growth’ leading them to experience full and rich lives after the loss and tragedy and allowing them to grow with their grief in new ways.

Growing With Grief

Post-traumatic growth refers to the positive psychological changes people can experience following a struggle through a life-altering or traumatic experience. Although post-traumatic growth might occur following the death of a loved one, this does not mean it minimises the pain, suffering, and impact of such a significant loss.

While it is true that not everyone will experience post-traumatic growth after a loss or other negative event, it is a possibility for many, especially when they receive appropriate support and intervention.

Post-traumatic growth does not mean that the grieving process is easy or that the loss is any less painful. It simply means that there is the potential for growth following a difficult experience.

Feel the Magic Camper Emily lost her mum when she was just eight years old.

In a moving letter to her late mum Susan, Emily shared how she has taught her nanna and cousins her mum’s sausage roll recipe, listens to her mum’s favourite songs and has found a song that symbolises her mum in hers and her dad’s eyes.

Emily is at high school learning new things and meeting new people. She is now old enough to ride with her dad on the back of the Harley Davidson to visit her mum at the cemetery.

Emily with her mum Susan
Emily with a photo of her my Susan

Emily can smile again. Emily said:

“There’s just something that people need, and I think Camp Magic is probably one of them. You get a lot of people just being around you. You know that they have been through the same thing as you and you feel just really comforted by that. It’s taught me that nothing is too far out of reach, you just got to do it and just reach for your dreams, honestly. I’m very proud of myself”.

Emily’s dad Geoff said:

“It really helps me to know that she is in the best hands. They are able to reassure you that things will get better. She has done extremely well, the way she has coped, the way she has used the tools that Feel the Magic have given her is just absolutely fantastic”.

Emily speaking at Night of Magic 2022

Some of the ways that people may experience post-traumatic growth after the loss of a family member include:

  1. Deeper relationships: Loss can bring people closer together, as they support each other through the grieving process. This can result in deeper and more meaningful relationships, especially as they grow older.
  2. Increased sense of purpose: Some people find that going through a difficult experience such as grief helps them to clarify their priorities and find a greater sense of purpose in life. For some people, this may also lead to changes in study or work to better align with their values and goals.
  3. Greater resilience: Going through the process of grieving can be incredibly difficult, but it can also help people develop resilience, coping skills, and self-soothing strategies that can be useful in other areas of life or during subsequent challenging times.
  4. Increased gratitude and appreciation: When someone experiences a significant loss, they may develop a greater appreciation for the time they have with loved ones and for the beauty of life in general.

It is important to not jump into the possibility of growth immediately following the death of a loved one. However, helping grieving children and adolescents to develop post-traumatic growth can make a significant difference to their futures.

How to support a bereaved child and encourage growth with grief

Implementing these suggestions could help encourage growth and positive outcomes in bereaved children:

  • Social support – Fostering an environment of social support for bereaved children and adolescents is recommended to promote post-traumatic growth after traumatic life events. This may include having trusted adults to talk to about big emotions or having positive social friendships with peers.
  • Resiliency skills – Adults can be instrumental in helping children develop post-traumatic growth by teaching resiliency skills such as teaching positive emotional regulation skills, helping children name emotions and develop their emotional literacy, modelling help-seeking behaviours, and helping them identify their triggers and early warning signs of distress.
  • Early Intervention – Early interventions are often helpful for addressing trauma symptoms in children, and professional support may be required for some people. Helping a child process and make sense of a loss might help reduce feelings of excessive guilt, assist life transitions, and help them make new meaning of their world.
  • Offering praise and hope – When your child makes a positive coping statement or demonstrates self-soothing behaviour, it is a good idea to offer them praise and recognition for these healthy choices. It is also recommended to speak of the future and make plans. This can help counteract the common feeling among children that have experienced a traumatic event that the future is scary, bleak and unpredictable.
  • Parent/guardian self-care – it is important to take care of yourself and manage your own distress too. The use of self-regulation skills and self-care activities and seeking support is modelling an effective way to respond to trauma for your child. By taking care of your own emotional health and well-being, you’ll be better able to help your child.

If you are looking for tips to support a grieving child on Mother’s Day, read our blog: Remembering Mum and Coping with Grief on Mother’s Day.

Read More

Supporting Children and Teens Through Grief, Anniversaries and Significant Events

7 Things to Consider While Helping Children Deal with Loss

How to Help a Grieving Child or Adolescent

A man, woman and child standing smiling on a hillside

Remembering Mum and Coping With Grief on Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day can be an incredibly tough day for children and teenagers who have lost their mum.

This special day for so many can bring up a lot of emotions for grieving kids. It can make them feel isolated and can be hard for them to navigate without feeling overwhelmed.

Grieving kids are not alone

It is important for them to know they are not alone. There is a community of other kids in similar situations, feeling similar emotions, that get it.

