Helping children grieve: 'I never got to say goodbye'
Anita Guidera speaks to the experts about how to handle child bereavement
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.
However, she emphasises the importance of respecting the child's wishes throughout the bereavement process.
"If a child says, 'I don't want to be there' that needs to be respected, but they can still be included in parts of it. It is important to let the child guide you, and to create an atmosphere where the child knows they can come back later for information."
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.
"Sometimes children don't even know why they are feeling the way they are. Often times they don't know how to cope and the people they are turning to are hurting themselves so they find it hard to open up their feelings," she said.
Pascal Blake can vividly recall that tragic day in July 1964 when his three-year-old brother was struck by a car.
The then seven-year-old heard the commotion and dashed to the scene from a nearby park where he had been playing.
"I couldn't see but I remember distinctly someone saying it was Gabriel Blake who had been knocked down."
The toddler died of his injuries in Letterkenny General Hospital later that day.
As was traditional in a house where there were other children, there was no wake in the family home and Pascal and his older brothers and sister did not attend the funeral Mass and burial.
"My mother was devastated. I remember her telling me he had gone to Heaven and he wouldn't be back.
"I often wondered how the funeral was. I was trying to put a picture on it and I couldn't. There was an emptiness I couldn't explain," he said.
Tragically, months later, the family was plunged into mourning again when Pascal's father Edward died suddenly while working in Scotland. He was just 38.
There was a wake without a body in the family home and Pascal and his siblings didn't attend the Requiem Mass and burial.
"People probably felt that they were protecting us but I was left in a state of confusion for a very long time.
"There is a blind in front of you. You can't comprehend the situation and you are left wondering and in doubt."
Pascal's childhood and teenage years were blighted by the double tragedy and he struggled to deal emotionally with what had happened.
"It was a very tough, long journey. I didn't want to make my mother more sad so I found I was protecting her and not expressing my own emotions, which left me feeling very confused within.
"As a boy I didn't want to be seen crying and a lot of these feelings got buried and left deep scars. There was an emptiness I couldn't explain and it took me a long, long time to get over these tragedies."
It was only in adulthood that he found the strength to come to terms with the loss. His training as a psychiatric nurse brought with it an understanding of the psychology of grief and the grief process.
Now 57 and the father of a teenage son named Gabriel after his late brother, Pascal is currently the mayor of Letterkenny. He has also been working as an undertaker for 25 years.
He actively urges parents to include children in the funeral ceremony.
"I am 100pc behind encouraging children into the process in as gentle a way as possible and explaining to them what is going on.
"Sometimes I form a picture of what I was like when I see children who are around seven years old at the funeral of a parent or sibling," he said.
He recalls one poignant funeral where the children of a deceased man placed a Tellytubby into the open coffin.
"It was heartbreaking to watch but it was important for them to say goodbye. When you see something like that, you want to be a protector.
"I wanted to tell them that I knew what they were going through and that, like me, they would get through this terrible time and that there will be a brighter day ahead," he said.