Supporting Child Bereavement – When Children Suffer Loss.

One of the stand out stories from Series Two of Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds is that of Scarlet, whose mother died of cancer not long before the filming began, and the relationship that she formed with Lark Hill resident Beryl.

It was a great pleasure to get to know both Scarlet and Beryl and watch that relationship develop throughout the experiment.

Scarlet’s dad, Tim, said that he wanted her to take part in the experiment as it would give her (and her family) something else to focus on other than their grief.

We also hoped that the relationships that Scarlet made with her peers and the older adults would give her lots of opportunities to process and manage some of the things that she might be thinking and feeling.

As a Headteacher I had experienced childhood bereavement a number of times. Of course, each child is different and reacts in a different way. Also, the circumstances surrounding the bereavement can be very different and this also needs to be taken into consideration when you are supporting a child through this really difficult time.

Some of the children in my school lost a parent to sudden death, some following a prolonged illness like cancer and one to murder. The different circumstances of their parent’s death required unique knowledge to help us to understand what had happened and be in the best place to support those children.

Of course, it is not only the death of a parent that can effect the children that we know and work with, it can be equally difficult for them to process the bereavement of any close family member or friend.

Courtesy of Winston’s Wish

Statistics tell us that over 100 children per day have a parental bereavement in the UK and in the job that we do, we are likely to know one of those children sooner or later.

It makes sense then for us all to be prepared. I know that it is not a nice thing to think about and perhaps that makes us less likely to devote time to ensuring that we are in the best place to support children who are in this situation.

Dealing with this sort of emotion is hard. Whilst researching this blog post I cried when I watched this One More Minute video.

I cried again when I read some of the children’s books that I reviewed below.

I don’t want to think of any child having to go through that level of trauma, but they do and we need to be as equipped as we  possibly can be to support them.

Luckily, there are lots of places that you can go to now to get really useful information to help with things like training, policies and resources that we can use, not only in the event of a child being bereaved of a parent, but to support our teaching around the normality of life and death.

Although death is a very emotive and difficult situation for lots of people it is also a very ‘normal’ and certain part of life. We should include the concept of death as part of what we talk to children about – and not wait until an event occurs. Children will often spontaneously volunteer information about a death they have experienced, sometimes when you least expect it! This is a great opportunity to talk openly with them – and it makes sense to be prepared.

We know that unresolved or badly resolved issues around grief can have a profound effect on emotional and mental health long in to adulthood. As death is such a certainty in our everyday lives we should talk about it more, in a way that is appropriate to the audience we are talking to.

There are some great websites out there that offer information and training on and around bereavement. A couple that I thought were really good were.

Winston’s Wish – www.winstonswish.org

Winston’s Wish was the UK’s first childhood bereavement charity – supporting bereaved children since 1992.

They say:

As the first charity to establish child bereavement support services in the UK, we continue to lead the way in providing specialist child bereavement support services across the UK, including in-depth therapeutic help in individual, group and residential settings.

Winston’s Wish have also produced this activity book ‘Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine’ that is full of activities and ideas for children who have experienced a bereavement.

Child Bereavement UK – www.childberevementuk.org

They say:

Child Bereavement UK supports families and educates professionals when a baby or child of any age dies or is dying, or when a child is facing bereavement. Every year we train more than 9000 professionals, helping them to better understand and meet the needs of grieving families.

 

Childhood Bereavement Network – www.childhoodbereavementnetwork.org.uk

They say:

Most young people will have been bereaved of someone close to them (a parent, sibling, grandparent, friend, teacher) by the time they are 16. Many will cope well with their loss, but all will need the support of those around them.

All of the above sites also have links to other information that you should find useful.

I have also been having a look at some of the books that are available, not only for use when a child experiences bereavement, but also to have available for regular reading and sharing.

Children might well want to revisit these books again and again, but due to how their content might be interpreted, these are definitely a ‘planned’ read, rather than a book that you just grab to share on the spur of the moment!

 

There are gorgeous classics like Judith Kerr’s ‘Goodbye Mog‘ which talks about how a family cope with the loss of their beloved cat ‘Mog’. The loss of a pet is something that lots of children will have experienced. For some it is their first encounter with bereavement. As the children are not thinking about the loss of ‘human’ family member, it can be easier for them to discuss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In ‘No Matter What‘, Debi Gliori deals with the concept of unconditional love that goes on even after death. The subject is explored through the relationship between a mother fox and her cub. The cub listing a range of fanciful and often humorous scenarios and asking his mother if she would still love him, his final question being:

“But what about when we’re dead and gone, would you love me then?”

It is a really lovely story looking at the concept of love and a gentle way to introduce the idea of death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In ‘Always and Forever‘ Debi Gliori is the illustrator and Alan Durant the writer. He tackles death head on in a story about a group of woodland friends Otter, Mole, Fox and Hare who live happily together until Fox becomes ill, goes out into the woods and doesn’t come back. This is a really honest story written specifically for young children. There is nothing ambiguous about where Fox has gone. The other characters find his body in the woods and bring him home. Alan Durant deals sensitively with the other animals feelings after Fox’s death and then how they go on to remember and celebrate his life. It is a very well and appropriately written book.