Sadly, 1 in 20 kids in Australia will experience the death of their mum or dad before they turn 18.

Feel the Magic exists to create a community where grieving kids and their families can connect, feel supported and empowered, to begin to live healthily with their grief.

As one Feel the Magic parent said, “We can’t believe this network exists to provide free programs for kids just like her.” And from another parent, “Going to Camp helped Jesse understand he’s not alone in his grief journey. Being grouped with other kids who have experienced a similar situation to losing his mum has given him the opportunity to share his feelings and experiences with people who truly understand how he feels”.

Remembering mum

Children can take comfort knowing that they can keep their mum’s memory alive and celebrate her love and legacy in their own way.

Feel the Magic Camper Emily remembers her mum in her own special ways.
Emily cooks her mum’s sausage roll recipe, just like she used to make. Emily has even taught her nanna and cousins her mum’s recipe. Every time Emily makes them, it brings back memories of her and her mum cooking in the kitchen.

Emily also likes to play her mum’s favourite songs “I Believe In a Thing Called Love” and “Lady Marmalade” – they are both on Emily’s Spotify playlist.

Emily with her dad and mum

A teenage girl holding a photo framed of her mother standing outdoors with trees behind her

Emily with a photo of her mum Susan

How to support a bereaved child on Mother’s Day

Special days, anniversaries and events can be a tough time for anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one, especially for children without a parent. But remembering a lost loved one can provide comfort and meaning during challenging times.

Each child experiences grief differently. It’s important to remember that they might not have the emotional tools or words to express their feelings which is why finding special ways to remember mum on Mother’s Day can be helpful.

This guide is designed to help children and teenagers to honour and remember their mums on Mother’s Day, with helpful strategies to navigate the day.

  1.  Do things that remind you of your mum on Mother’s Day

Doing things that remind you of your mum on Mother’s Day can help you feel closer to your mum. Putting your mum’s favourite flowers in a vase, cooking your mum’s favourite dinner, listening to her favourite music, or doing an activity that she enjoyed or you used to do together, are different ways of remembering your mum on Mother’s Day and maintaining your connection with her.

  1. Do whatever you want on Mother’s Day without pressure or expectations

For some people, it will be a sad day, for others it may be a happy day, and some people will feel neither happy nor sad. Similarly, for some people it will be a day to remember mum, whilst others may want to avoid it. Each year, one’s feelings and desires will change and be different for everyone. It is important that you do what feels right for you. There is no right or wrong way to feel and there is no right or wrong way to spend Mother’s Day. 

  1. Make a special card in memory of your mother

In the lead up to Mother’s Day, the shops and Mother’s Day stalls at schools may be overwhelming for children bereaved by the death of their mum. Even if your mum has passed away, you still have a mum. Buying a card allows you to think about your mother and connect with her. Writing a message to her, whatever you want to say, is a beautiful way of expressing your love for your mum. You could write an update about your life, or share a special memory you have together, or simply talk about how you’re feeling. This process might make the shops and Mother’s Day stalls at school a little easier. Children and teens might also want to celebrate other important women in their life on Mother’s Day, such as an aunty, grandmother or caregiver.

  1. Talk about your mum

Mother’s Day can be a good opportunity to talk about your mum to family, friends, or people who knew your mum. Talking about your own memories with your mum or hearing about other people’s memories is a beautiful way to remember her on Mother’s Day. You might learn things you didn’t know before, such as what she was like as a child.

  1.  Avoid social media on Mother’s Day

For adolescents in particular, it may feel like they are bombarded with social media posts of friends and their mums. If you think that seeing other people’s Mother’s Day posts might cause you distress, try to limit your use of social media on Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day can be a difficult time for kids who have lost their mum. Although their physical presence may be missing, their mum’s love and presence can stay with them in their hearts. Remembering the happy times spent together and the love mum gave can bring a sense of comfort and healing.

For further guidance, read our blog on Supporting Children and Teens through Grief, Anniversaries and Significant Events.

Read More

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What to Expect When Children Grieve

Helping Kids Cope With Grief: Episode #701 Happy Families Podcast


Group of six men in cycling gear on top of a hill

Magic Ride 2023 aims to raise $150k to send 100 kids to Camp Magic

Magic Ride kicks off at 8.30 am on Thursday 13 April 2023. 33 riders will cycle 500km over four days to raise $150,000 to fund 100 kids to attend Camp Magic, Feel the Magic’s signature three-day camp for grieving kids.

Riders will cross the finish line to the cheers of Campers at Camp Magic, Birrigia Outdoor School, Tharwa on Sunday 16th April at 1.50 pm.

Raising funds to support grieving kids and families

Adam Blatch, Chief Executive Officer Feel the Magic, who is also part of the dedicated riding crew, is grateful to the 33 riders, their donors and support crew for their commitment and effort.

