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Making Time To Listen To Bereaved Children

17/11/2016 12:45

It's funny how children tend to want to grow up quickly and be older than they actually are. Sometimes I think it's as though their self worth is defined by the number of years and months that have passed since they first saw the light of day.

'Well I'm six anyway,' I'll hear my son lord over his friend of five and three-quarters, apparently making him the instant victor of whatever little quarrel the two of them have got themselves into this time around.

Adults, on the other hand, often crave the simpler times they remember from when they were young.

'Oh, to be that age again,' you'll here them say just after they've wished they still had a full head of hair, coloured by its own expired natural pigmentation.

'You don't want to be an adult,' they might add, 'it's much easier being a child.'

I'm not so sure, though.

Today marks the beginning of Children's Grief Awareness Week and so this morning I contemplated what it would be like if my son and I could in fact trade places for a while.

It's really quite easy for me to understand what he would experience as the tenant of my mind.

He would no doubt be saddened to find out that the smiles he sees on the selfies that we share in a world of idealised social media are sometimes forced and insincere.

He would be shocked to know that it is possible to read an entire children's book out loud to him at night without taking in a single word, the whole time thinking, I wish someone else could do this tonight.

He would struggle to understand why his frequent reassurances that I am 'the best daddy in the world' still weren't enough to make me feel confident in my own ability as a parent.

He would know that, far from adulthood being the ideal to strive towards, shifting from playing grown-up to having to actually become a man (or perhaps more specifically a single parent) has left me dealing with incredibly intense growing pains over the last four years.

Perhaps it's easier being a kid after all, he might think. I'm still not completely convinced, though.

Sure, the emotions we feel and how we handle them is different in childhood, but that's not to say the experience is in any way 'easier' - it's just in context of our young minds. And there lies the challenge: how does an immature and relatively inexperienced mind begin to process life-changing situations when even the mature mind struggles? The answer, I believe, is slowly, often with difficulty, and ideally with age-appropriate support.

Four years ago, right after my wife was killed, I learned two important lessons about how to help bereaved children: be honest with them and listen. A child empowered by the truth, I believe, is a child safeguarded against the more painful impact of 'protective' lies. In the long run the truth always hurts less. And a child that understands that their feelings will be acknowledged and heard is a child that will 'speak out' more freely, be it through conversation, behaviour or body language.

It is of course less easy for me to get inside my son's mind than for me to imagine him in mine, which is why I have to continually pay attention to all the little signs.

Just the other day, for instance, he was playing table football with a seven or eight-year-old boy at after-school club last week.

'Where's your mum?' the boy asked as Jackson made his way towards me.

'She's dead,' he replied. 'See you tomorrow.'

Pride, I find, is a bit like love: you can't force it, but when it shows itself it can be overwhelming. Jackson has returned home from school with certificates for this and that, but I was more blown away by his five-word response to that child than almost anything else I've heard him say before. And that's because I had just seen a six-year-old boy handle one of the most difficult situations imaginable all by himself and without any real discomfort. The boy who just can't wait to be a man is already able to hold himself better than many adults put in a similar scenario.

Job done then, you might say. Far from it, though. You see, children, like adults, continue to have a relationship with the deceased. What's often not the same for young kids, though, is that they will have to fill in gaps that their memories don't offer up freely. They have to make believe.

'Daddy,' Jackson whispered to me in bed the other night, 'sometimes when I'm racing after the other children in the playground at school I stop for a moment and talk to mummy. I tell her I'm okay and that I miss her and then I carry on an catch them up.'

How fortunate I am to know that he will open up to me about his feelings, and how grateful I am that he realises that I don't just expect him to have moved on and to be okay any more than I expect it of myself.

Dear Mummy,

I hope you are okay. I'm sorry about the car accident. You are a good mum.

Love,

Jackson

P.S. I am keeping Daddy safe

I found my son writing these words in a letter to his mum at the weekend, just a couple of days after the fourth anniversary of her death. As it read it, it struck me how private grief can actually be (all of these thoughts are circulating around in his head, just like they are so often in mine). But just because it's a personal experience doesn't mean it has to be a lonely one. And that's why I believe it's so important to make time to listen to bereaved children and to support the services that support them in return.

The truth is it's not easy being an adult or child at the best of times, but when bereavement kicks in, our lives can be turned completely upside down. And that's when we all need to know that there are people out there who can listen, help and support us with whatever thoughts are going through our heads - big or small.

To find out more about Children's Grief Awareness Week visit http://www.childrensgriefawarenessweek.com

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