 

 

 

 

 

The Heart in the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers tells the story of a young girl’s grief at the loss of her grandfather. The text is brief – it’s the beautiful illustrations that tell the whole story. This is a book that you will definitely need to talk to the children about. The girl puts her heart into a bottle to keep it safe while she is sad, eventually taking it out again. Although illustrated, this story is about humans rather than animal characters so very relatable. The concept may be a little abstract for lots of children, but the book will provide you with a wealth of things to talk about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laura Olivieri’s book Where Are You? could not be described as abstract. It is a simple, honest account of the death and loss of a parent. She wrote it following the suicide of her husband because she couldn’t find a suitable book to share with her son.

She says that her ‘best advice on dealing with this most sensitive and universal subject is to be kind, truthful and available. Explain things simply, without graphic detail. Most children will indicate what they need to know, when they need to know it and when they have had enough.

That is exactly what she does in her book.

 

 

 

I am sure there will be other great examples of books and resources that we would all find useful. So, if you know of any then please leave a comment and let us know what they are.

I look forward to you seeing how Scarlet’s relationship with Beryl develops over the rest of the series.

If you have any other ideas or recommendations for resources that will help adults to support children who are experiencing loss then please share!

 

Alistair

 

 

Filed under: ABC Does A Blog, Bereavement

13 Comments

  1. Two books that I love which deal with the theme of ‘loss’ are ‘The Paper Dolls’ by Julia Donaldson and ‘Grandad’s Island’ by Benji Davies. Neither of them deals with ‘death’ as such, but are both good preparation for the reality in life that things/people we love won’t always be with us, but won’t be forgotten.

    More explicitly dealing with the theme of death is the story of ‘Waterbugs and Dragonflies’ by Doris Stickney, which was shared with me as a child when I lost my sister to cancer. It deals with the inevitability and irreversibility of death (and I notice that Child Bereavement UK have an adapted version of it available for free on their website as a pdf).

  2. I think this is so important. My brother died suddenly and I wrote a poem for my 5 year old niece that was then beautifully illustrated into a book by a talented friend. My niece said the book made her feel happy and special inside, which was more than I could have dreamed. I’ve got a “Mummy” version and a “Daddy” version of them now – and people who have seen them have suggested I should get them out there to help other children, but I’m not really sure where or how! I read the poem/book at my brothers funeral for my niece. If nothing else, it’s helped her, and me on our journey and being an early years leader in school, it equipped me to help another little girl who was in a similar situation. I also loved the Debbie Gliori book no matter what, it enabled a big chat with my daughter about my brother.

    • Thanks for sharing Tanya. That is a really special thing to do for your niece and so lovely that it helped her to process her grief.

  3. A lovely post Alastair. When we were given a terminal diagnosis for my husband the folk I worried about most were our granddaughters aged 2&4. They knew he was ill and we never pretended he would get better only answering their questions honestly. We made a book with every photo from the iPad and phone that had them and grandpa as well as others and called it remembering grandpa! We also bought Badgers Parting Gift and their mum and dad read it to them in the weeks up to his death. They have adjusted well and always talk about grandpa and the joy is they bring no baggage. One asked if I needed a cardboard grandpa so I didn’t need to eat on my own and the younger granddaughter often chats about him when we’re in the car. I believe we need to be honest with children and not use euphemisms that can confuse children!

    • Thanks for sharing Lorna, some really wise and useful words. I love the idea of a cardboard grandpa! I think you are right, honesty is definitely the best policy.

  4. Beautifully written post Alistair.
    A Story for Hippo by Simon Puttock is a gentle read, focusing around the quiet slipping away of a friend, hippo, in old age. I’ve used it many times in class and at assembly.
    Discussion of death and strategies to deal with loss are very much a part of health and wellbeing outcomes in Scottish guidance and I was delighted to see them there, it’s a difficult subject to cover but as you say there are a number of children processing this inevitable part of life, in many different cicumstances and forms and if we begin the conversation and we touch on death now and again as part of our work we play our part in helping children as life unfolds.

  5. A relevant article on a subject that adults often shy away from. I second “Badgers parting gift” as an honest and touching story to explain death.

    • Thank you Anna.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this article Alistair, thank you. The subject of death is definitely something which we need to be more open about with children, as it’s unfortunately as much a part of life as birth is, but adults are understandably very reluctant to explore this. To be honest before my current situation opened my eyes to this I would have never dreamed of reading the children a story that explored death, but now I look back and can’t understand why not!! Other good books to use are “Badgers Parting Gifts”, “Wherever you are my love will find you”, and also “Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine” is a nice workbook to use 1:1 with a bereaved child.

    • Hi Amy. LOVELY to hear from you! Thank you for the recommendations. Stay in touch. Alistair

  7. Broke my heart when Scarlet said her Mum died. She obviously has supportive adults for her to be so confident to tell relative strangers so openly. My first thought was why weren’t the other people told, but that’s not real life and people will always be assuming children have both parents. Great blog with helpful resources.

    • Thanks Kim

  8. The video made me cry too! In my very first class there were two children who lost their parents and I didn’t have any support or advice so this blog will be a great starting point for teachers out there to start to think abut how they can support the children. One little boy I taught who lost his Dad was coping fine until the family cleared away his stuff and it was only when the Dad’s shoes were moved from by the front door that the boy realised his Dad wasn’t coming back.


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