Understanding grief through a child’s eyes

Understanding grief through a child’s eyes

Rainbows Bereavement Support GB trains teachers and staff in schools to facilitate sessions and support children in settings with people they feel comfortable and familiar with. We met up with Sue McDermott, Non-Executive Director at the charity, to talk about her work and how best to support children facing loss.

Helping children where they are

When a child faces a loss, Sue McDermott, Non-Executive Director of Rainbows GB, explains a natural reaction can often be to remove the child from their everyday settings and try to provide them with specialist counselling, or comfort them in ways they are not used to.

But this may not be the best approach. While unique to each individual, Sue explains that in general most bereavements or losses result in what she calls “normal grief”.

Normal grief is caused by ‘natural’ occurrences, such as a death following a long illness, as opposed to death due to murder or another unusual or traumatic experience.

The importance of listening

Sue says: “Many people, including children, don’t actually need specialist counselling when going through normal grief. What they need,” she says, “is a good listener.”

Helping a bereaved child through grief in their own surroundings is also about letting them understand themselves and their readiness to deal with certain feelings or subjects.

Recognising when a child is ready to grieve

Sue recalls one child who initially did not want to attend their school’s Rainbows group, and it was only about a year after their bereavement that they felt ready to join in and take part.

This focus on readiness is one of the defining parts of Rainbows’ approach to helping children through grief and bereavement.

Differing reactions to death and loss

“My parents are liars, they lied to me.”

“Why do you feel like that?”

“I was told we would have a better life here, but it is not better. I don’t know anyone, and I will probably never see my grandmother again.”

This quotation is from a conversation Sue had with a young boy who had sought asylum in England with his family. He arrived as a refugee holding onto his parents’ promise that they would have a better life, but he soon found that he was feeling angry and resentful towards them. He felt bereaved of his family and a life to which he might never return.

Finding expression without fear of judgement

Sue recalls another case where a child had an abusive parent who had died, and how the child expressed relief at the fact that they no longer had to see that parent.

These reactions will of course gradually come to be understood in a wider context of the person’s life, but having a space to express oneself without judgement or fear can be an important first step for a child who is dealing with bereavement.

Experiencing a range of feelings

We do not always understand the feelings we are having, but we are still deeply affected by them. Rainbows’ programmes are centred around feelings, and aim to show each bereaved child that no feeling is “wrong” or “bad”.

There is no way of knowing how someone will feel when faced with bereavement or loss, but we can create an environment in which they feel comfortable expressing those feelings – be they anger, sadness, anguish, or – indeed – even happiness.

What does this teach us about bereaved children?

The question is what does all this teach us? Sue says: “Every child deserves the support they need at the time they need it.”

Children today are facing many different kinds of loss, of which bereavement as a result of a death is just one. We’re increasingly aware of the number of marriages or partnerships which do not last beyond a child’s early years due to separation, divorce, imprisonment or other reasons.

And rising numbers of refugees mean that children are grieving for relatives who may have died in conflict, but also grieving a life which they have been forced to leave behind.

Grief is a normal part of life

Rainbows successfully implements the programmes that they run with children in the ways we’ve discussed.

Firstly, meeting children where they already are. Transposing a child’s grief into an unfamiliar context isn’t always helpful or necessary – it can be a much better process for the child if they feel they can talk openly about their grief with those people they see on a daily basis. This helps a child to understand that grief can be a normal part of everyday life.

Secondly, by letting a child know that they can ask for help or speak when they are ready to and on their own terms can be very liberating – for both you and them.

Children grieve at their own pace

Sue tells us that “a person’s bereavement belongs to them, not us.” We might think we know what’s best for a child, but they will have many thoughts and feelings which we simply cannot know about, and which they will need to work through at their own pace.

We cannot make a child “get over” a loss any quicker than we would be able to, but we can ensure they know that we will be here with a listening ear and an open mind when they are ready to talk.

Listen to our podcast

Hear more from Sue McDermott about child bereavement in the first Art of Dying Well podcast.

Find out more at the Rainbows Bereavement Support GB website.

Sue McDermott was speaking to Stephanie MacGillivray.