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.