Saturday 25 October 2014

Helping children grieve: 'I never got to say goodbye'

Anita Guidera speaks to the experts about how to handle child bereavement

Pascal Blake at his brother and father's graves.
Paschal and his son Gabriel who is called after Paschal's late brother.
Pascal's brother Gabriel was just three years old when he died.

I have a haunting childhood memory of being ushered into a file of strangers to kiss the corpse of a distant, elderly relative.

At the top of the queue, I was scooped up and thrust towards the open coffin to kiss, as instructed, the forehead of the deceased person. I can still recall the shock of the cold, lifeless flesh.

It wasn't an ideal first encounter with death.

It's less likely in these more enlightened times that children would be forced to partake in such rituals, but the attendance of young children at all at wakes and funerals continues to divide opinion.

A new survey of British social attitudes found that almost half of those asked still think it inappropriate for children under the age of 12 to attend funerals.

In Ireland today it's more the norm than the exception that children participate in the wake and funeral of a family member or close relative.

Those working in the field of child bereavement believe that being part of that ritual can help a child's understanding of death and assist them in saying goodbye.

Mary Lynch co-ordinates the Bereavement Helpline for Barnardos Ireland, which provides support for adults in assisting children through grief.

She believes that most children would say they would have liked to attend the funeral of a loved one.

"It helps them to better understand death and it can be a very positive experience once people are explaining to them and supporting them. It can help them process what is going on. Avoiding the topic doesn't make the reality go away," she said.

She stresses the importance of explaining to children in advance what to expect.

'If they are prepared in advance and everything is explained to them, then the child can cope better," she said.

She points out that even very young children are looking to adults to be shown how to grieve.

"Children need guidance to make sense of an event. They really need adults to be role models for them, to show them the way to grieve. I think in the absence of information, children make up their own stories which sometimes can be more frightening than the actual facts," she explains.

Anne Staunton is the chief executive of Rainbows Ireland, a voluntary organisation that supports children who are bereaved through weekly group listening programmes with trained facilitators.

She believes that as well as being involved in the funeral process, support after the death of a parent or sibling will assist a child in coming to terms with the significant loss they have experienced.

"The main benefit is that they realise they are not the only one. The value of the programme is that they are meeting children of a similar age who have been through the same experience.

Irish Independent

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