Guiding a child through loss

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A big change or loss can take many forms; separation, divorce, or bereavement. It can profoundly impact a child who may need additional supports...

As an adult it’s fairly easy to identify with a loss. We have clocked up many more years and experience. Yet it can still be immensely difficult, and something that we can often struggle with for a long time.

For a child, with little experience of life, and emotional maturity to work things out, especially when the people around them create their entire universe, a significant loss, such as a change in the family dynamic when parents decide to separate, or a bereavement of a close family member or parent, the effects of the loss can be deeply profound and something from which they may have acute difficulty dealing with, understanding or even articulating.

Thankfully nowadays parents and experts recognise the need for proper supports for children where they can express their sorrow and confusion in a safe environment, and get support that allows them to move to a place of emotional wellbeing. Very often children don’t need specialist help and often their healing can happen at home with family, and, although some children may need one to one support, sometimes bringing children together to meet others around the same age who have been through something of a similar nature, allows them to express what’s inside and to see that their loss is important, valid and deserves recognition – and that it’s happened to other people too.

For between 3000 and 4000 children and young people a year, Rainbows Ireland is part of the healing journey. This national children’s voluntary service has the mission to “enable children and young people who have experienced a significant loss to access peer support. This support happens within their local communities as they seek to come to terms with their grief and loss.” Children from the age of 7 and in first class, up to the age of 18 can avail of the programme.

“There are different levels of need or care,” explains Anne Staunton, National Director of Rainbows Ireland. “Generally with people experiencing significant grief and loss, the majority are able to support themselves, that’s level one, where families support each other.”

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Further up the chain of help are counsellors and services like play therapy, right up to level five, where mental health services can be accessed. But here, at level two, the healing process can begin for a child outside of the family. In some cases of bereavement, such as with the loss of a baby in the family, the charity will signpost a family to more specialised and professional services.

“While there is a programme to allow support for kids and young people, the other key thing is, kids don’t have the language and cognitive skills we do. They are not able to verbalise their loss the way we can. Sometimes there is an element of shock. Very often kids are trying to hide this,” says Anne, who says that children can, sadly, end up being the ‘forgotten mourners.’

“When change happens, they can be very confused but it takes a long time for them to understand. Often they think they are the only child this has happened to. The real value, the core value, of listening support is that they are meeting others in a similar situation – we are normalising it. The programme helps children to deconstruct the feelings, helps them to cope.

“Children grieve too with all kinds of losses. They don’t need to be fixed. Children, whatever is going on for them, to have that loss recognised and acknowledged by society is so powerful, that’s a critical piece,” Anne stresses.

How would we know?

The idea that as adults we often hear someone say, “the children will be okay,” or that, “children are great at bouncing back,” needs to be challenged, because children grieve too and it’s unfair to dismiss their pain and diminish their loss.

So, as a parent you may ask yourself, how would I recognise if my child or someone in my family, requires extra help to cope with a momentous change? A good question to ask is, is the parent grieving or in shock themselves, and therefore are they at a point where they are unable to meet the emotional needs of children because of their own situation?

Another pointer is that children can often hide their true feelings. It may actually be someone from outside who recommends seeking access to the supports available. In fact many of the trained volunteers from Rainbows are already at the frontline of working with young people. “The programmes are available mainly in primary schools,” says Anne. “A lot of teachers recognise needs in their classroom, particularly around family when they separate and around bereavement.”

And sometimes, a child’s behaviour will be an indicator that there is something painful going on inside them. “When children can’t verbalise loss it comes out in a behavioural way,” says Anne. “When behaviour changes it can be a sign.”

The Rainbows programme can change a child’s life in a hugely positive way. It’s a safe and confidential place for them to help express what they have inside, with others who truly understand.

See www.rainbowsireland.ie for more details

Catherine Devane