1 in 20 kids in Australia will experience the death of a parent before they turn 18, that’s just over 300,000 children or one in every classroom. Based on this, we are all likely to know a family affected by parent loss. In addition to this, kids also experience sibling loss.

Bereaved young people commonly suffer challenges including anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, which contributes to the nearly one-quarter of young people in Australia who experience some form of mental health challenge. We aim to reduce the mental health challenges associated with childhood grief and provide the education, support and community for kids to live healthily with grief”.

Mike Tomalaris, Australian news and sports presenter has anchored the world’s biggest annual sporting event on Australian television for 26 years and seen the Tour de France coverage develop to be the spectacle it is today.

Mike will join the riding crew on day four, Sunday 16th April cycling 67km to arrive at the finish line at Camp Magic, Birrigai Outdoor School, Tharwa ACT.

Magic Ride – A Vital Community Fundraiser

From its beginnings in 2020, Magic Ride has become a vital community fundraiser to help fund camps, research and resources for grieving kids and families. All Feel the Magic camps, programs and resources are free of charge (and some camps are virtual) so there is no barrier to families seeking the support they need.

Since 2020, the generosity of Magic Riders, sponsors and supporters has enabled Feel the Magic to:

  • Raise almost $282k so far
  • Fund 4 Camp Magic camps
  • Educate 188 children through the Camp Magic experience

Read more about Magic Ride 2023 and Feel the Magic in the press release.

Helping Children Navigate Their Grief

The Power of Reading: Helping Children Navigate Their Grief

Grieving is a process that unfolds differently for every child and adult. Grieving children and teens might find it difficult to talk about their loss right away, and some may show signs of fear and need extra reassurance. 

Reading books about death and loss can help a child better understand what has happened and realise that they’re not alone.  

Some children might be ready to connect with books immediately after the death, others might be more ready in the weeks and months following the death. Either way, books can serve as tools to help children process their grief and feel less alone. 

Reading books can show grieving children characters who have experienced something similar. Books can also help children understand complex feelings, explain the facts and permanence of death, or even help children connect with memories of their lost loved one.  

Here are some tips for choosing helpful books and some recommendations for various age groups.

Books for children aged 4-7 years olds

Around this age, children begin to develop an understanding of death. Younger kids might feel responsible for the death of a loved one, or they might have magical thoughts that their behaviour could bring the person back. 

Tips for choosing helpful books for 4–7 year olds 

Look for books:

  • that help explain the basic facts about death 
  • in which characters feel multiple feelings simultaneously. Books can help kids understand that it is possible, and normal, to feel many things at once 
  • that show there is no “right way” to feel, grieve or express sadness or worry
Woman and child standing together smiling wearing blue Camp Magic tshirts
Mentor and Camper at Camp

Book recommendations

Books for children aged 8-12 years

Bereaved children within this age group generally understand that death is permanent. However, they might still have confused or magical thinking that something they could’ve done differently would have prevented the death. They might fixate on the details of their family member’s death.  

Man and child standing together smiling wearing blue Camp Magic tshirts
Mentor and Camper at Camp

Tips for choosing helpful books for 8–12 years

Look for books that:

  • feature characters that the child will see their own culture, family structures, and life experiences reflected.  
  • allow characters to express a range of emotions and behaviours after experiencing a loss. This is important to show children that there is no “right way” to process grief. 
  • are age-appropriate for individual children both in content and reading abilities.  

Book recommendations

Books for children aged 13-17 years

It is important to approach bereaved teenagers with compassion while maintaining boundaries. It is common for grief to manifest as anger in teens, and they might withdraw from school or act out in disruptive ways. Encourage them to find ways to express what they are feeling, and if they are willing to share with you, actively listen and validate the emotions being expressed.

Tips for choosing helpful books for 13–17 years 

  • feature characters that the child will see their own culture, family structures, and life experiences reflected.   
  • allow characters to express a range of emotions and behaviours after experiencing a loss. This is important to show children that there is no “right way” to process grief.  
  • are age-appropriate for individual children both in content and reading abilities.    

Book recommendations

Some reflection questions

Reading can be used as a fun way to encourage young children and teenagers alike to talk about the death of their family member and their grief with a parent or other trusted adult.

We have compiled some questions you can give your child that will help them connect more with the book they’ve read and allow them to express feelings.

