The Monday Group
It was the spring of 2002 and I had been working as a Learning Support Assistant in a junior school in north-west London for just over a year. Out of the blue one day, seven-year old Chelsea came to me and said, “Mr Gillman, my Mum died.” A few days later, Jeni (also seven) approached me with an almost identical announcement, this time telling me her dad had died. How should I handle two such unexpected, coincidental and profound statements? Aside from offering sympathy and kind words, as others had done, what practically could I do to help?
A month or so before, I might have been at a loss to know how to respond. But since then I had attended a training course run by an organisation called BLTS: Bereavement and Loss, Training and Support. At the time, I was working in a class with Andrew, who had a rare life-limiting condition called Mucopolysaccharide, a progressively degenerative metabolic disorder caused by a shortage of a particular enzyme. Andrew had already exceeded his life expectancy by several years and the school knew it was likely he would die during his time with us. They wanted someone to be trained in dealing with bereaved children in order to be able to support Andrew’s classmates as well as the wider school. I was assigned to his class and so I was asked to attend.
I found the BLTS course fascinating and enlightening. I had never before reflected on the nature of childhood bereavement and as I learned more about it, I realised that the way the death of a child’s loved one was handled by those around them could have a huge impact on the rest of their life. Put bluntly; a child who was excluded from the grieving process, not supported in their grief and not allowed to remember their loved one was far more likely in later life to suffer from low self-esteem, addiction, an inability to make and maintain positive and nurturing relationships, self-harm and suicide. Many people who are bereaved in childhood, if left alone with their anguish and unsupported in their grief, go on to lead lives blighted by unresolved misery.
I learned that even the death of a pet, if handled sensitively, will help a child understand that dying is part of living. This means they are better able to deal with other losses which will inevitably follow. I also came to understand that a child who is allowed to be part of the process of bereavement and has their feelings listened to and understood is far more likely to grow up into a happy, balanced and well-adjusted adult.
Now, just weeks after attending the BLTS course, here I was confronted by two such children. Chelsea and Jeni had approached me independently and coincidentally, not knowing of my new-found understanding of childhood grief. I realised I had the chance to put into practice what I had learned on the course. First I should find a safe space and a regular time when we could meet. Just to talk, if that’s what they wanted and to let them know they were not alone with their feelings. I wanted them to know I would be there for them, ready to share their journey and support them in any way I could. That was enough for now.
I found a room we could use and decided to offer my Monday lunch break to them as a time for us to be together. Chelsea and Jeni eagerly agreed. Here at last was an adult who was offering more than sympathy and comforting words. Here was someone prepared to find time and space for them to be with their feelings, however painful. I was able to offer empathy and support as well as a dependable and consistent presence.
After gaining the consent of their surviving parents, the three of us met for the first time in the April of 2002. The early sessions we held were informal and relaxed. We ate our packed lunches together then chatted about how things were for us. I knew it was important to build a trusting relationship, where Chelsea and Jeni knew they could have faith in me. I wanted them to know I would support them in any way I could and would not shrink from the often difficult emotions they expressed.
They had learned from other adults that the feelings they were holding onto around their unresolved grief and their exclusion from the process of bereavement were not supposed to be articulated. These grown-ups had ‘moved on’, and thought their children should do the same. They didn’t realise that by exiling their children from their grief and rejecting their feelings, they were creating powerful currents of frustration and misery within them.
I wanted Chelsea and Jeni to know that I would react differently. I knew it was vital for me to show acceptance of their emotions and understanding of their predicament, never disallowing or denying the expression of their previously unarticulated feelings. They understood what they said to me was confidential, unless I thought they were at risk of harm. During our sessions, the girls gradually came out of their shells and expressed previously unspoken feelings of pain at their losses. They also spoke of their frustration at not being allowed to be part of their families’ grieving process and being forbidden from attending their loved ones’ funerals.
Chelsea said she was only allowed to visit her Mum’s grave once a year, on mothers’ day, and was banned from mentioning her at home. Jeni told me how her family fell silent if she entered the room where they were discussing her father’s death and refused to explain what had happened to him. This left her confused and frightened, causing her to fantasise wildly (and inaccurately) about what had happened to him.
Being able to talk openly in a secure and caring environment brought great relief to the girls. I could not change their families’ behaviour or bring their special person back, but by being accepting, honest and consistent, I was able to support them as they unburdened themselves of the pent up feelings they had been holding on to.
For a few weeks our group had just two members, but then we acquired a third. A boy who had attended our school died as a result of a tragic accident. His younger sister, Lana, was still at the school and she was referred to me by her teacher as another prospective member of our fledgling group. Lana happened to be in the same class as Chelsea and quickly became a valuable contributor to our sessions. Once again, her family were not honest with her about how her brother died, thinking it would be less distressing if they spared her the facts.
Lana needed a truthful, sensitive explanation of her brother’s death but those around her chose to cobble together a story based on half-truths and outright deception. Lana knew she was not being given the whole truth, causing her to doubt everything she was told. Eventually her family told her to stop asking questions, leaving her filled with confusion and frustration. Although I wasn’t able to provide the answers she craved, I could listen to her and show that I accepted her feelings. This in itself was of great benefit to Lana.
