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Walking with children through grief
At 10.31pm on Monday 22nd May 2017, suicide bomber Salman Abedi detonated a homemade explosive device in the foyer of the Manchester Arena. A few hours earlier, thousands of children and young people gathered to watch a sellout Ariana Grande performance.
The concert finished and, as people were leaving, the bomb, which contained nails, screws and bolts, detonated. The devastation killed 22 people, many of whom were children. Around 120 more were injured and countless more suffered the consequences of experiencing the trauma first hand.
The horror that was felt over this attack was increased by the fact that the killer had deliberately targeted children. As we approach the one-year anniversary of this tragic event, we can consider those who were affected by that night: families that were irrevocably changed; people who experienced the complex grief of a senseless attack.
As those who volunteer and work with children, moments like this can prompt us to stop for a moment and consider our own practices. Significant events like this are life-changing for everyone involved, from the families to the first responders and beyond to the psyche of a whole country. Yet these are outlier events for most of us. Closer to home, many children are experiencing bereavement. The way we choose to support them can shape how they process their grief.
Know your limits
Significant numbers of young people will experience the death of someone special in their lives. Winston’s Wish highlights some of the statistics:
- More than 100 children are bereaved of a parent every day
- 1 in 25 have experienced the death of a parent or sibling
- 41,000 children suffer bereavement every year in the UK
- 6 per cent of 5 to 16-year-olds have experienced the death of a close family friend
Regardless of the type of bereavement, it is worth taking a moment to consider how we can support young people through grief.
Providing support to children who have experienced bereavement can feel daunting. The most important thing to remember is what you are and what you are not. This may seem obvious, but as children’s or youth workers you are not a counsellor. However, you are a specialist in what you do.
One of the most pressured jobs I have ever had was serving as a church youth worker. Working in a church meant playing a multifaceted role in the lives of young people. As I look back, I found myself acting as a guidance counsellor, mentor, leader, statutory youth worker, events coordinator, worship leader, technician, spiritual advisor, trainer, volunteer manager and preacher. I could go on.
The pressures, real or perceived, come firstly from within, but also from a congregation that looks to you to shape and release the next generation of the Church to fully be themselves and reach out to their peers, while simultaneously preserving the status quo of the existing shape of the church you serve. You’re balancing the expectations of parents who don’t want their children to walk away from church and a leadership that looks to you to be the children, youth or family specialist.
The flip side of this is that it is a very rewarding calling through which you have the unique ability to speak into the lives of children and support their spiritual, mental and physical journeys As a result, you can find yourself going above and beyond, rarely saying no to the ever-expanding role you are expected to take on. But it is so important to know your boundaries; to recognise where your role begins and ends.
For me, 80 per cent of the work I do with children and young people happens before I sit down with them. The same is probably true for you. Firstly, don’t panic. There is very little you could do to make a young person’s situation worse than it already is. We often fear that we’ll say something to make them more upset. Trust me, the death of their special person is worse than you struggling to know what to say. Relax and recognise that you are not a bereavement counsellor, but that you can provide things many of the other adults in their life may not be able to.
When a young person is grieving, they may feel marginalised by their family and by the other significant adults in their life. Your role may be distinctly different. You could be the one person that isn’t trying to protect them from their grief.
Here are seven ways you can offer support to a young person.
As busy as you are, the most valuable thing you can give any child is your time - time to sit and listen with an open heart and mind, without an agenda to fix anything.
Asking what the young person wants to talk about or what their biggest need is can mean absolutely everything to them. In the period following the death of someone special, adults will be making decisions for them or suggesting what they should be feeling or doing. You taking the time to ask them will undoubtedly lead to some helpful conversations. They may not talk about what you expect, but knowing that they can lead the direction of a conversation may be enough to take some pressure off.
Creating an environment of permission for the young person to safely be and say what they want reassures them that what they are feeling and thinking is normal. You may be the only adult in their life to say that it’s OK to feel how they are and to not correct them. Children need to test what bereavement is, what it feels like and how to express it for themselves. They will need to say some things for the first time and may not be able to express their feelings. Go with it. Allow them to change their minds and help them find a language that expresses what they feel, not what adults think they should feel.
