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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 137 JULY 2010 / BACK
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Gone but not forgotten: Children's experiences with attachment, separation and loss

Mary Louise Branch and Sabrina A. Brinson

Attachment, separation, and loss are critical life events for many young children. This article discusses prevalent factors of separation and loss and their potential harmful effects on development. Also, books and resources geared for children are suggested to help early childhood professionals facilitate resolution with affected children and their families.

"Mama, Mama, it’s me!” Pam’s mother died three months ago, but every time she sees a blue car like her mother drove, she races over to it and bangs on the window.

Tia happened to see her mother for the first time in a month at a gas station and she had promised to be home when Tia got out of school. Tia perched by the door all evening and well past midnight. She hopped out of bed every time she heard a noise, hoping it was her mother.

Many think children are not really affected when they lose loved ones. Unfortunately, these real life examples indicate that they are. Whether it is due to a loss such as a death or a separation due to substance abuse, the severing of an attachment to someone special can impact a child. The possible harmful effects on development, attachment, separation, and loss have become major issues for young children and demand early childhood professionals to heighten awareness, discuss prevalent factors, and seek out child-friendly books and resources to help facilitate resolution with affected children and their families.

Attachment, separation, and loss
Concepts of attachment include social, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral components. Attachments are defined as close enduring bonds, especially those formed between infants and primary caregivers (Strong, DeVault and Sayad, 1998). Attachment is viewed as a part of social relationships in which a less skilled individual relies on a more competent and stronger one for protection. Behaviors also become more complex as relationships develop and patterns of interaction are formed. Goldberg (2000) reports that children experience emotional ties and create an internal representation of a relationship; each participant engages in behaviors that maintain the relationship. Therefore, children with secure attachments show more self confidence and are less dependent than insecurely attached children.

Children generally experience distress from separation from a primary caregiver or other attached individuals. Children who have been separated from significant others in their lives, like parents, may also experience physical distress as a result. Therefore, when a separation occurs in a child's life, it is a priority that a secure attachment with another loved one is maintained because it provides a level of protection during the separation. Without this protection, the separation may cause problems for young children such as bed-wetting, depression, and constipation.

Loss due to death is a part of everyday life for children and adults. Yet, it is a topic that society as a whole tries to shield from children. Christian (1997) reports that most professionals agree that it is healthy for children to be involved in the death and grief process. Experts in early childhood and death education provide the following suggestions to help children understand death (Charkow, 1998; Christian, 1997; Goldman, 1996; and Staley, 2000):

  1. Keeping their developmental levels in mind, be honest with children about the death and be patient when they are processing the information.

  2. Reassure children that the remaining adults will take care of them.

  3. Understand that children grieve in their own way. Young children in particular may be very physical and respond to death by being angry, restless, not sleeping or eating, or experiencing separation anxiety.

  4. Express your own feelings to children and reassure them it is okay to cry or be sad.

  5. lf children are old enough, let them decide whether they want to attend the funeral or memorial service

  6. Help children cope with death in concrete ways by letting them draw pictures, write letters, or make a scrapbook about the person who has died.

  7. Be sensitive to the different ways various cultures face death.

  8. Realize that it takes a long time for children to process a death. As they obtain new cognitive skills at different developmental stages they may need to work though their perceptions of death again. Also, new questions may arise that should be answered by comforting adults.

Prevalent causes of separation and loss
lt is important to consider primary factors that cause children to be separated from loved ones. For example, a large number of children experience separations due to divorce, alcoholism or substance abuse, life threatening illnesses, and incarceration.

Implications for educational practices
Early childhood educators must be aware of the comprehensive considerations in all domains. To illustrate, cognitively, a second grader with a mother who is drug-addicted may find it difficult to really concentrate on phonics if he is constantly wondering about his mother’s safety. Physically, a first grader formerly known as a finicky eater may suddenly develop a hearty appetite via “comfort foods” after his parents' divorce. Emotionally a preschooler may be whiney tearful, and fretful due to an extended separation from a parent, and this “anxious” behavior may continue off and on for days or even for weeks. Socially a third grader may have a hard time trying to ignore the playground whispers about his father’s “mysterious death” and the frantic shrieks when he tries to sit near classmates during lunch. A variety of developmentally appropriate activities help children work through commonly experienced emotions like anger, anxiety, betrayal, confusion, depression, frustration, loneliness, and withdrawal (Brinson, 2000). Namely books model coping strategies for children learning to deal with powerful emotions. Books also provide information and help address questions (Jalonga, 2004). For example, young children's emotional issues can be eased with helpful books like The Day I saw My Father Cry by Bill Cosby (2000). It deals with the passing of a loved one in a warm, nurturing manner that reassures children it is okay to express grief (Brinson, 2002). Therefore, to ameliorate concerns that may impede the overall progress of affected children, early childhood educators should:

