I love my job, but it is bitter sweet. I have the role of Pastoral Leader in a primary school. Not to be confused with anyone particulalrly religious, but more of a person in charge of children wellbeing and emotional state within school. A mother hen if you will. I deal with the after effects of divorce, bereavement and difficulties at home and at school. I would like to write today about some useful tips I have found when dealing with the complexities of greif in children. Tips that I have picked up both from training I have been on, and from directly working with children. My own children included. I hope that you find them useful, and if you feel they will help others, that you can pass them on.
Talking is the key. The child needs to know that they can talk about the person they have lost and about their feelings both at home and at school. They need to know that their feelings matter. At times adults may be forgiven for thinking they are protecting a child by talking behind closed doors, but children pick up on things ever so well, and this could make them feel excluded in their grief. This isn’t helpful. Obviously there may be details that you don’t want them to know, but on the whole it is helpful to drip feed any answer to questions they have. A simple explanation of what happened will also give them the feeling that they can open up. Having a key person at school really helps. Children can tend to bottle things up to protect their adults at home, particularly if they are in grief themselves. The child can then come to school and need to offload. Talking, really, it is the key.
Choose your words carefully.
Your choice of words need to be carefully considered. Children can get confused if you use phrases such as ‘fallen asleep,’ or ‘we have lost…’ They may think, ‘well we wake up again so why can’t Grandad,’ or ‘why can’t you find….?’ I hear adults thinking that they are helping the situation by telling a child that they are brave. We may think we are helping but it can in fact have the opposite effect. A child can try to live up to this, consequently bottling away their grief.
Teachers on board
It may be hard to come into school and talk to staff when you are grieving yourself but perhaps you could email the school or get a family member to communicate with the school. It is helpful to teachers to know if the child has had an upsetting dream, or a bad morning. This is important so that the school can make sure that your child is being supported within school should they need it. Children hop in and out of grief, and so they may have a great morning and a then have a major wobble later in the day. Having a member of staff on hand to look out for any signs of this helps hugely. They can gently take them out of class and allow them to express their emotions. This will really help the child to move through their grief. Significant dates such as birthdays and anniversary of the death are useful to the school also so that they can be ready to support the child if needed on these difficult days.
I would recommend that early on in their grief journey the child has an understanding of all emotions they may feel, to de-bug it if you like. Not all children feel angry in grief, but if they know it is a possibility then should they feel anger, it won’t be as frightening. Anger may be shown as anything ranging from snapping at people to deliberately hurting others. This can be very distressing for a child in grief. Giving the child tips on controlling their anger will help them to begin to feel in control again.
Practical tips to do with your child – Stones
This is a great tool that I got from Winstons Wish, an amazing charity with very supportive ideas and a support line for anyone involved with a bereaved child. It allows the child to process their grief. The child chooses a smooth stone to represent happy memories, a gemstone for very special memories and a rough stone for more difficult memories. The idea is that they are kept in a box and the child chooses which stone they would like to talk about, giving them the choice on which area of emotion they feel happy with expressing.
This may be to mark the hard task of saying goodbye rather than perhaps, being at the funeral. Having two cards for the balloon works well so that they write the identical message/picture on each. One for the person they have lost and one for them to keep as a reminder of their ‘saying goodbye day’. There is something special about seeing this balloons disappear out of sight knowing that they carry with them a special message to their loved one.
Memory book or box
A memory book can be filled out as and when, and this may include happy memories and sad too. It is an opportunity for the children to draw and create pictures of significant times with the person that has died and give them opportunity to talk and open up about that person and in turn, their feelings regarding the death of that person. A memory box includes special items significant to the person that has died. It acts as a prop in the same way as the memory book and is suitable for older children.
Planting a tree or flower
This a lovely idea as the children can nurture this and watch it grow over the years. They can even make decorations and messages that can be lamenated to put on the tree. Planting it in a pot is a good idea so that should you ever move house, it can come with you.
Overall, as I mentioned earlier, allowing the opportunity for the child to talk is the key. An educational psychologist who deals with bereavement in particular, once told me that if you follow the child’s lead, and you are sensitive then you can do no wrong. That was a revelation to me. Often we can feel worried about upsetting a child in grief by opening up a dialogue about their feelings, the opposite is true. They need to know that they are able to reach out if they need to. I hope that this has been helpful. If you have any helpful tips then please let me know.
Thank you for taking the time to read, and please pass onto anyone you feel this may help.