December 06, 2023
Grappling with Grief
By Dr Kathy Weston
It is Grief Awareness Week nationally across the UK; a seasonal opportunity to raise awareness about the nature and impact of grief on us, family members, pupils we work with and children we care for, and to consider ‘what works’ when it comes to optimal support.
When I think about grief, I often reflect on what the actress Vanessa Redgrave said in an interview when asked about the loss of her daughter, Natasha, aged 45, in a tragic accident. She described grief as ‘another country’. Aptly put. Indeed, the experience of grief is a psychological state of mind where one can feel somewhat dis-associated from the rest of the planet. Fresh from the experience of loss, we ask ourselves: how can the world keep spinning when our friend, partner, child or parent isn’t here? Why hasn’t the world reacted to our great loss? Why hasn’t the sky turned black? How can we communicate the depth of our loss to those around us? Who are we now without our loved one’s allyship? How can we go on without them? Will we ever be happy again? Fresh grief pierces normality, reshuffles our daily lives, turns assumptions about safety and security on their head and challenges us to search for some kind of meaning out of chaos.
My own experience of grief has been principally shaped by the loss of a close friend back in 2017. Distinguished by a fantastic sense of humour and passion for learning, my friend could always be relied upon to cheer you up, give you sage advice and to listen actively to everything you were saying.
Previously a classroom teacher, she would frequently be stopped in the street by former pupils who remembered her as their ‘favourite’. She was warm, kind, funny and caring. She seemed unstoppable; health-conscious, fit and with a zest for exploring all of life’s opportunities. She dreamed of a retirement spent in multiple European cities with her husband and a new coaching business called ‘Eureka!’. She couldn’t wait to become a grandmother, to write her book and to paint when she got the time. Grief robs us of that enriching and life-giving connection, and at the same time robs the departed of their dreams and aspirations. Grief disrupts our lives, mocks us, steals from us, enrages us, and can bring with it a sense of profound disappointment and helplessness.
Recently, I have been talking to a parent fresh from the loss of their life partner. She shared how exhausting grief was, how relentless, and still expressed disbelief that it was happening to her. A premature and painful loss of this kind seems unnatural, incomprehensible, unbearable. Time passes and to some degree will heal, but most of us learn to live alongside grief rather than ‘overcome’ it.
Grief is something that will affect all of us at some point, including children. Charity, Child Bereavement UK states that up to 70% of schools have a bereaved pupil on their roll at any given time and that a dependent child loses a parent every 22 minutes in the UK. 92% of young people will experience the death of someone significant to them before they turn 16.
It is imperative therefore that we are all ‘grief aware’ when working with or supporting children; that we understand how grief may affect them and feel confident in how we approach conversations about their experience. What are the dos and ‘try not tos?
Psychotherapist, Julia Samuels describes children’s grief experience as ‘like jumping in and out of puddles’. It isn’t linear and can be entirely unpredictable in its nature and expression. This means that one minute there might be a huge outpouring of emotion, yet the next day children might appear calm and relatively ok. For some children, the initial shock of grief may take a little bit longer for them to process. Grief counsellors suggest not putting too much pressure on children to talk about their feelings and perhaps instead to focus on relaxing activities to do together. Professional support doesn’t have to be rushed or put in place straight away.
Traumatic bereavement specialist Beck Ferrari taught me a helpful visual metaphor of a snow globe to describe what occurs when a sudden and traumatic loss is experienced. At first, the snow obscures everything and life feels completely all over the place. Before the snow settles (i.e in the period shortly after the loss has occurred), children should simply be reminded of the support network that surrounds and encloses them. After the snow has ‘settled’, over the months that come, and as the loss becomes real and felt more acutely, it can be an optimal time to seek professional support.
For some children, a certain type of bereavement might have a longer lasting legacy; this is termed traumatic bereavement, which is characterised by flashbacks or even flashing images that children see suddenly. These flashbacks often occur on a subconscious level and can be triggered by smells, sights or sounds. Research also tells us that in those quiet moments at school (e.g., perhaps when a teacher is talking, or during assembly) thoughts of a particular trauma may come to the surface. In schools and at home, these children might engage in more avoidant behaviours to circumnavigate thinking or talking about an event. They might be prone to internalising feelings as a defence mechanism, a fact that can be particularly hard for a parent struggling to support them. Children who have experienced trauma of this kind may also appear to be constantly ‘on edge’ or ‘hypervigilant’. During these moments, they might seem unsettled, can struggle to focus well on an instruction or have outbursts that seem uncharacteristic. There are some fantastic resources out there to help support children through traumatic bereavement, including My Grief Handbook, written by Beck Ferrari; and a guide for parents on supporting your child through loss and trauma. The UK Trauma Council also has some free resources, which are evidence-based and very helpful.