A growing number of children are experiencing separations from or loss of loved ones. Early childhood educators can work with children in safe, nurturing environments to facilitate their engagement in the process of healing. Also, theme-related children's books and resources like the ones profiled below can help children resolve issues with loved ones related to attachment, separation, and loss.

Attachment to loved ones
Buehner, C. (2001). I want to say I love you. Illus. Jacqueline Rogers. Phyliss Fogelman Books.

Curtis, J. L. (1996). Tell me again about the night I was born. Illus. Laura Cornell. Harpertrophy.

Duncan, A. F. (2005). Honey baby sugar child. Illus. Susan Keeter. Simon & Schuster.

Hooks, B. (2003). Homemade love. Illus. Shane W. Evans. Jump-at-the-Sun.

Jordan, D. and Jordan, R. M. (2004). Did I tell you I love you today? Illus. Shane W. Evans. Simon & Schuster.
Martin, B. and Archambault, J. (1997). Knots on a counting rope. lllus. Ted Rand. Henry Holt and Co.

Mora, P. (2001). Love to mama: A tribute to mothers. lllus. Paula S. Barragan. Lee & Low Books.

Smith, W. (2001). Just the two of us. lllus. Kadir Nelson. Scholastic.

Steptoe, J. (2005). Sweet, sweet baby! Illus. By the author. Cartwheel.

Tsubakiyama, M. H. (1999). Mei-Mei loves the morning. lllus. Cornelius Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu. Albert Whitman 8: Company.

Separation from loved ones
Lansky, V. (1998). It's not your fault, Koko bear. lllus. Jane Prince. Book Peddles.

Masurel, C. (2003). Two houses. Illus. Kady MacDonald Denton. Candlewick Press.

McCormick, W. (2002). Daddy, will you miss me? Illus. Jennifer Eachus. Aladdin.

Ransom, J. F. (2000). I don’t want to talk about it. lllus. Kathryn Kunz Finney. Magination Press.

Spinelli, E. (2004). While you are away. Illus. Renee Graef. Hyperion.
Tompert, A. (1992). Will you come back for me? Illus. Robin Kramer. Albert Whitman & Company.

Weninger, B. (1995). Good-bye daddy. lllus. Alan Marks. Michael Neugebauer Books.

Woodson, J. (2002). Visiting day. Illus. James Ransome. Scholastic.

Woodson, J. (2002). Our Gracie aunt. Illus. Jon J. Muth. Jump-at-the-Sun.

Woodson, J. (2004). Coming 0n home soon; Illus. E. B. Lewis. Putnam Juvenile Books.

Loss of loved ones
Barron, T. (2000). Where is grandpa? Illus. Chris Soenpiet. Philomel.

Fifth Grade Students of Smith Road Elementary School in Temperance, Michigan. (2000). Angel in blue (The story 0f Ashley Martin). Illus. By the authors. Scholastic.

Hermes, P. (1982). You shouldn’t have to say good-bye. Illus. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Jules, M. (1985). Blackberries in the dark. Illus. Thomas B. Allen. Random House, Inc.

Mathis, S. B. (1986). The hundred penny box. lllus. Leo & Diane Dillon. Puffin Books.
Nodar, C. S. (1992). Abaelita's paradise. Illus. Diane Paterson. Albert Whitman & Company.

Puttock, S. (2001). A story for hippo: A book about loss. lllus. A. Bartlett. Scholastic.

Schweibert, P. and Deklyen, C. (2001). Tear soap: A recipe for healing after loss. lllus. Taylor Bills. Grief Watch.

Smith, P. (2003). Janna and the kings. lllus. Aaron Boyd. Lee & Low Books.

Woodson, J. (2000). Sweet, sweet memory. Illus. Floyd Cooper. Jump-at-the-Sun.

