Helping children to cope with separation and grief

The Children’s Grief Centre helps young minds come to terms with loss, through death or parental separation

A nine-year-old boy didn’t realise his parents were separating until he saw his father go out the door with a suitcase and his mother told him: “Dad is going on a sleepover.”

Another boy, aged three, had dinner at home with his father as usual one evening, but never saw him again after he went out to mow the grass and suffered a fatal heart attack.

A big sister used to bring a boy and other siblings upstairs, put music on and dance with them – when their parents started fighting downstairs.

What these children have in common is that they have all been able to share their feelings at the Children's Grief Centre in Limerick. While "grief" may be most readily associated with death, about two-thirds of children who attend the centre have experienced loss through parental separation.

"A lot of parents have said there is great support following a bereavement, but there is little or none following a separation," says the centre's director and founder, Sr Helen Culhane. It was through 23 years of social work, including eight years at a hospice, that she saw the need to support children affected by bereavement, divorce and separation.

I knew there would be some demand for it but never in 100 years did I think it would have taken off to such an extent

With the backing of the Sisters of Mercy, Culhane started a pilot project in two rooms of a convent in 2009. She saw 11 children that first year. Last year, she and her team of still mostly voluntary professionals sat down with 245 children, all free of charge.

“I knew there would be some demand for it but never in 100 years did I think it would have taken off to such an extent,” says the indefatigable and humorous Culhane, described by one parent to The Irish Times as “the coolest nun on the planet”.

Her winning of Limerick Person of the Year in 2017 and the centre’s success in some funding awards, have increased awareness.

Five years ago, the centre had a waiting list of 44 children. Today the total is 193, with children having to wait about five months to attend. Over the decade, about 1,300 children – and their parents – have benefitted from the support of the centre, now in a home-from-home premises off the city’s South Circular Road. Culhane is harbouring ambitions to build a new base elsewhere in the city and fundraising for the estimated €4 million needed has begun.

“We’re not a counselling service,” she explains. Firstly, they meet both parents or, in the case of bereavement, the surviving one, to find out why they think their child needs help. Then they work with children one-to-one, encouraging them to explore their feelings through paint, clay, art, story books or talking.

“It works really well,” she says, pointing out that all the research shows that without early intervention for affected children, there is a higher risk of adversity, such as depression or ending up in prison, when they reach adulthood.

The sense of being listened to and the sessions being "all about them" is what is most valued by the children, says Dr Elizabeth Nixon of the Children's Research Centre in Trinity College Dublin. She will launch the results of an evaluation of the Children's Grief Centre at a conference in Limerick, on June 14th, to mark its 10th anniversary. An assistant professor of psychology, she will also give an overview of research findings about the effects of parental separation on children, highlighting "what hurts and what helps".

What Culhane hears time and time again from children, often through heartbreaking little details, is that it is how a bereavement or separation is handled that can be most painful.

That three-year-old mentioned above, for instance, whose father died mowing the grass, came to the centre two years later. All the advice to his mother at the time had been that he was too young to understand and not to take him to the funeral.

At the age of five, he started kicking the wall in school one day and shouting, “I want to see a dead person.” The alarmed teacher called the mother, who brought him to the GP, who suggested he go to the grief centre.

At his first session he drew a picture with a house, a truck and a person and explained to Culhane: “This is a house; we used to live in this house and we don’t live in this house anymore.” It transpired the mother had moved home after just six months because she couldn’t bear to look out on the lawn where her husband died.

“This is a truck, my dad used to drive a truck and he doesn’t drive it anymore.” Culhane asked him why and he pointed up to the sky, saying “he’s up there”.

“And you see this woman here,” he continued, “she has the same name as you, Helen, and she doesn’t mind me anymore.”

“In that picture,” says Culhane, “was the loss of his father, the loss of his home and the loss of his childminder.” The little boy had no idea why his whole life had changed utterly.

When the mother was called in at the end of the session, she was confused. She was bringing him to his father’s grave every Sunday and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t comprehend what had happened.

But because he wasn’t involved in the aftermath, as far as he was concerned, one minute his Dad was sitting opposite him and then he never saw him again. After his mother, with the help of Helen, explained in an age-appropriate way about a heart attack, a funeral and the coffin going into the ground, he could begin to make sense of what had happened.

Culhane also recalls a nine-year-old girl saying that she always got very upset when she came back from visiting her father. Her mother would interrogate about who was there, was “she” there and what did she eat.

“I don’t like talking about my dad,” said the girl. She was gently empowered by Culhane to point out to her mother, when she came in at the end of the session, how she hated this cross-questioning.

The mother’s response: “You’re right… I promise you from today I’ll stop.”

It’s important for us to think about separation, not as an event in a child’s life but as a process over years, says Nixon. Often preceding the separation, there is a deterioration or breakdown of the parents’ relationship. Then after the separation there is a period of reorganisation, “maybe chaos”, around living arrangements and access to parents.

“The research seems to suggest it takes about two years for things to reach a new equilibrium within the family,” she says. While life might become more stable for a while, developments such as parents entering new relationships can be another transition for children.

“When we are looking at research on the effects of divorce and separation on children, it may not be the separation per se but the things that precede and go after it that may be having the effects,” she explains.

The Growing Up in Ireland study shows that 6 per cent of children experience, between the ages of nine and 13, the departure of a parent from the home due to relationship breakdown. There is a similar incidence rate for children between nine months and five years.