  1. It can be confusing to feel more than one feeling at once, like the character in the book we read. What are some feelings that a person may feel at the same time? Would you like to share anything about times when you have felt more than one feeling, such as feeling angry with someone and missing them, or feeling sad about something but happy at the same time?  
  1. What did the character feel after the loss? How did those feelings change over time?  
  1. It is hard to feel big feelings. How did the characters in the book feel? How do their feelings affect their behaviours? Have you noticed any ways that your feelings and behaviours are connected? Are there certain things that you do when you feel sad, angry, or confused?  
  1. What strategies did the character use to cope with their feelings? Which of the strategies seemed to be the most helpful for this character?  
  1. What would you like to say to the character experiencing grief? What things did other characters say or do that were the most helpful to the grieving character?  
  1. Would you like to talk about, write about, or draw any of your favourite memories of the person who died? Is there another way that you would like to remember or celebrate that person  
  1. How did the loss affect the character’s feelings of safety or security?  
  1. How did the character continue to feel connected to their loved one or to remember them after the death? How can you remember loved ones after they die? What can you do to stay connected to them and celebrate their memory?  

Helping children navigate grief through books allows them to feel connected with others, giving them the confidence to express difficult feelings like anxiety and anger. For more advice on how to help your child cope after a parent or other family member has died, visit our Grief Resource Hub.

Read More

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What to Say to a Child When a Parent Dies

A Guide on How to Teach Children About Death

Adult and child sitting on the floor talking

A Guide on How to Teach Children About Death

Teaching children about death requires honesty and simple, age-appropriate information. 

Understanding your child’s knowledge and comprehension of death at different developmental stages is helpful when supporting your child through their grief. 

Understanding death at different ages 

Preschool-aged children mostly understand death as temporary and reversible. Children between the ages of five and nine begin to understand that all living things eventually die, however, they tend not to relate death to themselves.

Children at around the age of nine through to adolescence begin to fully understand that death is irreversible, and they too will die one day.  

6 Ways to Teach Your Child about Death 

  • Take things slowly 

The first step when teaching a child about death is to have a firm grasp of their cognitive and emotional understanding of death. Use this information to guide you, as well as patience and persistence. 

Children process death gradually over time. Don’t sit them down once, overwhelm them with information and expect them to internalise it all immediately. 

Over a certain period, expect your child to ask various questions. Answer them consistently. As painful as it is, answer them honestly because it will help them start to grasp the finality of death.  

  • Be honest and clear 

Use simple, clear and direct words when teaching a child about death. It is also important to pause and give your child a moment to take in your words. Try to avoid euphemisms like, ‘She’s in a better place,’ because they can be scary and confusing for children. 

Use the word ‘death’ to avoid confusion. You could say “Your dad died. When people die their body stops working and you won’t be able to see them again”. If your child responds by asking whether the person’s body can be fixed, say “when a body stops working, it can never start again”. Click here to read the blog ‘What to Say to a Child When a Parent Dies’.  

  • Build Emotional Literacy 

By consistently labelling and modelling your own emotions, you are acting as an emotional role model for a child. Labelling some of your own feelings will make it easier for a child to share theirs. 

Another way to build emotional literacy is to use “feelings cards” or illustrations to introduce emotion vocabulary to children. Asking a child to describe what they are feeling is an important part of developing emotional literacy. If a child sees you cry, explain what you are feeling and why. An important part of teaching children about death is to show them that it is acceptable to cry and grieve. 

  • Explaining death and the body 

Consider your child’s age and maturity when helping them understand the physical aspect of death. Begin this part of the conversation by making sure the child understands that the body of the person who died does not work anymore and will never work again. 

Depending on your spiritual beliefs, you can also talk about what you and your family believe happens after death. An important part of teaching children about death is to try and make death a part of normal conversations with children. 

  • Explaining funerals 

An important part of teaching children about death is explaining funerals and memorial services. Clear descriptions of what will happen (e.g., religious symbols, casket, black clothing etc.) are helpful as children thrive on knowing what to expect. Remember, you don’t have to talk about everything at once. 

Explain the service in age-appropriate terms to help alleviate some of the anxiety that comes from not knowing what to expect. Let children know that they may feel a wide range of feelings as well, or they may not feel anything at all. Explain that sometimes our feelings come weeks or even months later.  

  • Children try to make sense of death by asking questions 

Teaching children about death often comes with questions about their own mortality and the death of others close to them. It is important to teach your child that some people only die when they are very old or very sick, but we will all die one day.  

Children may also wonder what happens when you die and how you answer this question depends on your personal or spiritual beliefs. Some children may find comfort in having something to focus on when thinking about a person who died, for example “when we see a star in the sky, we can think about Mum and how much she loved us”. However, avoid direct euphemisms which can confuse children (such as saying the stars in the sky are mum).   

For more support on how to teach children about death, read our guide How to teach children about death

If your family has experienced the death of a loved one, you and your child need to know that you are not alone. Feel the Magic support families through the difficult period following a death, and support children as they grieve the death of a loved one. Click here to find out more about our bereavement programs.  

Read More

What to Expect When Children Grieve 

Overcoming the Isolation of Grief: 7 to 9 years 

Overcoming the Isolation of Grief: 10 to 13 years 

Overcoming the Isolation of Grief: 14 to 17 years