Resources to assist with attachment, separation, and loss issues
Black, C. (1997). My dad loves me, my dad has a disease “A child's view: Living with addiction. 3rd. ed. Mac Publishing.

Brown, L. and Brown, M. (1996). When dinosaurs die: A guide to understanding death. Illus. By the authors. Marc Brown.

Brown, M. (1998). Dinosaurs divorce: A guide for changing families. Illus. Laurene Krasny Brown. Little, Brown, and Company.

Bryant-Mole, K. (1999). Talking about death. Raintree/ Steck Vaughn.

Dougy Center (Eds.). (1999). 35 ways to help a grieving child. The Dougy Center for Grieving Child.

Franklin, N. B. (Ed.). (1995). Children, families, and HIV/AIDS: Psychological and therapeutic issues. Guilford Press.

Gardner, R. A. (1975). The talking, feeling, and doing game. Childswork/Childsplay.

Grollman, E. A. (1996). Bereaved children and teens: A support guide for parents and professionals. Beacon Press.

Hall, L. and Cohn, L. (1988). Dear kids of alcoholics. Illus. Rosemary E. Lingenfelter. Gurze Books.

Heegard, M. (1988). When someone very special dies children can learn to cope with grief. To be illustrated by Children. Woodland Press.
Hickman, W. M. (1990). When Andy’s father went to prison. Illus. Larry Raymond. Albert Whitman & Company

Lansky, V (2000). Vicki Lansky's divorce book for parents. Book Peddlers.

Lowry, D. (2001). What can I do? A book for children of divorce. Illus. Bonnie J. Matthews. Magination Press.

Moe, J. and Pohlman, D. (1989). Kid's power: Healing games for children of alcoholics. ImaginWorks.

Mundy, M. (1998). Sad isn’t bad: A good-grief guide book for kids dealing with loss. Illus. R. W. Alley. Abbey Press.

Sederman, M. and Epstein, S. (2002). The magic box: When parents can’t be there to tuck you in. Illus. Karen Stormer Brooks. Magination Press.

Silverman, J. (1999). Help me say goodbye: Activities for helping kids cope when a special person dies. Illus. by the author. Fairview Press.

Typpo, H. M. and Hastings, M. J. (1994). An elephant in the living room: A leader’s guide for/helping children of alcoholics. Hazeldon.

Yaffe, M. R. and Haade, F. L. (2000). When a parent goes to jail: A comprehensive guide for counseling children of incarcerated parents. Illus. Barbara S. Moody. Rayve Productions.


Brinson, S. A. (2000). Brave hearts: Healing the hurts of violent child abuse. Tennessee’s Children, Winter. pp. 13-15.

Brinson, S. (2002). Live to read. TOP: Tips on Parenting, 4, 4. pp. 4-5.

Charkow, W. B. (1998). Inviting children to grieve. Professional School Counseling, 2, 2. pp. 117-122.
Christian, L. G. (1997). Children and death. Young Children, 54, 4. pp. 76-80.

Cosby. B. (2000). The day I saw my father cry. Illus. Varnette P. Honeywood. New York: Scholastic.

Goldberg, S. (2000). Attachment and development. London: New York. Arnold, Oxford University Press.

Goldman, L. E. (1996). We can help children grieve: A child-oriented model for memorializing. Young Children, 51, 6. pp. 69-73.

Jalonga, M. (2004). Young children and picture books (2nd ed). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Lilly, E. and Green, C. (2004). Developing partnerships with families through children's literature. Upper Saddle, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.

Pedro-Carroll, J. L., Sutton, S. E. and Wyman, P A. (1999). A two-year follow-up evaluation of a preventive intervention for young children of divorce. School Psychology Review, 28. pp. 467-477.

Seymour, C. (1998). Children with parents in prison: Child welfare policy, program, and practice issues. Child Welfare, 77. pp. 469-493.

Snell, T. (1994). Women in prison. (Special report). Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Staley, L. (2000). Time to say good-bye. Childhood Education, 76, 3. pp. 170-171.

Strong, B., Devault, C. and Sayad, B. (1998). The marriage and family experience (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2000). Incarcerated parents and their children. Special Report NCJ 182335. Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Justice.

This feature: Branch, M.L. and Brinson, S.A. (2007). Gone but not forgotten: Children's experiences with attachment, separation and loss. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 16, 3. pp. 41-45.

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