* This post was written for the Telegraph’s Mother Tongue blog. They never used it or paid me. In fact, they ignored all my messages. So – three months on – I’m publishing it here.
We celebrated my mum’s birthday last weekend – 69, since you ask. She died of cancer 18 months ago.
We’ve all struggled with the sense of loss during this time but, most of all, my six-year-old little girl, Maya, who was very close to my mum, has found that grief particularly difficult.
The loss of a close relative is hard for young children to understand. It’s hard for families too, something people don’t tend to think about until it happens to them.
Research by Winston’s Wish, the child bereavement charity, suggests almost 24,000 children loose a parent every year — the figures don’t include grandparents or other special people. Their national helpline (08452 030405) receives around 50 calls a week from parents, carers or professionals supporting bereaved children.
Psychologists agree that a child’s ability to deal with sad emotions increases with age and maturity.
I remember the confusion when my own granddad died suddenly. I was ten. By the time my grandmother died, when I was 14, I feel more emotionally mature to understand the sudden sense of loss.
For my six year old, suddenly deprived of her favourite playmate, it must feel like the end of the world. Aside from my own grief, how best to tell my little girl?
Maya was confused at first, not emotional. She went back to playing with some new toys. It was a typical response, I later learnt. Counsellors describe the way children grieve like jumping in and out of puddles.
I did my best. I talked about mum using words that probably Maya needs to grow into (“she died”, not “we lost her”). I encouraged her to ask questions. I kept mum as part of our daily life, talking about her and recounting stories I remember as a little boy.
I tried to reassure Maya how much her grandmother loved her and that she knew Maya loved her back.
But, one year on, Maya is still grieving. She misses nana terribly and sometimes tells me that she “Wants to join nana in heaven.”
The words hack into me like a blunted knife.
So, with the date of mum’s birthday fast approaching, a friend suggested something different.
I bought a helium balloon and asked Maya to write a message to nana on it on the morning of the birthday. We went out into the garden after breakfast and let it go, sending the message up to nana in heaven.
Later that day I made a birthday tea with my mum’s favourite Madeira cake and candles for Maya to blow out on her behalf. We placed a picture of mum on the table and talked about what a kind and loving person she was.
Next week we’ll go and place some flowers on her grave.
I can’t make it better. But I can try to help her let go of her grief a little bit at a time.
Six top tips adapted from the Charter for Bereaved Children by Winston’s Wish:
- Bereaved children should be helped to find appropriate ways to express all their feelings and thoughts associated with grief
- Bereaved children have the right to remember the person who has died for the rest of their lives
- Bereaved children should be given the choice about their involvement in important decisions that have an impact on their lives such as planning the funeral and remembering anniversaries
- Bereaved children should, whenever possible, be able to continue activities and interests so that parts of their lives can still feel ‘normal’
- Bereaved children should be helped to understand that they are not responsible, and not to blame, for the death
- Bereaved children have the right to enjoy their lives even though someone important has died
Do you have an experience to share? Or any advice?
Please post below.