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When a three-year-old girl’s pet goldfish died, it was replaced with another fish, no questions asked. When the second fish suffered the same fate, it was substituted with a third fish. Unfortunately, that died too.
Sometime later, after being told the fish had gone ‘on holiday’, the child spotted that the fourth fish in the bowl was a different colour and remarked: “Oh look! It’s come back with a suntan!”
“This is a missed opportunity to teach a child early on about nature and death” says Rebekah Lawson.
Though this real-life tale is amusing, her message is a more sobering one. Learning about death can be a tough concept for anyone, never mind a pre-schooler- a fact Ms Lawson knows only too well. As a trained counsellor, she’s spent years talking to children who have felt the fallout from the death of a parent or sibling.
Every day more than 100 children are bereaved of a parent in the UK. As area manager of the North West branch of children’s bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, her small team of counsellors see approximately 40 new grieving families a year.
And she believes it is crucial children hear the word 'dead', even if they don't understand it.
“When people phone our helpline, it’s a very strong instinct to want to protect children from the very harsh reality. When they feel like that, they often use words like ‘Dad has gone to a different place’ or ‘They’ve gone away’.
"The child can become very confused about them being somewhere like on holiday.” She says the painful result can be that the child constantly asks when the person is coming back.
Another unwanted outcome involves the burden of blame being carried by a child. “It’s quite understandable for children up to the age of seven to feel a very strong sense of responsibility that the person isn’t there. It can be the simplest thing like the last thing the child said to them was mean or naughty.”
Spending time with families of very young children and teenagers (up to the age of 19), Rebekah Lawson advises parents on how to talk to children about a bereavement and gives one-to-one sessions with children.
Ms Lawson’s emphasises the need for a regular routine for young children and giving children some clarity. Having worked with a teenager who lost her father when she was six, Ms Lawson says: “Mum was so upset, she couldn’t explain what had happened. The child was actually left for many years thinking that Dad died in an accident but it was a sudden illness.”
Ms Lawson says adults should also explain how an illness which leads to somebody dying is very different from having a routine illness like the common cold.
Young children grieve too, just differently
"At a young age, children really don’t have an understanding of the permanence of death. It’s very easy to assume that very young children don’t grieve just because they’re impacted in such a different way to an older child. Children, particularly very young children, have a very natural ability to experience grief for short spaces of time. An adult’s grief is more sustained.
“We’ve got a little boy of six at our drop-in group and most of the time he is playing but then he will skip up to a member of staff and remind us that his brother has died. Those parents had been very clear and used that language. It also makes it clear that it's different from them ‘being asleep‘ or ‘being away’.“
She adds: “Sometimes parents will not realise just how much children are picking up. I think it’s absolutely fine that children see the emotions that those parents are experiencing.”
When Labour MP Jo Cox died after being shot and stabbed in her Batley and Spen constituency, her husband Brendan brought their children to the House of Commons in July 2016 to listen from the public gallery to tributes paid to her by MPs.
Her three-year-old daughter Lejla, played with a drawing board on her dad’s knee and son Cuillin, five, sat and listened as Labour MP Rachel Reeves wept while paying tribute in the House saying: “Batley and Spen will elect another MP, but no-one will replace a mother.”
Brendan Cox took his children out camping before the Westminster visit in memory of Jo. Later that year, he told his young children what happened to their mother so they didn't find out from others. Ms Lawson says: “Shielding children from understanding how adults grieve isn’t always the best thing but that’s got to be balanced with a clear message that children are able to have happy times in their life as well.”
Ms Lawson’s team use the book ‘Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine’ by Diana Crossley to send children the message that death can be very difficult …muddles, overwhelming feelings of grief can feel like puddles but there are parts of a children’s childhood that will still be fun … the sunshine.
Rebekah Lawson tries to make memories of loved ones “as strong as possible”. Which is essential for young children “because they are not going to grow up with their own memories - it will be memories that have been given by families to them”. As well as storybooks, she uses play and arts and crafts during sessions with children. “I’ve been very struck by children who don’t have language to describe what’s happened, will use play to express a death. I made a peg doll with a four-year-old that had lost Mummy. We were talking about how mum had died and she dismantled this doll.” The girl’s mother had killed herself.
A six-year-old boy attending pre-school, dressed up as a policeman at playtimes and would repeatedly arrive at the playhouse to knock on the door. She says, the staff found out later that on the day the boy’s father died, a policeman had come to his house to tell his mum.
Walking the dog
She believes “staff in nurseries can do a lot that we can’t because we are not in that child’s life daily". As far as tips for nurseries goes, she advises: “It can be very difficult for professionals to contradict what language is being used by parents at home.
“It’s always good for nursery staff to sit down privately with parents and find out how the death is being talked about, so they can be consistent with that.”
And it’s important for staff to practice, what she calls, ‘relentless self-care’. After three years in her job as counsellor, she says to take her mind off work she often “resorts to eating lots of chocolate or walking the dog.” Ms Lawson urges staff to “not be afraid” to point parents in the direction of the Winston’s Wish helpline to discuss how to talk to their children. Free to families calling the helpline is the charity’s book ‘A child’s grief’, which explains death to a child using age-appropriate examples.
A staggering £93,094.73 for Winston’s Wish, has been raised since March 2016 by children and staff at 267 nurseries run by Busy Bees nursery group. As well as funding therapy sessions, money for the charity, named in honour of Winston Churchill, will result in the publication of a book for bereaved children under five-years-old, scheduled to be launched this Autumn.
Bereaved children may become very afraid something bad will happen to another person in their family and become anxious about being away from a parent, if one has died. Ms Lawson recommends nurseries stay alert to changes in a child’s behaviour such as unsettled sleeping, eating and clinginess.
“We encourage surviving parents to say they hope they will be there for the long term, that that’s their plan but they don’t make promises that they are going to be there forever.
“A parent could naturally say ‘Nothing’s going to happen to me’ but sadly nobody ever does know what’s round the corner.” Winston’s Wish free helpline is 08088 020 021.