At age 13, one in 10 children is at risk of emotional and behavioural difficulties. But, in the case of children whose parents have separated, that risk has doubled. However, a closer look needs to be taken, she suggests, as to what really elevates that risk.

It's separating out the breakdown of the romantic relationship from the parenting unit

Conflict between parents is what is most damaging for children. “The key thing is how parents can be supported to continue to co-parent their children when they are no longer a couple,” says Nixon. “So, it’s separating out the breakdown of the romantic relationship from the parenting unit.”

Helping people maintain a parenting relationship with their ex-partner is likely to have the most positive effect on children’s adjustment. Too often children are caught in the middle.

“I think the work of the Children’s Grief Centre is really important because it gives children that space to air their views and experiences without fear of betraying one parent,” she says. “They are often caught in these loyalty conflicts between parents and that’s really difficult for them.”

Dealing with childhood grief is not a one-off event either. There is likely to be “a reawakening of different emotions and thoughts around experiences at different points of development”.

Finally, acknowledging the loss for the child in separation is essential. Even if parents work out perfect arrangements for themselves, it is still hard for children to be living in two different houses.

Nixon knows of one couple who practise what’s termed “bird’s nest” parenting, where children live in the one home and parents take turns to move in and out.

However much you try to put the kids first, you are both going through so much and your own grief

“That’s probably the ideal,” she adds. “A lot of arrangements are more centred around the adults than they should be.”

The Children and Loss Conference, to mark the centre's 10th anniversary is on June 14th, in the Millennium Theatre, Limerick Institute of Technology. For more information see childrensgriefcentre.ie

AFTER SEPARATION

It’s too much to ask of a couple to shepherd their children through a separation without help, says Rebecca, a separated mother of two boys.

“However much you try to put the kids first, you are both going through so much and your own grief.”

Despite the amicable nature of the split from her husband two years ago, she was still glad to hear about the Children’s Grief Centre in Limerick.

“It seemed to me that we certainly needed support at that time, so they must too,” says Rebecca, who asks that her full name not be used to protect her sons’ privacy.

“I think children very often blame themselves for a separation. They see the atmosphere change in the house and they think it must have something to do with them because, as kids, we all believe that the world revolves around us.”

Her elder son, a teenager, attended the centre three times and his younger brother went about nine times. It has been a huge relief, she explains, that her sons had this support.

“In the turmoil of it all, however well you separate, it is still an incredibly difficult time and children pick up on the parents’ misery. Even if you try to hold it together, they know damn well.”

While parents in these circumstances may say “oh the children are doing fine”, they “might just have their heads in the sand”, she suggests.

Rebecca knows that children don’t like talking about the separation with their parents. “If I bring the subject up, which I do, they’ll nip it in the bud as quick as they can because it just does their head in.”

At the centre, the children are in charge and everything is done on their terms. Sometimes, Rebecca says, she would be asked into the room “and asked very direct questions that they would never have asked at home”.

For instance, on one occasion she was asked “why did you separate?”

“So, I began to explain how I believed that we as a family were going to do better not living in the same house. That didn’t do it, that’s not what he wanted to hear. And the wonderful lady working with him said, ‘Do you know, sometimes love between a mum and dad changes but their love will never change for you,’ and then he started to cry. It was about love for him.”

Rebecca is very grateful for that woman’s comment “because to me it was way too close to the bone”. After the session she noticed her son was much more relaxed and affectionate “because he had heard what he needed to hear – ‘the love changed’.”

AFTER BEREAVEMENT

When Jane’s son’s father died, she knew more than most how he was going to need help to get through it. She had lost her own father at the age of three.

“He couldn’t just do it on his own and I am not trained.” But she did resolve “to do the opposite of everything that was done when my dad died”.

She’s not blaming anybody for not being brought to the funeral after her father died of injuries from a car accident, or having her grief recognised in any way.  “It’s just the way it was then,” points out Jane (44).

Her only two memories of her father are the day of the accident and a day visiting him during the six months he was in the national rehabilitation hospital in Dún Laoghaire before his death.

“What sticks in my head is, as a young child, crying and crying and not knowing why I was crying.

“On my fourth birthday, I remember crying all the way through it and my mother telling me to stop, that I was always whingeing.”

An addict in recovery for the past 10 years, she has no doubt now that “when I did start using [drugs] and drinking, it was to block out pain, although I didn’t realise it at the time”. She began experimenting during her teenage years “and I really did wonder about my dad a lot around that time as well”.

As soon as she saw a leaflet for the Children’s Grief Project, as it was called first, she rang up to see if her then 12-year-old son Liam (not his real name) could attend to help him after his father’s death a year earlier.

My dad died of an overdose and she [my mam] thinks I don't know

Every time they had an appointment coming up at the grief centre, Liam would look forward to it, she recalls, “even though it was something that was hard. And when we’d come away, he’d be a little bit better. I think he learned how to handle it and that it was okay to feel whatever he was feeling.”

Jane’s partner, who had lived apart from her since Liam was one, died of an overdose but she told her son they didn’t know why he had died and she let Helen know she wanted to keep it that way. However, when the two of them talked in front of Liam, he caught his mother winking at Helen and, after Jane left the room, he asked why was his mother winking.

“I don’t know. Why do you think your mam was winking at me?” countered Helen.

“My dad died of an overdose and she thinks I don’t know,” Liam replied.

Nearly nine years on, Jane and her son talk regularly about his father. However, she worries that he may use alcohol to numb his feelings. On her recommendation, he has started adult bereavement counselling, to try to ensure that family history doesn’t repeat itself.