Bereaved young need to take part in grieving
Upon the death of a loved one, information on what has happened and inclusion in rituals are vital for children
IT WAS the hardest moment in Tracey Davis’s life when she had to bring her two young sons to say goodbye to their father at a funeral home.
She had been bombarded with well-meaning but conflicting advice from friends and family about whether or not they should see the body after Jason, her partner of 12 years, died by suicide out of the blue in 2009, with no history of depression. But she recalls a friend who had lost her father when she was young saying that it was people covering things up at the time that affected her more.
“I am definitely glad I did bring them in,” says Davis, who lives in Co Cork. The youngest, Cian, was only six months old at the time, but his brother Eoghan, then aged 4½, put toy cars and drawings into the coffin.
Just the other day, three years on and following the death of a friend of hers, Eoghan suddenly asked his mother: “Why do they get so cold when they die?”
“He had never mentioned it to me before,” she says. “He said, ‘I remember Dad’s hands were so cold when he died.’” She expects issues to keep coming up like that as the children get older and begin to understand more.
Davis did not bring them to the ceremony itself – “they were just that bit too young to see everybody else’s grief at the time” – but she returned to the graveside later in the day with the two of them. “I can remember at the time thinking, ‘You really want to make everything okay for your children’, and that is the helplessness. You can’t turn back the tide – you have just got to work with what you can do.”
She says she was lucky because, as well as having the support of a “really good” extended family, one of her best friends works in child services and was able to advise her. Other people might not look for support or know where to turn.
“I was very surprised there was no contact from the public health nurse, for instance,” she remarks. “Just to make sure you are doing okay.”
The older boy attended some sessions run by Rainbows, a voluntary organisation specialising in peer support programmes for children who have suffered loss.
“To be honest, he was too young for it,” she says. “He didn’t benefit from it; I am sure he would have if he had been older.”
She found the helpline run by Barnardos Bereavement Counselling for Children useful as there were issues when Eoghan started school, just four months after his father’s death.
He was wrapped around his mother’s legs every morning because he did not want to let her out of his sight. It was not until the following January that he finally settled into junior infants, but he has been doing great since.
Children’s grief tends to be a forgotten issue, says Davis, who felt all the focus of the community was on her as the bereaved adult. “They have a huge loss as well.”
When a partner dies, emotionally you are not there for your children either, she points out. “They kind of lose both parents for a time. You might be there, but you’re not there – it takes a while.”
That is why one tragic death has the potential to damage many other lives if the whole family is not supported.
It is said that grief in children is like splashing in puddles, explains Brid Carroll, a counsellor and psychotherapist specialising in bereavement who works with the Family Life Service in Wexford. It is intermittent, but overwhelming when it comes. For adults, grief is like wading through a river. “We have a deep journey to make through our losses.”
Up to 60,000 children in Ireland may have suffered a significant bereavement, according to a report commissioned by the Irish Hospice Foundation to look at establishing a children’s bereavement support network in Ireland.
The study, conducted by Dr Kathleen McLoughlin, identified many weaknesses in the current system of support for bereaved children, including fragmentation, particularly outside Dublin; lack of information about what is available; high cost of private services and shortage of free services; lack of quality control and little long-term follow-up on bereaved children.
The Irish Childhood Bereavement Network (ICBN), which was launched in Dublin last week (July 23rd), is a step towards improving the service.
Initially it will be a hub for professionals working with bereaved children, but it is hoped it will develop into a “one-stop shop” that families can turn to at what is inevitably a very distressing and confused time in their lives.
Currently it is a very disjointed service, says Nuala Harmey, who has worked with bereaved children for more than 30 years, mostly as a social worker at the Children’s University Hospital, Temple Street in Dublin. “There are some very good service providers but it is very patchy.”
For example, the Barnardos Bereavement Counselling for Children service saw 193 children and more than 200 parents/carers last year, in either its Cork or Dublin centres. Meanwhile, its national helpline dealt with almost 400 queries.
The Barnardos service offers early intervention counselling, usually after a sudden loss. Otherwise, children go on a waiting list of about 12-16 weeks for, on average, four to six sessions of counselling, all free.
“They don’t go out with their grief reversed,” points out the head of the service, Valerie Kelly, but they are able to talk about the situation, understand their own responses and, most importantly, the parent is also helped in managing the child through the grief process.
A minority of children will have very serious adjustment disorders after a close death but about 80 per cent just need some support as they struggle to come to terms with the loss.
Children are very protective towards grieving parents, which is why they may need somewhere outside the home to unburden themselves.
Harmey is often told by a child: “I don’t like to ask Mum or Dad questions because if they are crying, I don’t want to make them worse and if they are in good humour, I don’t want to upset them.”
The danger is that unexpressed or complicated grief will be repressed, only to surface years later through, perhaps, mental health problems or abuse of alcohol.
“These things can be dealt with very quickly and easily if done in a timely way,” says Julie Stokes, vice-chairwoman of the Childhood Bereavement Network in the UK. “It only becomes a problem if it is ignored.”
