Childhood loss is a big issue.
First the obvious losses: holidays and anniversaries which are supposed to be times of celebration and fun for children, and which turn into painful reminders of something missing for those children who have suffered a recent loss or bereavement. Loss of a family member - did you know that 92% of children and young people will experience a significant bereavement before the age of 16? Loss of a home due to a fire or natural disaster, change of a family structure through parental separation and divorce, the loss of a beloved family pet, and a friend moving away to another school or country.
But what about the less obvious losses? The ones that move around noisily in a child's life causing chronic anxiety during the day, and nightmares at night? The loss of innocence through childhood abuse and neglect, loss of security and feeling safe through domestic violence. According to Bessel van der Kolk, "the effects of trauma are not necessarily different from - and can overlap with - the effects of physical lesions like strokes." (Van der Kolk, B. (2014), The Body Keeps The Score, Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, London: Allen Lane).
Triggers are all around us, lying in wait, and range from hearing a familiar voice or piece of music that was a favourite of a loved one or abuser, to taking part in some of the 81 official holidays and observances in the UK. Then there are birthdays, special events, television programmes, the internet which all present opportunities for feelings of loss to be triggered.
The warning signs for teachers and parents that a child is grieving and struggling with loss can range from their withdrawal from family activities or friends, increased number of angry outbursts, crying one minute, then laughing out loud the next, or a decrease in academic performance. I have mentioned in earlier posts that children aged between 5-10 yrs don't talk the adult language of grief, and therefore the risk is that children will feel isolated if no-one is speaking in their language.
So what can teachers and parents do to help children cope with their losses and grief?
Read therapeutic stories because children will relate to their feelings through the story's metaphor. Metaphor helps to bring about healing change in traumatic circumstances such as loss and bereavement. There are many good therapeutic picture books around to choose from. In my practice, I often refer to the child Psychotherapist Dr Margot Sunderland's book, Using Storytelling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children for ideas and resources I may need in a storytelling session.
Learn to play their games. Keep an accessible box of toys, games, arts and crafts around at home. Be willing to spend 30 minutes actively playing with your child, where they make the rules, and direct their play, getting messy if that's what they want. Try not to judge nor interpret what they are doing, simply listen, and validate their feelings and actions. They will hear you, and you may also learn something new about them, and yourself. if you are anxious about the mess, simply put a plastic sheet on the floor, and tell your child that this is the boundary for their play.
Memories don't die. We grieve because we loved. This can be a difficult concept for children to understand. Reassuring children that their love and memories will always be with them, in their hearts, and can't be taken away, is a healing message for them to hear. Creating a memory box or jar, and filling it with photographs, letters, poems, and treasures is something that a child can do to actively participate in their healing cycle.
Soothe bad dreams. Nightmares are a common symptom of loss and bereavement, and creating a dream catcher to prevent bad dreams and nightmares has shown to help a child's healing process. If your child prefers audio, download lullabies from RelaxKids and let them listen to them before they go to bed at night. They work!
Learn to talk about the sad stuff. Don't be afraid to discuss the big questions with children. This can be an opportunity for them to share some of their fears with you. 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.
Create new rituals. Children like rituals and routine, and after a loss or bereavement, children may fear that their treasured rituals will disappear. And some rituals will be different. It's important to explain to children that the holidays will never be the same, and that different doesn't always mean bad. Start making new rituals and traditions as well as maintaining the old and familiar ones.
Open your self-care parachute first
One of the most loving ways adults can care for their children is to take care of their adults needs first. This isn't selfish, it's common sense. You can't help someone if you yourself are burnt out. Try and plan ahead when you know a painful anniversary is coming up, so that you minimize the stress. Instead of baking six dozen gingerbread men, this year, bake a few less!
We can't fix loss for children. Nor can we tell them that no-one else will die. The best gift we can give them is to hear them when they cry, and allow them to express their feelings in their own way, and in their own time.
Amanda Seyderhelm is a Certified Play Therapist, and Clinical Director of Helping Children Smile Again, and the author of Isaac and the Red Jumper, a picture book about childhood loss and bereavement.