I was musing about Bereavement. This affects almost everyone from pretty early on. Small children remark on the dead bees on the pavement, pets die, flowers die – other people know people and things which die. But it is something most of us in a European culture are anxious about. People can’t use the word – they say ‘passed’, ‘left us’,’gone to heaven’, ‘gone’ ….. ’Died’ is alright for flowers but other than that, it seems too big a word.
The way we talk about death affects everyone about us. If children believe that death is part of the normal life experiences, they will find it easier to accept even a big loss and learn to live with it. The key word is, perhaps, Loss. You lose the person you depended on, thought about, referred to, the person who helped you or whom you helped. But Loss neeed not only refer to a person – I remember talking to a young teenage girl whose grandfather in Wales had just died. She was crying and I was trying to help her to talk – but what she was really crying about was her horse which had died a few weeks ago and had represented a solid sustaining love, an independence, a responsibility and a loss of childhood. Thinking about it later, it all made sense – the grandfather was someone whom she had rarely met, he was her mother’s loss, part of her upbringing but a foundation rather than an integral, daily part. The horse was part of her every day and signified so very much of her growing-up.
Most people who have been bereaved say the hardest thing is how other people find it embarrassing to talk about – people cross the road to avoid having to say something. There is no ‘right’ thing to say – being able to offer even wordless support is a big help. With children this is even more likely to be the case – they dont know whom to talk to or what to say. They usually Do know not to talk to granny or daddy because it might upset them more. And so many of the children keep quiet and lose an important chance to remember very special things. A long,long time ago a teacher said to me ‘but his mum died four weeks ago, he should be over it now’. I hope this no longer happens, but there is still a suspicion that you need training to talk to someone who is bereaved.
Clearly it is not helpful to say : I know just how you feel . This is unlikely, we each have a unique interaction with someone else. But you can say ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘what was he like?’ or even ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ Showing a human empathy will make a difference. The best schools allow the child to choose someone they want to talk to, and give them a little time. It will not help if the desginated ‘bereavement person’ is the teacher who always tells you off. The best schools make sure everyone knows that something has happened and that all staff will offer a little leeway – I remember a school where the boy who had seen his big brother knocked down and killed, had no record of this six months later, and couldnt figure why the boy was so difficult sometimes. The best schools keep a diary so that around the anniversary of the death, they can check whether it’s all ‘alright?’. And lots of schools find it very helpful if they have talked to even the youngest children about ‘death’ so that they know it is ok to talk about.
Winston’s Wish – http://www.winstonswish.org.uk/ – goes further, and this is enormously useful. They encourage children to keep some sort of age-appropriate record of who-ever died, remembering the good and awkward things – whether he got bits of food stuck in his moustache as well as whether he told amazing jokes, whether he got grumpy as well as whether he could tickle them to bits. They also offer opportunities for bereaved children to meet others in a similar position – so many feel that they are the only people this has ever happened to.
It’s getting better. More and more, families keep fotos up of the person wha has ided, and talk about them. And then Death is less final – being talked about is a sort of immortality.