Helping children – and adults – to explore and understand grief

Sol is the story of a boy trying to find light in the darkness after the death of his grandmother

Widower Stephen Teap would have happily not put up a single decoration for the first Christmas without his wife Irene, but he knew he had to "keep the show on the road" for their two sons, then aged five and two.

It was unpacking the decorations in their Carrigaline home in Co Cork that turned out to be the worst part, less than five months after Irene’s death at the age of 35 from cervical cancer on July 26th, 2017.

“They are boxes full of memories and because Irene liked Christmas a hell of a lot more than I did, a lot of them were her memories. She would have packed up the majority of that box the last Christmas and here I was unpacking it on my own – it was an explosion of memories.”

Festivities apart, December is a hard month of milestones anyway for the Teap family. The birthday of the couple’s eldest son, Oscar, is December 13th and Irene’s own birthday was December 23rd.

This year, as Oscar turned eight, he pointed out to his father that he had now lived half his lifetime without his mother. “That’s depressing in itself,” says 39-year-old Stephen. “It highlights how young we all were when she passed away.”

Over the past 3½ years, he has learned much more than he ever wanted to know about children and grief. His overriding belief since Irene’s death is the importance of honesty and communication, trying to give his sons the ability to talk about it whenever they want.

You never know for sure you’re doing the right thing, he says, but “my measure is if they are sad, they tell me they are sad and why they are sad. That is to me what it is all about.”

Even if it can make for painful listening. Children are blunt and straight to the point, which is lovely, he says, but sometimes “it would rip right through you”.

Having experienced grief as a child herself, Grainne McGuinness, creative director of Paper Owl Films in Co Down, knows that adults tend to think if they can distract children from their grief, they are not grieving any more. They give them a treat, take them out, get them to be happy and have fun, and then believe they are not grieving.

Fear of dying

“I think that it is just the grief is not seen any more.” Children, “often grieve silently and quietly because when they are grieving maybe the people who usually support them are grieving too”.

The idea of creating an animated film for children about the journey of grief came to her in the middle of the night, albeit founded on personal experience. When, with the help of funding from the British Film Institute, the project was jointly commissioned last year by the Celtic broadcasters TG4 in Ireland, S4C in Wales and BBC Alba in Scotland, they couldn't have foreseen the extra relevance it would have by the end of a 2020 dominated by pandemic deaths and the fear of dying.

Sol, the story of a boy trying to find light in the darkness after the death of his grandmother, is to be premiered simultaneously on all three channels, in Irish, Welsh and Scots Gaelic respectively (with subtitles), at 6.30pm on Monday, December 21st – the longest night of the year.

The challenge, says McGuinness, was to create something that enabled children who knew about grief to see themselves on screen and to find hope.

“Grief is one of those areas for children that is very difficult to reflect on the screen because you don’t want to put something out there that will make children feel sad. But the other side of that is that you want children, who are feeling sad and going through something, to know that they are not alone and they are seen.

“What I think Sol shows is that grief never goes away; your life grows around it and the most important thing you can do for yourself is try to remember the love and the memory you have for the person you have lost because there is a lot of light in that.

“Children grieve for a lot of things – it could be a divorce, a pet or the way things were. They also worry about their grandparents.” So, the film is relevant to all children, “whether or not they have yet had direct experience of bereavement, because it offers hope”.

The story was written by Sara Daddy, also from Co Down, whose mother died in 2018. “She had to bring her own 11/12-year-old daughter through that process of losing her granny, so she was absolutely perfect to write the script,” McGuinness adds. “It’s a tricky subject to take on, so the more people understand it from the heart, the better.”

‘Playfulness of childhood’

Another children's storyteller in the locality, Máire Zepf, translated the script into Irish and ended up being the voice of Sol's mother. Emmy award-winning actor Fionnuala Flanagan is the voice of Sol's grandmother and the boy's part is spoken by Zana Akkoç (12).

“Writing for children feeds some part of me that never wanted to leave the warmth and playfulness of childhood behind,” says Zepf, who has had a series of books in Irish published, having been brought up in an Irish-speaking home in Co Down. She believes in the connective power of stories, which enable the safe exploring of questions that we struggle to untangle.

“Sol’s journey through grief, for example, allows us all to experience heartache and loss one step removed from reality. It paints the rawness of loss with the palette of fantasy and light, helping us to start those difficult conversations within the family and to release those stifled emotions.

“I firmly believe,” she adds, “that stories can soothe our very souls.”

The co-ordinator of the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network, Maura Keating, thinks the film presents an opportunity for children to open up. She would encourage families to sit down and watch it together and start a discussion.

“The more you can get them to tell you what is going in their minds the better,” she says. “No matter how well you think you have explained something – or maybe they have overheard something from behind closed doors – they can get a notion and their thoughts go off on a tangent, filling them with worry and fear.”

The film will also give everybody who has been bereaved the chance to talk about how Christmas is a very tough time. “You are going to feel the loss of them on the day – you might as well acknowledge and accept that.”

Decide to do something in their memory, such as having a lighted candle or making something special for the grave.

Keating is talking from first-hand experience, as her own father died earlier this year from Covid-19. She knows her mother, who will be joining her, her husband and their 20-year-old daughter for Christmas dinner, is both dreading it and looking forward to having a break from her own home.

‘Excruciating’ sadness

“As I have said to her, ‘Mam, we are going to be telling stories about him, we are going to be laughing and we are going to be bawling – and that’s just the way it’s going to be.’ We’ll include him in the day.”

