Helping a child with special needs cope with grief

Love is a powerful emotion. It binds us together and guides us through even the darkest of times. What happens when you lose someone you love, though? And how do you grapple with the grief of that loss? Further, how do you help your child with special needs manage their emotions when they lose someone they love?


I’ve always believed life is for living. But then one day someone I loved fell ill and suddenly passed away. I was left with grief. That someone was my husband. He was also father to our daughter with Down syndrome.


Grief can be described as sorrow, heartache, pain, or misery. It’s a feeling as unique as the person experiencing it. As you go through grief, the people around you are also dealing with this loss in their own way. There is no set timeline that grief begins and ends. For a child or adult with autism or other form of disability, they may not understand that the person they love is not coming back.


My husband passed away in 2010, just ten months after he was diagnosed with a rare, fast-growing form of prostate cancer. He was 57. My daughter was twelve. Trying to work through my own grief, along with caring for her and getting her the grief counseling she needed, was daunting to say the least. I knew I couldn't do it myself, so I reached out for the help of a grief counselor.


Through our experiences, I have found four valuable qualities to look for in a grief counselor:

  1. Someone who understands how your child sees the world:

    A great grief counselor is someone who understands your child's disability and how they process information. They take the time to learn your child's personality, quirks, responses to stress, and behaviors when they do not want to cooperate or participate.

  2. Someone who has a background in intellectual disability and mental health:

    A grief counselor should understand not only intellectual disability, but also extreme intelligence, as displayed by some children with autism. This will help the counselor and your child have production session and set reasonable, relevant goals for coping with the loss of a loved one.

  3. Someone who can help your child understand how to cope with their loss and grief:

    Grief is a funny thing. It's unique to each person. The right counselor will help your child understand their own loss and provide them with the necessary tools whenever they see or feel challenging behaviors coming up. Open conversations with a counselor will help your child work through their grief in their own specific way.

  4. Someone who will be present throughout your child’s “grief journey”:

    The person you choose to counsel your child through this time should express their commitment to working with you and your loved one. They should be there to make a plan for your child, implement that plan, and give additional support or resources for the family members involved in the child’s grieving period, however long that may be.

It has been a year of wonderful progress. But not a day goes by that my daughter does not say out loud how much she misses her father. Sometimes tears are shed. Sometimes feelings are expressed. There are triggers that will open the wound. It was a long, frustrating struggle to find this person for my daughter, but it has been the best thing I could have done for her.


If you are looking to contact a grief counselor in your area, enter your zip code on this website.