Death is difficult to comprehend at any age, but children who have never encountered it before are unlikely to have the level of understanding to make sense of what has happened. They may have simple questions about what happens physically when someone dies, whether the person is coming back, why they have died, what will happen to their body, whether other people are going to die and whether it is their fault.
Young people need a safe space to explore their story and feelings in simple or creative ways. You are not a counsellor, but ask yourself what the young person needs and how you can support that. The most freeing realisation I came to at the beginning of my training was that I couldn’t fix anything. What I could do was sit with the young person and their pain. I could allow a safe space to tell stories about the person who had died, enabling them to cry or even laugh without judgement.
All children are unique and will express their grief in a variety of ways. Different feelings may emerge at different times, and the intense sadness and crying associated with grief may be interspersed with times of play and laughter. This can mean that other people around bereaved children sometimes don’t recognise that what they are doing is grieving. They may even think the children are behaving inappropriately.
Children’s lives undergo many changes that may cause them to revisit their experience of bereavement. For example, moving from primary to secondary school may cause them to think again about their loss. Parents and schools may see a change in behaviour and attribute it to ‘anger issues’ or anxiety over the transition itself. Or they may assume the issues are related to the bereavement when the child may simply be nervous about moving on to senior school. This is where you can really support a young person by listening and helping them tell their story.
Entering their story
If this is what we do, the way we do it is as important. When we enter a helping relationship we do so on the basis of supporting the life and journey of someone else.
It is so important that we put aside our own beliefs, assumptions, prejudices and expectations, forcing ourselves to explore the experiences of the young person as if it were the first time we were encountering it. This means we won’t colour their experience with our own.
We should not try to interpret the young person’s experience, but help them tell it in their way with their own words. It is not for us to choose what we think the most important part is. We must allow ourselves to enter the world of the young person; to see their world and feel their experiences.
We should not interpret the young person’s experience, but help them tell it in their way with their own words
For those of us who work in churches this can cause real tension. It may feel like an obvious step to offer to pray for the child. However, if we are entering their journey and exploring it with them, leading them in prayer can feel incongruous with the way we have approached everything else so far.
Please consider the boundaries of your existing relationship (if you have one). You may feel it is expected because of your role, but young people can easily target God as they look for answers or someone to blame. If we lead a child in this direction without them taking us there first we may lose their trust. Remember that you might be the one person who has offered to listen unconditionally. By all means pray for them in your own time, but always check whether this is something that is wanted by the young person.
What makes our work so vital is that we show unbiased empathy towards the children we work with. Dr Brené Brown says: “Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection. Empathy is feeling with people. Empathy is a choice and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” You can watch her ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ talk on YouTube.
A response rarely makes things better. What makes things better is a connection
Looking after yourself
It is also vital that you consider yourself in all that you do. The role of a volunteer or church worker can be very isolating, and although you may feel you are being supported through your spiritual journey, often (and I’ve yet to hear of a single case where this isn’t true) you receive no independent clinical supervision.
You support so many of the difficult experiences children and young people have to go through, but what do you do with all that? How do you process this in a way that doesn’t compromise your position with your line management? There is a distinct difference between line management and supervision. To have someone who is independent and has no connection or investment in your role development is essential for your own well-being.
Church leaders need to recognise the vital role that is played out in the dynamic of a church youth or children’s leader work and the young people they support. Independent clinical supervision should be part of the package of ensuring that their mental well-being is considered vital to the children’s personal development. After all, if you are not good to yourself what good can you be for the children and young people you work with?
Talking with Children and Young People about Death and Dying: a resource by Mary Turner
Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine by Diana Crossley
When Someone Very Special Dies by Marge Heegaard
A Child’s Grief by Di Stubbs
A Grief Encounter Workbook by Shelley Gilbert
Water Bugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney
Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley
The Memory Tree by Britta Teckentrup
The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
What Happened to Daddy’s Body? by Elke Barber
The Elephant in the Room by Amanda Edwards