That is why she stressed to Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald at last week’s launch that funding of the network, which is initially being hosted by the Irish Hospice Foundation, is a long-term investment to prevent much more serious – and costly – problems down the line.
Stokes, the founder of Winston’s Wish, a leading UK children’s bereavement charity, has seen life-long consequences of childhood bereavement in her own family. Her mother was only 12 when she lost her mother and today, aged 80, she still asks: “Why didn’t they bring me home from [boarding] school?”
“It is that sense of exclusion that lasts a lifetime,” says Stokes.
After a death, information about what has happened and inclusion in the rituals are vital for children, agrees Harmey.
“People say, ‘Oh, I would not like them to see a dead body, they would have a nightmare.’ All I can say is that I have worked with bereaved children for 30 years and I have never met a child who had a nightmare about a body they saw – but I have seen a lot of children who are in a lot of difficulty about bodies they didn’t see, because they fantasise about it.”
She knows parents worry if they should let their children see them upset. “What I would say to them is, it is upsetting for children, but if a parent says ‘I am very upset because X has died but I am not always going to be upset,’ the child can understand that.
“The other thing to be very careful with children is to use the right words,” she warns. “Don’t use phrases like ‘gone on a journey’, or ‘gone to sleep’. If somebody has died, they’ve died.”
In her experience at Temple Street hospital, peer support through groups works best in many cases.
“No child likes being different, and the very fact that they meet kids in the same boat can be half the battle,” she adds.
Meanwhile, in Wexford, Carroll says the demand for individual counselling has increased “hugely” in recent years.
The number of children she has seen in the past 12 months has almost doubled and she attributes this to increased awareness of the benefits of such a service.
Ideally children are seen within six weeks of the death, particularly if it is a sudden loss, she says.
“It may just be giving them information and they may not come back for some time, but you are empowering the family to deal with the initial loss and they can come back again knowing they only have to lift the phone.”
Most youngsters have about six sessions of counselling and they can return at any time. “Grief in children is a cascade model – coming up over the years,” she explains.
For example, a teenager may need to articulate feelings he could not speak of when he was coping with a death at the age of seven.
Carroll sees how the children benefit. She recalls asking one 10-year-old girl, who had suffered multiple losses, had the sessions been helpful.
“‘Oh yes,’ she said, ‘I would still be sitting in the corner weeping. Now I can go out with my friends and just be my age.’”
For more information see iti.ms/PMMawg
The Barnardos Bereavement Helpline Service is on 01 473 2110 and operates from 10am-12pm, Monday to Friday
Geraldine Parsons was aged 10 and standing at the crossing outside her national school in Balrothery, Co Dublin, one Friday in October, looking forward to the Halloween mid-term break, when she saw her two younger brothers knocked down by a bus on the road in front of her.
Unaware that Séamus (9) and Aaron (8) had been killed instantly, she remembers running to their home, which was only two minutes away, and telling their mother she needed to come up.
That was 22 years ago, but of course the lives of Geraldine, her remaining six siblings, ranging in age from three to 14 at the time, and their parents John and Colette were changed irrevocably from that moment.
She remembers it was important for her to be able to say goodbye to her brothers – first in a room in Children’s University Hospital, Temple Street, and later at the undertakers in Balbriggan before the funeral. “They were beautiful,” she says simply.
Of the huge funeral itself, she just recalls “sitting, a lot of crying and an endless amount of people passing”.
Does she think that, at the age of 10, she had grasped the finality of their deaths? “You saw coffins going in the ground – you kind of had to. I suppose that’s part of bereavement as well, it’s important to see those things.”
The school organised a memorial stone for the side of the road and they had an unveiling ceremony. That was another important step in acknowledgment of the family’s loss.
However, she singles out staff at Temple Street hospital for special praise. “They were absolutely brilliant.”
She and her younger brother Benny (7), who had both witnessed the incident, were offered group counselling at the hospital.
“I remember being able to talk about Séamus and Aaron,” she says, but it wasn’t all focused on their deaths. “You were drawing pictures and hanging out with people your age.”
At home they were always encouraged to talk about the boys too, and even now they come up in conversation, she says.
Her sister Jackie, who is getting married next month, has organised a candle with a picture of the two boys on it to be placed on the altar in the church during the ceremony.
“We will know it’s there – nobody else needs to know about it,” says Parsons.
Looking back now, how has the bereavement affected her life?
“Death is a part of life and everybody is going to be touched by bereavement at some point,” she points out.
“For us, in a day, we went from being nine happy young children to being a family that had lost two brothers, or two sons.”
They are a closely knit family, with four of the now adult children still living at home, while three have moved out – “about a mile down the road”.
Hardly a day passes when Geraldine does not have some fleeting thought of the two brothers she lost.
“I used to take offence when people said it would get easier . . . but in reality it does.
“Maybe that’s just because you’re growing older and more able to deal with things in your life.”