Today is Children’s Grief Awareness Day, a global day designed to help us all become more aware of the needs of grieving children — and of the benefits they obtain through the support of others.
It is also the start of Children’s Grief Awareness Week (19th – 25th November 2015) here in the UK.
Children’s Grief Awareness Week 2015 is an initiative launched by the Childhood Bereavement Network, the UK body for support groups in the grief and bereavement sector, and Grief Encounter, one of the UK’s leading bereavement charities.
The theme this year is
‘SUPPORTING PARENTS AND CARERS, SUPPORTING GRIEVING CHILDREN’
The aim is to bring home the message that the first line of support for grieving children is those closest to them, and that we all have a part to play in supporting parents and carers in their vital role.
Key messages from the Childhood Bereavement Network:
- 1 in 29 school age children in the UK have been bereaved of a parent or sibling. It is estimated that 24,000 parents die each year leaving dependent children.
- After the death of someone close, children need support in their grief, nurture, and continuity, helping them weave together the threads of their past and their future. The care they get from those close to them is one of the biggest factors affecting how they learn to live with the loss.
- It can be a daily struggle for parents and carers to support their children when they are grieving themselves.
- Advice from parents and carers who have been through this include ‘trust your instincts’ and ‘don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it’
- Parents shouldn’t have to cope alone. Family, friends, colleagues, schools and the government all have a part to play in supporting parents and carers to support their grieving children.
- Specialist support services should be available in all local areas for all grieving children and their families that need them – wherever they live and however they have been bereaved – helping them realise they are not alone.
Oh how I wish that I could read the above statistics and information as an ‘outsider’ – merely as a curious onlooker.
Sadly not, as in January 2014 my children joined the ranks of the bereaved.
As a consequence of this bereavement I, a qualified mental health worker and a trained family support worker, struggled to function. Many days I could hardly get out of bed or get dressed. I struggled to complete the most basic of tasks. Not only was cooking even a simple meal beyond me, eating was also something that I found very difficult – I didn’t begin to experience physical hunger again until at least eight months after Leah died. Yet I had the responsibility of parenting children who were grieving and hurting very deeply.
I particularly like and really connect with Brené Brown’s Parenting Manifesto taken from her excellent book Daring Greatly, but there is one line in particular that has been hugely challenging for me:
“Together we will cry and face fear and grief. I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it.”
I’m telling you now, that there is one thing worse than experiencing the constant pain that lodged in my heart after Leah died; it is looking into my ten year old daughter’s eyes and seeing the pain and confusion in her eyes and knowing that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that I could do to make this better and take away her pain.
There even were times in the early days when I tried to avoid eye contact because it was too painful for me to witness her pain. Imagine what it must feel like to be ten years old and have your parent, on whom you depend for emotional security, struggle to make eye contact with you, especially when you have just lost a sister whom you loved more than life itself and your family life has changed beyond recognition?
This is the reality of childhood grief.
For some children it’s even worse than this. Many families have spoken to me of their experiences of coping (or not coping) after the death of a child or parent. I’ve heard some devastatingly sad stories.
Adults who lost a sibling when they were a child, have told me of how their parents ceased to function after the death of a child and how these adults are still coming to terms with the emotional fallout from this.
I’ve been told about children being sent away to stay with neighbours and relatives while the adults in the house grieved – these children now grown up are still struggling to process their childhood loss.
I’ve heard of families breaking down as grieving parents tried to numb the pain in all sorts of maladaptive ways including alcohol misuse. I know of one young girl who had to be placed in foster care after the death of her sibling because her grieving mother became unable to care for her. How devastating must that be?
We have been fortunate to have had excellent support from family and friends. Last year, when it was too painful for my youngest and I to do things on our own together, there were others who accompanied us on days out so that we could still do fun things together.
Friends and family have ministered to us every step of the way. Our school aged children have also received excellent emotional support at their respective schools. After Leah died our youngest daughter’s P6 Primary School class supported her in many ways. One of the most tangible of these was by gifting her with a beautiful customized Memory Box in which she can store precious items that remind her of her sister. It was a most appropriate and thoughtful gift.
Since Leah died last year we as a family have received input from Youthlife, the N.I. Children’s Hospice, the N.I. Cancer Fund For Children, Action Cancer, North West Counselling and from a Family Support Hub. From talking to other parents in online forums, the impression I get is that the support that is available to bereaved families in the UK is very much a “postcode” lottery, with some families apparently receiving little or no support. It has also been my experience that there is no coordinated mapping of services which means that even the professionals involved with a family are often not aware of what sources of support may be available. Oftentimes, it’s been other parents or ‘word of mouth’ that’s pointed me in the right direction.
It’s a long and difficult road though, we haven’t ‘arrived’ by any means. I sometimes think that grief is like an onion – there’s always another layer underneath.