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Helping children through grief at Marie Curie

Children playing games in bereavement support session

Ann Scanlon (left) helps children and young people through bereavement with fun, creative activities that give them a voice in their journey through grief

“This little nine-year-old lad once said to me, ‘My life’s like a jigsaw puzzle. Each day I put an extra piece in, but there’s still one big piece missing.’ This was years and years ago, but I remember it so clearly.”

As a children and young person’s counsellor at Marie Curie, Ann Scanlon understands better than most the needs of bereaved children. Working with families facing and coping with terminal illness and bereavement, Ann helps young people understand and work through the difficult emotions of losing someone close.

While everyone affected by terminal illness, young or old, can benefit from the support of Marie Curie, children and teenagers may require special understanding. With the pressures of schoolwork, friends and family life, young people can face unique challenges in pre-bereavement, before their loved one passes away, and afterwards.

“You’ve got a young person who has got somebody special who is really ill. It could be that they’ve got choices to make at school, or it could be during an exam year, even in primary school with SATS,” Ann explains. “We may not necessarily always work on the illness in the counselling sessions. It’s about the whole of what’s happening to them at that time. For example, there may be a maths lesson that they are in, that they used to be able to do before, that they can’t do anymore and that results in frustration. The grief is so intense they may not have the ability to process as much. Allowing the young person to process this in the session can help with the young person’s self-esteem.”

Ann explains that children and young people are given a choice about the kind of the support they need: “For some young people it might be that they might want the one-to-one, it gives them that space to actually be able to offload, talk through their feelings, understand their journey and to be able to then walk away.”

However, for many children, adopting a more creative approach can be helpful: “Sometimes it works slightly differently; it’s very creative. So the sessions are a more indirect way of exploring their grief. It could be activity-based, through artwork, or through memory building, on a one-to-one basis or within the family unit.

“One activity that we do that can be really useful is with pillowcases. Each child will have a pillowcase and then family members, including the patient, will go around and paint each other’s hands and put their hands on the pillowcase.

“I do this with lots of families. One son said to his mother, ‘Come over here a minute.’ So she bent down, thinking he was going to say something, and he put his hand on her face. And they started painting not just the pillowcase, but all over each other too. When I visited the mum afterwards to see how it was for her, she said, ‘It’s made me realise that my children aren’t coming to visit me because I’m dying, they’re coming to have fun.’ To me that just summed it all up.”

“It’s an honour to be a part of moments like that. They’re thanking you so much, and actually it’s them that need the thanks. They invite you in to be part of such a personal experience.”

Ann stresses that these moments of fun and creativity can be hugely beneficial to a grieving child. Giving them “permission to have fun” and the confidence to be themselves is a big part of what the children a young person’s support team strive for.

“This time last year we had a group of young people from the local theatre, who had never experienced grief, and a group of young people who had access to our service, and we put them together. They came up with a play, which we advertised and they performed, called ‘The Circle of Life’. Again, it wasn’t necessarily just related to their grief, it was them putting on a play to raise their self-esteem and give them a voice.

“That is such a big thing with bereavement and pre-bereavement – allowing young people to have a voice. They really need to be recognised on the journey.

“Because if you can imagine a young person who can see physical changes in their special person, changes in what they can do with them, they overhear conversations, even other people in the family may not be there as much. This young person, even at the age of 5, is going to start making their own story. But if they’re doing that on their own, rather than having somebody with them or being able to share, then that can be a very scary place.

“One thing that young people want to share is the importance of them having a voice and being part of their family’s journey.”

If you are coping with any terminal illness affecting you or those you love, visit the Marie Curie website for more information on the services available to you. Or you can read more about supporting a bereaved child or bereaved teenager in our help and resources section.

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