OPINION: Supporting bereaved children - North Devon Hospice
- Credit: North Devon Hospice
North Devon Hospice is ‘here for all the family.’ As a hospice counsellor, I support children of all ages who are faced with the loss of a parent, a grandparent or other family member.
We take great care to work not only with the child but also with others in that child’s life, whether that be siblings, parents, teachers, teaching assistants or other professionals. This means that we are supporting existing relationships so that at a time of uncertainty, a child has someone already there supporting them.
We also work very closely with families because parents and other adults often need some support to allow themselves to feel what they are feeling - whether that be pain, hurt, distress, confusion, or even happiness over memories - and then to have the confidence to listen to how the children are and respond to what they may need to know. This can help families go through the pain of loss together.
It’s just as important to support bereaved children as it is to support bereaved adults, because children feel as much as adults do. Children can sometimes be protected from what’s going on by well-meaning adults who want to shield them from the realities of illness or dying.
The problem is that it can lead to confusion for the child and they can easily feel alone. Children are much wiser and more resilient than we realise, sensing when something is wrong. Yet if nobody tells them, they are left to imagine what might be causing the adults around them to be upset. If they know someone is dying, then we’re teaching them that death is something not to be talked about. At the Hospice, we give them a space where they’re free to feel what they’re feeling, to express what they want to express, and to ask any questions they might have.
The kind of support we offer children at the Hospice varies. We do speak to children one-to-one, but this may be more appropriate for older children because it’s probably easier for them to say what they need to say through talking. Younger children are encouraged to explore and express themselves through talking, painting, drawing, or play; whatever is best suited to them.
We also run creative groups for bereaved families, which help in a number of ways. For the families, it can be lovely to have the space every week to do things together. Also, it gives them a way of expressing how they’re feeling, without necessarily having to put it into words. It can also be immensely reassuring for everyone to be with other families who are experiencing loss and grief, as it brings the realisation ‘I’m not alone and my thoughts and feelings are normal’.
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I’m often asked if I think we should be more open and honest when talking with children about difficult subjects, particularly death and dying. My answer is yes, most definitely. Care obviously needs to be taken, but it can be very helpful and supportive for children to be given a safe space in which to ask any questions as they emerge or simply share what’s going on, a space in which they don’t feel so frightened by their feelings and what is happening because they realise it’s OK.
This, of course, is a challenge for all of us because it makes us face our own mortality. But by being open and honest ourselves, children can begin to accept that death does happen to all of us, to every family.
Of course, all of the support we offer to local families going through such tough times is only thanks to the generosity of those who support North Devon Hospice. I’d like to thank everyone who support us in any way. I have seen the difference it makes to so many families. We really are grateful.