Childhood bereavement is the poor relation when it comes to childhood mental health. Bereaved children are often overlooked in the classroom largely because they do not stand out. The symptom of poor concentration, a common feature of the bereaved state of mind, ends up being misattributed to something else, but the fact is that 1 child in every classroom is bereaved (Childhood Bereavement UK). Poor concentration is the red flag to be aware of which can help us unlock a bereaved child's story, and support their mental health.
If you ask a bereaved child a direct question such as, 'how do you feel about Mummy dying? their response is likely to be a shoulder shrug rather than a chatty response. On the other hand, if you tell them a story about an animal losing his Mum, the child is likely to identify with the animal and tell you how they feel.
When someone dies in a family shock sets in pretty quickly for those left behind. Left to sort things out, the adult bereaved do the best they can to cope and get through the days and nights by making lists, talking to friends, organising the funeral and fielding questions by retelling the same story. It's exhausting! But, at least adults have the vocabulary to express their feelings even if they don't make a lot of sense during a grief stricken time.
Children, on the other hand, aged between 5-10 years find it difficult to talk about their feelings in the same direct way that adults do, and can appear shut down, and cut off. Their cognitive capacity has not yet developed to the stage where they can verbally articulate their feelings and emotions, hence their poor concentration. Death feels huge and overwhelming. The risk, therefore, is that children may feel isolated and lost in their grief if we don't learn to help them express their feelings and emotions in their language. We can do this by playing with them because a child's natural language is play. Children relate to their feelings and emotions through metaphor, which is why we need to work with a metaphorical framework in childhood loss and bereavement, if children are to feel heard in their grief.
Therapeutic storytelling is one such approach, which uses metaphor to help bring about healing change in traumatic circumstances such as loss and bereavement. Therapeutic stories create sufficient coherence to facilitate talk about felt confusion or misunderstanding. (Gersie, A., 1997, Reflections on Therapeutic Storymaking). When a child identifies with the story character, (for example, an animal losing his Mother), and goes on the journey with the character, the child is able to process the traumatic emotions and feelings through the story's character. As a result of this, disturbed thoughts and feelings can be clarified with greater ease, and troubling memories are often worked through in a non-confrontational way for the child. This narrative cover gives children the chance to have their say about their loss without the challenge of committing themselves to an opinion.
Ideally, therapeutic stories should be read to a child, so that an adult can answer any questions. It's important to recognise that if handled sensitively, a child's questions can lead to them opening up about their circumstances, but this must not be pushed. I have heard children express sadness through a story's character which is their indirect way of expressing their own sadness. They feel safe doing this, which means that the grieving process can begin on their terms.
Next time you read a story to a bereaved child, try starting a conversation by asking, 'I wonder' rather than 'I know'. You maybe surprised by what you hear, and learn about them.
Amanda Seyderhelm is the author of, Isaac and the Red Jumper.