September 14, 2022
Reigns and Rainbows
By Dr Kathy Weston
This week, following the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I have been re-reading the Seamus Heaney poem, 'Clearances', penned after the death of his mother.
The poem is one of a series of sonnets, each describing moments enjoyed with her through time and memory; the closeness of peeling potatoes together or the dance that they enjoyed as they worked to fold sheets off the laundry line.
I loved how he described the disparities between them; poignantly detailing how he would underplay his oral ability to comply with the household vernacular: “I’d naw and aye / And decently relapse into the wrong / Grammar which kept us allied and at bay”. Towards the end of the poem, he describes her death as equivalent to a large tree uprooting itself and soaring into the air, leaving vast “clearances” “that suddenly stood open”. At the moment of her passing, “High cries were felled and a pure change happened”.
The death of any loved one exposes us and creates a new and unfamiliar psychological space. It can leave us feeling vulnerable, perplexed and unwillingly transformed.
We hope that our children don’t experience the death of a loved one too early in their lives, but at some stage they will. For those that have never even thought about dying, The Queen’s death may provoke many questions for parents and carers. For those who have already lived through the loss of their own grandparents’ or parent’s, it might trigger a fresh wave of grief and other emotions.
I wanted to write this week’s Wednesday Wisdom to gently remind parents that The Queen’s passing, covered so extensively in the media and discussed so much in schools all over the world, can provide a useful opportunity to talk about death more generally. By doing so, we may be able to mitigate some of the pain of future loss.
Some people are raging royalists, others don’t care too much about the monarchy. I pass no judgement or comment on any of that. Instead, I am reflecting on The Queen as a daughter, mother, wife and grandparent. Death reminds us of the vast array of roles that any one person plays in their lives; her’s, of course, were extraordinary in their array, extent and reach.
An individual’s death will affect every person in a family, school or community differently. It is hard to anticipate the impact. This is where any adults supporting children can take heed from the literature around grief and loss.
Taking our lead from children is important and not making too many assumptions is key. Showing a willingness to welcome questions is optimal, as is displaying openness and calm when questions are asked. Ideally, we will answer questions honestly and in an age-appropriate way, not over-sharing information that might distress or upset. Whatever they ask, don’t be offended, dismiss their questions or deny them any truths. In a knowledge vacuum, little imaginations can run riot. I have never forgotten the day that my Dad, very matter-of-factly, told me that “everybody dies”. I remember the context of our discussion (in the car on a journey) and his tone, very clearly. He didn’t say it with grave regret, nor with any hint of sorrow. He was clear cut, breezy even. Perhaps not every child would, but I found his tone reassuring. If he didn’t seem scared, why should I be?
I have adopted the same tone with my own children and indeed have tried to be even more proactive when it comes to initiating chats about death or the rituals that surround it. My children know that no holiday is complete without a trip to the local church or graveyard. I enjoy reading headstones in graveyards and modelling my interest in other’s lives and memorials.
I have invited them to ask questions. Inevitably the same ones come up: “Are you afraid to die?”, “What happens when you die?”, “Where will you be buried?”. Whether religious or not, it is good to consider scripts around these sorts of questions that feel authentic to you and provide some sort of adequate response. I choose to emphasise different viewpoints to my children, ask them what they think, and simply listen.
I attended a friend’s funeral some years ago and when asked to give a speech, I found myself reiterating the scientific fact that energy simply cannot die. I also found myself, in the weeks after my friend’s death, looking for and seeing signs that they were at peace (a rainbow appeared over my friend’s hospice, as it did over Buckingham Palace the other day).
Whatever stage of life we are at, we are driven to find meaning, seek comfort and redefine, rather than end, deep connections following death.
Routines, rituals, remembrances and story-making can help nudge all us into a phase of making sense of loss.
Talking about someone’s life, re-telling their stories, or remembering the funny things that they said, are all part of ‘coming to terms’ with loss. Last week, I interviewed the author, Justin Bowen, about his series of books that describe his family’s experiences of love and loss.
His first book details his wife Helga’s fight for life following a cancer diagnosis, his second is a handbook for schools on how to support pupils following a bereavement, and his most recent book, Cuddles are Forever, is written for children about ever-lasting love and legacy.
Hearing Justin describe his daughter’s retrospective comment about the importance of her primary school for her coping and recovery was moving indeed. She described her school as a ‘rainbow’; a safe place where her pain was seen, heard and acknowledged. Her classroom teacher had a dedicated space to the children’s mother (how amazing is that?) and friends were allowed to take the children out of class for little comfort chats. Justin’s son remembers the importance of peer connection and support at that tender age – proof that children are compassionate and highly intelligent supporters of one another when given the chance.
Grief isn’t linear and it isn’t the same for any one person, so we have to come to live with the uncertainty of it as an emotion. Children, in particular, are known to ‘jump in and out of puddles’ in grief (one day or hour, they are fine. The next, they aren’t). Adults are required to be agile, responsive and respectful of the gentle undulations of children’s grief. It takes patience and time but know that the structures of support exist not just in family life but across schools, communities and within the vast matrix of positive relationships enjoyed by your child. There is great reason to hope.
Any adult supporting children through grief can lean into the fantastic resource pool of organisations like Child Bereavement UK and Winston’s Wish. Likewise, there are many organisations which support adults who are grieving. For those who have lost a partner, Widowed and Young can help lessen feelings of loneliness and Cruse Bereavement Support has a helpline for those in need.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Unfortunately, the loss of a loved one is something that 92% of children will go through before the age of 16 and up to 70% of schools have a bereaved pupil on roll at any given time (Child Bereavement Network). The Tooled Up library contains various useful resources on grief and bereavement.
These include a short audio clip where Dr Weston shares her thoughts, an article on helping children to cope with loss, tips to help children deal with the death of a pet, and a list of useful organisations. You can also get inspiration from our list of books to help with bereavement. We also have podcast interviews with Julia Samuel MBE, author of Grief Works, where we discuss how parents and teachers can support young people when someone they love dies, Dr Laura Towers, who talks to us about supporting children who have lost a sibling and Dr Chris Bowden, who talks about coping after losing someone through suicide.
In the last week, we have also been extremely proud to publish an important new resource for schools, written in collaboration with leading suicide prevention charity, The OLLIE Foundation. Guidance for Educational Settings Following a Suicide or Sudden Death is now freely available to download on the Tooled Up website.
If you’d like to learn more about how Tooled Up can support mental health in school communities, why not tune in to our recent episode on Teachers Talk Radio?