Woking & Sam Beare Hospices provide end of life care for adults and we are acutely aware that the ripple effects of the death of a close member of the family can have far reaching consequences, particularly with younger members of the family. Children and young people are often overlooked, and may outwardly appear to be coping but what is going on inside? Grief that is not dealt with at a crucial stage in a young person’s life can mark the beginning of a downward spiral. Several studies have identified the link between early bereavement and destructive choices.
It was for this reason that we developed the ‘Children’s Service’, which offers one-to-one pre and post-bereavement counselling for children, support for adults dealing with the very difficult questions surrounding death and dying and an outreach service offering support for schools.
We also offer group support for children under the age of 12, which meets every six weeks, and a teenage support group which meets every month.
Teaching the teachers
The teenagers we worked with told us that they felt the adults in their lives had, ‘got it wrong’. Well-meaning adults had said or done the wrong thing and made the situation worse, not better. They were very keen to ‘Teach the Teachers’ and the idea of developing a film around this was born.
Over a period of nine months we listened to them and interviewed them about their experiences – after all, they are the experts.
The end result was a 30-minute DVD, which we are now able to use as a training resource, accompanied by literature, to give teachers and other healthcare professionals some guidance as to what helps and what doesn’t. The film has been piloted with several schools in Surrey, and feedback has been positive.
A teacher from Connaught School, Bagshot, said: “We now have the confidence to tackle issues that we felt uncomfortable with. The result is that the children are now leaving class less frequently.”
Taking part in the film was also part of the healing process for the young people involved. They relished the opportunity to be heard, and have their views considered.
The successful completion of the DVD left us with an unexpected problem. How do we follow that? Taking part in the filming project had been a huge focus for the members of the group and, keen to keep the momentum, we needed another challenge.
We began to wonder what the experiences of children in other parts of the world might be – what would it be like in places where there is no support?
The idea began to take shape and this August eight of our teenagers are volunteering at an orphanage in Malindi, Kenya, for two weeks. They are raising all the funds themselves, through a variety of events – from car washing to quiz nights, face painting, and cake sales. The teamwork they have demonstrated has been inspiring. It is not easy to raise money while concentrating on exam revision, but they have done it and raised a massive £26,000!
So children from the UK who have experienced the death of one close member of the family will be going to help children in Africa who have lost both parents.
What will they get from the trip? One 15-year-old who has never managed to spend a night away from home since her Mum died, has found the courage to sign up and is really looking forward to it. She knows it won’t be easy, but with the support of the rest of the group, there is no doubt that she will achieve it.
For many of the children going on the trip, separation anxiety is a huge issue. When you have lost one parent the fear of losing the other is enormous. The group are keen to share ideas and experiences, and there is no doubt that it will be enriching for both our teenagers and the children we are going to visit.
Sometimes the surviving parent may understandably wrap their children in cotton wool, and this will be a real opportunity for our young people to step outside their comfort zone, and a chance to find their own independence. There will be no five star luxury hotel. Accommodation will be at the orphanage, and chores include cooking, teaching and helping with the vegetable garden. Even the three-year-olds at the orphanage are expected to help with meal preparation, which will be a far cry from the local pizza delivery service that our young people might be used to!
‘Life changing’ is often an overused expression, but in this case it might be well deserved.