'Mum used to say to us that all grief is like waves in the sea' - what it's like to lose a parent as a young child
Independent.ie has been running a series on issues grief and death. Here, Elaine Clotworthy (29) tells how she lost her father Alastair to lung cancer when she was just two years old. And Brid Carroll, chairperson of the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network, talks about supporting children through their grief
“I was just about to turn three, and my brother had just turned five. My dad got a diagnosis of lung cancer at Easter weekend and passed away on the 1st of May.”
“It happened really quickly from the time he was diagnosed. It was sudden.”
Elaine Clotworthy (29) lost her father Alastair to lung cancer when she was just two years old. Her early memories of him are muddled up in memories of her mother telling stories about him. She’s not sure which memories are real, and which are mental images she’s built up of him over time.
“From that time, it’s hard to tell what I remember and what I don’t because mum was very, very good after he passed away at keeping his memory alive; we had photos of him all over the house.”
“I have a memory of being at the hospital and getting smarties and things like that but I’m not sure if that’s my earliest memory or if it’s something that I think is a memory because people have talked about it so much.”
Children can be "the forgotten mourner," Elaine explains.
"Mum used to say to us that all grief is like waves in the sea. At the start the waves are huge and they knock you down, as time goes on, they’re big and they hit you hard but you stay standing.”
“Grief isn’t linear, the stages of grief can come back at different periods in your life… In the past, people saw grief as liner, first you felt anger, then you felt this, but those stages come back in cycles. You feel it’s ongoing.”
“Mum would read all around her. She bought books about how to support us during grief. We were hugely lucky in that. I can’t imagine now losing my husband, I can’t imagine having that strength [that she had].”
“I know we were at the funeral and we were lucky in that mum was very keen on that.”
“We were very lucky in that he was spoken about so much in our home. You always felt like he was with you as well. Thanks to mum, we’d talk about holidays we went on, our family, and funny stories as well.”
“Children can be the forgotten mourner. They are hugely aware of their environment, much more so than we give them credit for.”
Rainbows Ireland and the Irish Hospice Foundation helped to support Elaine and her brother, and they slowly learned to live with the void that Alastair’s death left in the family’s life.
“Every child who is bereaved, they find their own coping mechanisms… My way as a child, I was supported by Rainbows and the Irish Hospice Foundation. At home, there was no such thing as not being allowed to grieve or cry or talk about it."
“We had huge support when we were young from family, from the Irish Hospice Foundation and Rainbows Ireland.”
“I had very good friends growing up from primary school whom I’m still friends with and they had all been aware of it.”
When Elaine got married two years ago, another wave of grief hit the family, just as it does at other landmark occasions.
“That was very difficult, not just for me but for my family. It was a huge day and everyone feels that loss. And graduation, or things like that.”
“You feel that loss and you have challenges from being in a one-parent family like even in secondary school, at summer camps, or language courses, they might ask you ‘what are your parents’ professions?’ And you’re thinking ‘do I announce this to everyone here that my dad passed away or do I make something up’?”
“I didn’t speak about it as a teenager much. My husband would be the person that I would confide in now.”
Brid Carroll, chairperson of the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network, says that if children are supported through their grief, it can give them the tools to deal with it later in their lives as well.
“One of the things I would say with children is it’s prevention work, preventing the risk of poor coping and turning to drug and alcohol use to numb the pain at every crisis. It’s giving children the permission to talk, the permission to remember, and they learn at a very early age that it’s OK for them to communicate.”
“I think sometimes the hardest thing in the work is listening to the child and what happened, and holding their pain, and allowing them to talk. You really feel you want to shed a tear with them… really feel what they’re experiencing, and the longing to have [the person they’re grieving for] back.”
“A life skill happens as well by allowing them to open up, allowing them to communicate.”
When children are seen by bereavement support services, things like games, memory jars, drawings and paintings can draw out what they want to express.
“Children’s grief, they will revisit it even at adult times, it gets stirred again.”
“They may come back to the service and have the benefit of being able to do that when they’re 19 and 20, and listening to them then as the young adult… It’s like an extended warranty because you can come back at any time.”
For anyone affected by childhood loss and grief, there is information on supporting bereaved children and adolescents on www.childhoodbereavement.ie. The Irish Children’s Bereavement Network (ICBN) is hosted by the Irish Hospice Foundation and funded together with Tulsa.