Last week I wrote a blog post about Emma’s struggles as a bereaved sister and Vicky, a bereaved mummy and friend, commented with information about Children’s Grief Awareness Week in the UK.
Information about Children’s Grief Awareness Week can be found here, and I will let you skim it in peace, in your own time. All I will mention here is that it is organised by Grief Encounter in collaboration with the Childhood Bereavement Network and a wealth of information and resources are only a click away from the link I included above.
What I feel I need to contribute to this initiative is a personal account of how difficult bereavement has been for us as a family and especially for Emma, as a sibling.
I will also include what has worked for us, when it comes to grief support for Emma, and what other alternatives have been suggested to us by people who are either specialists, educators or have suffered the death of a sibling when they were young. Some of these suggestions you may find suitable for your bereaved child/children, others will not suit their personalities nor their current needs.
When Georgie died Emma was very young, coming up to 5 and she did accept it as a fact of life. Children so very young are unable to react to such traumatic events by dissociating what is normal from what is exceptionally surreal (like losing a sibling to leukaemia at only 5 months!) and they do integrate them into their psyche as norm. That is why, in my personal opinion, some children who go through abuse at an early age do end up either as abusers or in an abusive relationship later in life, their understanding of normal having been forever impaired in such a dramatic way.
We did see signs of that very early with Emma. Having spent the last two weeks of Georgie’s life in the Northern Ireland’s children’s hospice, Emma started playing nurses and wheelchairs an awful lot after Georgie passed away. I remember clearly her first play date here in the house, and her insistence on playing hospitals, to the other little girl’s dismay!
I did accept these things as Emma making sense of her upturned universe through play and I didn’t discourage her although my heart broke every time I saw her getting her dollies lined up for a check up or for having blood drawn!
Things started to get a lot more vocal this year. Emma has turned six recently and at half-term I noticed a lot of angry responses from her. I did pin it down a week later, after a lot of tears and tantrums, to the fact that one of her wee friends in school had just had a little brother. That must have brought back a lot of memories for Emma! When asked, she had the maturity to recognise it and say that she did, indeed, miss being a big sister.
How did we manage the new heartbreak?
I ordered from Snapfish a teddy wearing a t-shirt on which they imprinted one of Georgie’s pictures. I presented it to Emma as soon as it arrived and I told her she can hug it every time she feels sad and misses her brother. It is safe to say that Georgie Teddy, as she named him, has been everywhere with her ever since. It is like she has been given a tool to include her brother in her current life and we have seen a massive difference in her behaviour since.
So, what strategies could you use to assist and support a bereaved child?
- Therapy through play
Young children do this naturally, as I said, and in Emma’s case, it did prove essential that we facilitated and encouraged it, having understood that play can be a powerful means of releasing emotions and making sense of her new world.
We did consider taking her to see a play therapist when things kicked off last month but at the moment, things seem to have settled down.
My heart breaks every time a reader leave a comment, recounting their sibling loss experience and telling me that their parents bottled it all up and the departed sibling was never mentioned after his or her passing.
I find it very sad and although I understand that back in the day, silence was much more common a “solution” to painful issues like child or baby loss, I can see, from the now grown up siblings’ accounts, that silence is never the real answer.
These dear ladies suffer even now from the lack of communication and although my answer is always “your parents were only trying to protect you from the pain”, I do recognise in their accounts that their parents’ good intentions never achieved what was intended.
We need to acknowledge the fact that a sibling is flesh and blood and is loved unconditionally from the very beginning.
Not allowing a sibling to impart into the pain of loss and into the grieving process is simply depriving them of expressing feelings of love as well as sadness over the loss.
We have countless mementos of Georgie’s existence in the house. Some are visible, like the picture frame we keep on the low window sill in our kitchen/dining area, where Emma can see and reach it if she feels the need.
We also have more subtle reminders like little dragonfly candle lights in the living room, where she plays and, for special occasions, like Christmas, decorations that go up and recognise Georgie’s existence and his belonging into our family.
Mementos can be powerful tools in dealing with loss and grief as the child perceives them not only as symbols of our love for the departed child but as a sign of love for them as well, as they know everyone is important in our family unit!
4. The larger circle of life
We have always encouraged the people in Emma’s life to continue to speak about Georgie. Her school is also aware of what has happened and very supportive of Emma’s need to mention her brother on a daily basis.
We are very grateful that the majority of our families have understood this need and when we visit, there are pictures, little gifts, tears and love for our little boy. In equal measure, we are saddened that two of her grandparents choose not to mention Georgie at all. Again, they do belong to a much older generation where things like this were simply buried and never spoken of, so this sort of explains it to us. Unfortunately, not to Emma, she is too young to understand the whys. If you are reading this as a larger circle family member of a bereaved child, please do make time to chat to them about their loved ones, it will mean the world to them!
5. Religion, church and faith
Religion was very much part of our lives when Georgie passed away but we did find ourselves drifting away from it as the months ticked by.
We still tell Emma that Georgie is in Heaven, as we both believe he is, but we did find ourselves extremely angry at the idiosyncrasies and discrepancies that church presented: professed love for a God who died a horrible death but the utter fear of discussing death and the untimely departure of a precious family member.
If you choose to present the facts to a bereaved child through the faith perspective, please do this in a responsible and coherent way!
Make sure the story stacks up and what you preach, you live, not only in fragments but as a whole.
Children are infinitely more aware of interpretations and nuances than we give them credit for and the last thing you want to do it creating a Santa-like image for God which will leave them feeling cheated and vulnerable later in life.
Do answer their questions honestly. Do present the whole story as it is, pain and tears included. Do make God real to a bereaved child through your openness, honesty and transparency.
Which leads me to my last point in the list…
Do be honest about your pain.
I cry in front of Emma, sometimes on a daily basis.
I get angry in front of Emma and I discuss with her what causes my anger. I have told her many times: “I am not angry with you, I am angry with life and the fact that your brother is no longer here.”
Emma sees her parents as they are. Broken, sad, emotionally exhausted. Yesterday, I had to have a nap after I picked her up from school, as my sleep is broken again at night, and Alex fell asleep while trying to spend some time with her, at 7.40, on top of our bed!
And you know what?
She gets us and she gets our pain.
She has developed an understanding and compassion which is beyond her young years.
This understanding and maturity wouldn’t have been there had we chosen to live our pain behind closed doors.
And I do believe that this understanding will allow her to communicate with people in pain at an authentic level when she grows up.
Hope this blog post will provide many bereaved families with precious assistance and tools. Please leave a comment with other suggestions you have and could be included into the list. More importantly, do think of the host of children who have lost a parent or sibling(1 in 29 children at present in the UK!) and do offer your support and help when presented with the opportunity.