Supporting children through any trauma requires specialist support, but family and school communities can all play a key role in providing much needed routine, care and normalcy. Beck Ferrari recommends that adults bear in mind that the experience of trauma strips a child of autonomy and control. Therefore, giving children as much agency and power over decisions surrounding the nature of support they might receive is key. As Beck says, “Offering suggestions not only shows that you care, but also gives them a sense of control back”.
I think it is worth remembering that any traumatic loss or traumatic event disrupts our sense of self, agency, control and challenges our assumptions about the world (as safe and predictable). Part of the recovery process involves making sense of the chaos and finding a coherent narrative around what has occurred. A simple way that we can support any young person who has experienced the unthinkable is to help them tell their stories as and when they are ready, through gentle and supportive conversations, play, stories and/or in therapeutic settings.
A further simple way we can support them is to validate how they are feeling. We often don’t have all the answers during difficult times but rest assured by simply being there and validating their experience, you are making a positive difference. Statements such as: “I know this is hard for you”, “I can see you are feeling a little bit sad today and that is ok”, “It is ok to feel sad about Mummy and happy about your school trip at the same time” help them to understand that all of their emotions are normal. Just being there for them and showing them that we care is often sufficient. It’s important to resist holding onto firm expectations about how children and young people ought to grieve as they move through the experience; flexibility and kindness go a very, very long way.
The good news is that there are countless people, organisations and support networks available to support people facing all types of loss.
I mentioned someone who has recently lost a partner above. They have enjoyed support from Widowed and Young and from Winston’s Wish who provide specialist support for bereaved children. In the case of widowhood, Justin Bowen’s X account and the series of books on grief support that he has developed for children and educators provide advice learned through first-hand experience. Justin lost his wife to cancer four years ago, when his children were only five and seven years old. He describes it as a ‘bewildering, turbulent time’ and his books helpfully document the peaks and troughs of coping.
Happily, his testimony of loss contains hope, optimism and recovery and I particularly enjoyed reading about how much his children are thriving under his patient and loving care. He notes that, through the grief and the tears, he and his family were blessed with wonderful support, in particular from his children’s school, which “played a huge part in us coming through the weeks, months and now years that have followed in as good a shape as we could have hoped for”.
His first book, Fighting for this Life, was written using his wife's social media posts through her journey with cancer. His second, Be The Rainbow, is a practical guide for primary schools on how to support bereaved children and provides schools with a simple, but powerful, toolkit for helping grieving children when they've experienced the death of someone important. Most recently, he wrote Cuddles Are Forever, which is based on a story he told his children after their mum died to show how in some way she would always be with them. Rooted in science, it is a picture book that tells how the energy of those we love lasts forever.
He also provides tips for those who wish to support grieving friends. In one tweet this week, he cheerfully recalls how a neighbour had ‘brought round a cottage pie’. It meant, he says, I didn’t have to worry about feeling the kids, or me, that night. The best cottage pie I have ever tasted!”.
We know the festive season can be particularly tough for those missing loved ones. So, here is a free webinar for you to attend.
Our suggested reading material for grieving adults might include: Julia Samuels’ Grief Works or Grief is the Things with Feathers by Max Porter. Recommended books on loss for younger children include Badger’s Parting Gifts, and for older children, Welcome to the Grief Club (with the sub-title of ‘you don’t have to go through it alone’). Julie Stokes’ book, You Will Be Ok is also a firm favourite.
Whatever the nature of your loss, it might feel isolating but it is worth remembering that bereavement is a universal experience and, as a result, there is a large army of support waiting for you out there, hoping you will reach out and get in touch.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Tooled Up has a range of resources that can help parents and carers support children through grief and bereavement.
A great starting point is our list of organisations that provide support to parents and families in the event of bereavement.
Julia Samuel MBE is the author of the book Grief Works, the book mentioned above. In this interview, she talks about child bereavement, grief, and how parents and school staff can support children and young people.
In our webinar on supporting young people through sibling bereavement, we heard from Dr Laura Towers of the University of Sheffield, on the impact of sibling loss and different ways to support those affected.
Author Justin Bowen writes hopeful, helpful books about his own family’s experience of loss and his experience of widowhood. His podcast with Dr Weston has practical ideas for all adults, and he shares tips for schools. His work appears in our loss and bereavement book list for children of all ages.
Finally, we partnered with suicide charity The Ollie Foundation to produce a guide for schools in case of a suicide or sudden death, and with cognitive behavioural therapy practitioner Beck Ferrari in this webinar on supporting students following a traumatic event. We hope these resources prove useful for our Tooled Up schools and organisations.