Another helpful factor in the group’s progress was the sense of fellowship and peer support the children created for themselves. They now knew they were not alone in their grief and often gave each other support even when I wasn’t there. The most touching example of this involved Chelsea and Lana, whose relatives were buried in the same cemetery. With remarkable thoughtfulness, Lana took the time and trouble to take care of Chelsea’s Mum’s grave when she went to her brother’s. Although it was extremely distressing for Chelsea not to be allowed to visit the cemetery, it was very comforting for her to know Lana was keeping her mother’s burial place neat and tidy.
Through the years, many more children have attended the group. Some have decided it was not for them and chose to stop coming. Some come regularly, other less frequently. It is not compulsory for the children to attend and if they would rather play with their friends that is fine with me. I don’t want them to feel any pressure from me to come if they don’t want to. It is vitally important that they know it is their choice and no-one else’s. Many of these children have had options denied to them after their special person died. The adults around them delude themselves into thinking that they are acting in the child’s best interests, that it might be “too upsetting” for the child to be allowed to confront head-on their feelings.
In reality, it is often the adults themselves who are unable to face up to their emotions, instead choosing to compartmentalise or bury them alongside their deceased loved one. For children it is not so easy to put away these difficult feelings. They need to be treated with sensitivity and most important, honesty. They are able to accept most things, if they are explained in a way they can understand, and if they are true. Telling half-truths or outright lies is a dangerous strategy; when the child gets older and finds out they were not told the truth, they can react with understandable anger and start to question many other “facts” they were fed as children.
Many adults shy away from revealing the facts of bereavement to children, especially when the death is as a result of suicide. Nevertheless, however hard it is to explain these tragic circumstances, it is infinitely better than spinning a web of dishonesty which will fall apart eventually and inevitably lead to even greater long-term distress to the bereaved young person.
Language too can be used to deceive or avoid difficult issues. Talking about “losing” someone can be very confusing for a child. If granny is “lost”, they may think, why can’t we go and find her? If she is “gone”, why can’t we get her back? If she has “gone to sleep”, why can’t we wake her up? The concept of death being akin to sleep can be especially distressing for children. If I go to sleep, they conclude, might I too never awake? If others I love fall asleep, will they too be gone forever? Honesty in language is supremely important.
Difficult as it may be for an adult to use the words “death” or “dying”, these are concepts children can easily understand. It might also seem less painful to explain that a loved one has gone to a notional heaven, rather than that they have gone forever. Yet in my view, the truth is all-important, however distressing it is for adults to acknowledge.
Of course we must be sensitive to cultural and religious contexts and I always respect the values children have absorbed from their families. But it does the child no favours to shy away from difficult issues in order to spare the feelings of the adult. In fact I have found bringing these opposing beliefs into the group to be extremely helpful as it can show children that different people believe in different things and often leads to valuable discussions of divergent religious and cultural philosophies.
A child’s grieving process has been described as being akin to “splashing in and out of puddles”. Instead of feeling they are wading chest-high against a strong current, as the bereaved adult can, children are capable of switching from one strong emotion to another very quickly. One minute they can be playing joyfully with their friends, apparently oblivious to their own pain, the next they may be irritable, angry, tearful or disruptive in equal measure.
Workbooks, games and stories can help, with the aid of a trusted and consistent adult. I have built up a collection of such resources which we use in the group as the need arises. We also do many creative and artistic activities using materials such as paints, clay and modelling dough. We have made memory jars and boxes and a remembrance and hope tree, which displayed recollections of our special people and our hopes for the future. Children often prefer getting their hands dirty with creative endeavours rather than just sitting and talking about their emotions, but these activities can help unlock children’s inner feelings, allowing them to express themselves in a safe and caring environment.
At school, I have become known as “the bereavement person”, someone to whom questions around death and loss can be put. Realising the importance of this subject for the whole school, I arranged for BLTS to hold an in-house training day for the school’s staff. I have attended training days, conferences and seminars dealing with bereavement, especially in children.
I have helped run a bereavement support programme at a nearby hospice and continue to gain immense personal satisfaction through this work. I receive formal supervision for this role, which is very important for people working in this sensitive and often challenging area. In November 2006 I hosted a visit from the School Co-ordinator of the Child Bereavement Trust, who told me that, at that time, ours was the only specific bereavement support group running in a primary school in the UK.
Last year I graduated from my studies for a Post-Graduate Diploma and am now counselling in a number of settings. I have continued working with young people since qualification, as well as being a volunteer counsellor at Mind and setting up in private practice.
I owe a huge debt to Chelsea and Jeni for having the courage to approach me and share their feelings. Without them, the group would never have begun and evolved as it did. If it were not for the children who have come through the group over the years, I would not have discovered a new career in counselling. They showed me an open door, through which I walked into a new realisation of how I can support these children, as well as achieving personal fulfilment I had never previously imagined.
If there is one thing which I have learned over the years I have been working in this field, it is that honesty is the most important aspect of grown-ups’ dealings with grieving children. A truthful, consistent, trusted, caring and empathic adult can give vital support to suffering children, and this support is likely to have a positive effect on that child’s development in later life. Lies only damage and lead to mistrust and doubt. The most effective relationship is an honest one. That is what the children have taught me.
Andrew died a few months after I attended the BLTS course. I was able to support his classmates and friends because of what I had learned.
All names have been changed.
www.mpssociety.co.uk (Mucopolysaccharide support group)
BLTS -Bereavement and Loss, Training and Support: 020 8930 7375
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