A first Christmas without a loved one is "excruciating", says the head of the Barnardos Children's Bereavement Service, Gina Cantillon. Anticipation can be the worst part. "Families would say to me sometimes that the actual day itself wasn't quite as bad as they thought it was going to be but it was the endless lead-up that was really tough."

She offers two words around which her advice revolves: “gentleness” and “permission”. Everybody’s grief journey is unique, she says, and while lots of advice will be offered, take only what your “gut” feels is right and leave everything else. “You know best.”

To grieving parents who believe they still need to be the “be all and end all” to everybody at Christmas, she says: “Take a minute to pay attention to your own pain and suffering – and really hold it as if you are holding a distressed child.”

Talk about what it is going to be hard and involve children in the planning. Decide, as a family, what you just can’t face for Christmas this year and what would be important to keep doing. “Death takes choice and control away from children in a way that nothing else does,” she points out. Having a say over what to do is really important for them.

“That might take a bit of negotiation – because everybody’s grief is so different, people may want directly opposite things. Finding ways for everybody in the family to commemorate the person who will be missing on that day, I think, is really important.”

It is also vital, Cantillon adds, that adults recognise grief “is exhausting in a way that nothing else is” and they need to plan rest and space for themselves amid the festivities. “You may be someone who needs to get out of the house and be on your own for an hour.”

Everybody notices the empty chair that first Christmas, says Stephen Teap, and a “cloud of sadness” hangs over everything. Some people find it easier to talk about it, others get lost in their own thoughts.

But his philosophy for Christmas Day, as with every other day of the year, is not to ignore the sadness but rather reassure his sons that it is okay to be sad and to talk about it.

No two children grieve the same and he has seen how Noah’s grief has been totally different from Oscar’s as they go through different developmental stages.

Drip feed

He and Irene had been very open with the then four-year-old Oscar during the final stages of her cancer, the first signs of which were missed by two smear tests in the CervicalCheck programme. The couple had been advised that “you can’t sit a child down and unload the whole story. You need to start drip feeding the information because they don’t have the attention span and understanding.”

Right towards the end, Oscar brought the topic up himself from the back of the car as he and his father were driving past a graveyard. “You know the way really, really old people die,” said the boy, who had been brought to the funeral of his great-grandfather the previous year, “and really, really sick people die . . .”  At which point Stephen took the opportunity to point out that his mother was sick and Oscar replied “but not really, really sick . . .”  His father stopped the conversation there because he knew Irene wanted to break the news to him herself.

“I came home to Irene and said, ‘I think he is ready now’. This was on a Monday and she said ‘yes I will do it on Friday’ and unfortunately she passed away that night and she never got the opportunity.”

The next morning Stephen continued that conversation with Oscar, about how Mum was “really, really sick”, that unfortunately the doctors couldn’t do anything more and she had died in the night. “He got it straight away – no questions. It was heartbreaking,” says Stephen. “He just broke down, as adults would.” He grasped the finality of it because of the build-up.

Every now and then Stephen and Oscar recycle conversations they have had about the death of Irene. “But because he is older and has a better understanding of the world, we end up doing it in more detail and more mature questions coming out.”

Noah, at age two, was too young to understand and it was another three months before he asked “where is momma?”

“The only answer I knew I could give him was ‘momma is all gone’,” recalls Stephen. “That is when he shed his first tear; what he understood at that point I will never know. Now he is asking the questions and trying to get his own memories of her.”

Little boy’s memories

Noah can’t remember life with his mother and that is his sadness. He has started to cry more for his mother since he turned five this summer. “I am always trying to tell him stories, that we have two years of stories, although Mum was sick for a lot of them,” adds Stephen. “When you are telling the stories, his eyes light up because he loves to hear them and to recall them afterwards because then they become his stories and his memories.”

Just as the little boy in Sol discovers, it is the stories and memories of loved ones that bring us all through darkness of grieving into light.

Demand for Barnardos Children’s Bereavement Service is up about 20 per cent this year, according to Cantillon.

Yet, she worries that families under stress can’t cope with the emotional opening-up that is needed to process a bereavement. “My feeling is there is a postponed grief going on for families who have been derailed by job losses or any sort of issues going on as a result of the Covid era. It is difficult for families like that to attend and to attend regularly.”

On the positive side, the ongoing national conversation prompted by the pandemic about anxiety has been helpful. “Children are finding their internal experiences are being reflected everywhere.”

This Barnardos service, which works both online and face-to-face, now finds people contacting them (helpline 01-4732110; much earlier in the bereavement process. Typically, it used to be between six and nine months after a death, now they often hear from families in the first month or two.

Cantillon believes this is because of all the secondary losses this Covid-19 era has brought, regardless of the cause of death. “You have lost the funeral ritual; you have lost people honouring the relationship in a way that they want to do and the way they are used to doing; of offering comfort and being comforted.  I think there is some anxiety about the effect of that on children.”

Children who have suffered bereavement before the pandemic are definitely showing more anxiety around Covid, reports Maura Keating of the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network. For a child who has been bereaved, constant talk of people dying "hits them in a place where, for other children who have not had the experience, it may go over their heads.

“There is also the anxiety that other loved ones around them will die. That is a normal reaction for any bereaved child but it’s heightened by Covid.”

The advice is always to try to keep everything as normal as possible for bereaved children – and obviously that wasn’t possible after the schools closed in March.

Cantillon says she has “definitely” seen a decrease in anxiety in children since the schools reopened. She attributes that not just to them being with friends and a return to normality, but also the support they are getting from teachers, who “have taken this on in a very courageous way”.