“It takes a lot of courage for a child to talk about loss on the phone”

Categories: Care, Community Engagement, and Featured.
Isobel Bremner

Jenny Baulkwill and Isobel Bremner work on the Candle Child Bereavement Service provided by St Christopher’s Hospice in south east London. Here they explain the impact Covid-19 has had on children’s grief, and the challenges they’ve faced.  

Jenny has worked at St Christopher’s Candle Child Bereavement Service for 20 years. She says:

“Covid-19 has meant that we have had to cease face to face contact with the hundreds of bereaved children, young adults and families that we support right across south east London. Instead, we are now having those important conversations over the telephone. Of course, extremely powerful connections can be made on the phone, but as it’s a new way of working for us, it has been challenging too.

 I admit I did feel a sense of trepidation when it became clear that we’d have to support our families differently for the time being. We normally see young people at the hospice, where we make the environment as friendly and welcoming as possible. But now, over the phone, it feels more that we are journeying into their world, their personal space.

We’ve needed to find new ways of connecting with the people we support, which can be a little daunting if you haven’t had the opportunity to meet first in person. And of course, it takes a lot of courage for that child to be passed the phone to talk to us about a very significant loss that they are feeling. But we’ve found that very often they are willing to speak; just last week, I had a 50 minute conversation with a 9-year-old girl for the first time, and she told me that she felt ‘super proud’ that she’d spoken to me about how she was.

In fact, it’s been a lovely new way of working for us as professionals, as it has prompted us to be more creative in our approach. For example, I might ask a child to describe a photo that they have in front of them of someone who has died, which opens up all kinds of new avenues to talk about. We’ve also posted objects, such as memory stones, so that the families know we are thinking of them.

Sometimes, of course, it can also be easier to cry on the telephone, rather than face-to-face. I spoke with a 16-year-old the other day who hasn’t needed our support for a while, but in these strange times, we were able to take our time and respect the silence, and though I couldn’t physically hold her hand, I could reassure her that we were there for her, whenever we were needed.

It’s also been very different for us to ‘enter’ into the children’s homes, via the phone. I’ve enjoyed hearing the finer details; a child might tell me all about their bedroom and their favourite toys next to them, and it helps me to visualise where they are. And of course, we talk about day-to-day experiences, such as their friends and school, as well as the concerns that we all have, such as the uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Over these last few months, I’ve really appreciated the new opportunities which have been thrown-up by our circumstances, and it’s been so rewarding, in many ways.”

Isobel Bremner is St Christopher’s Candle Child Bereavement Service Lead and has worked for the service for 17 years. She explains:

“Lockdown proved difficult for many of the children and young people who need to access our Candle counselling. It disrupted their usual routines, making it more difficult to cope with bereavement, and harder to engage in social and therapeutic activities.

During Covid-19, bereaved children, and those who support them, have to recognise a sudden death alongside managing the possibility of other family members being seriously ill or having to isolate from close family or friends. As a result many children and young people are experiencing higher levels of anxiety, as they feel unsafe and worried about family members becoming ill. Bereaved children often fear losing other close family members following a death and the pandemic has increased those fears.

It’s also clear that families and children who experience difficult domestic situations or relationships have been particularly vulnerable; as they are unable to easily access community support and trusted adults outside the home. This meant we needed to advocate for particularly vulnerable children to attend school to support their wellbeing and academic work.

In fact, we have found that we are dealing with far more calls from schools; either offering Covid-specific bereavement advice, or to advocate for vulnerable children to receive some of the limited school places during the summer term. This is a vital part of our work, and demonstrates how the focus of our work is shifting to new areas. We expect this to continue in the coming months as children return to school and as the emotional impact of the current pandemic continues to be felt, we anticipate that our services will be needed even more keenly.

Our team has a wealth of experience supporting children who are bereaved unexpectedly, and I know that we’ll need to bring all of this experience to support children and young people through this exceptionally challenging and difficult time, which sadly, is likely to have repercussions for a long time to come.”

For more information visit St Christopher’s Hospice

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