"Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by a change or an end in a familiar pattern of behaviour".
For many children, their first exposure to public grief is communicated via the medium of television. TV shows like X-Factor have a formulaic “sad bit” whereupon a contestant “opens up” about their private battle with bereavement or how they overcame hardship to be on the show. We are given emotional satisfaction when they make it to the next step up towards stardom but the reality is that at that moment there are thousands of dejected “losers” with similar heartbreaking stories trudging wearily home. If a child is upset by something they see on television it is unhelpful to tell them, “Oh don’t worry” or “it’s not that bad”. A person cannot cease to feel bad because they were instructed not to. Instead, it is more supportive to validate the feeling we can see and allow time for a child to explain their perspective. We can use considerate phrases such as, “I can see how disappointed you are” or “I cannot imagine how you feel”.
Society generally is not aware that statements like “he broke down”, “she was in bits” or “no use crying over spilt milk” imply that feeling sad or even worse, crying in public is wrong or socially inappropriate. Recently a newspaper reported that “tearful Jermaine Defoe breaks down as he emotionally talks about little Bradley Lowery”. Bradley was the inspirational six-year-old mascot for Sunderland who sadly died recently from Neuroblastoma. This simple language choice of “he broke down”, implies that Jermaine is either defective or not working properly, when, in actual fact, he was reacting normally and naturally in accordance with being a human being. The embarrassment of crying in public is so great that he apologised and left the interview for a few moments to compose himself. This self-imposed isolation happens to many grievers who feel they cannot show their real feelings for fear of being judged as weak. Contrary to popular belief big boys and girls do cry and when they do allow the tears to flow and listen without comment or touch.
Prince William and Prince Harry have spoken very poignantly about the death of their mother and as the nation openly mourned, Prince William confessed to “only crying twice”. There is a misconception that crying is the only way we process bereavement. There is no formulae for grieving and however a child responds is normal and natural for them. We can support children like William and Harry by creating ways of reviewing their relationship with the person who died, this could take the form of a memory jar or creating an emotional energy checklist.
Following a favourite team or idol requires a huge commitment of time, money and energy so when a beloved team loses or a favoured player is sold the impact on fans is very real and for some children a first insight into how unfair the world can be. I remember the devastation caused to fans when Take That band member Robbie Williams left the group and for some, it felt like the end of the world. I, however, do not follow a team and therefore the impact of the league tables means as little to me as the outcome of X-Factor or which pop band have just split up but they do present the perfect opportune moment to talk about the emotions that surround loss and change. Change is an inevitable part of life and much anguish is caused by the conflict of change with the familiar. It is best not to make fun or make light of feelings around celebrity loss, we should allow time to listen and validate the emotions we can see.
The most helpful response we can give a child whose favourite team lost or fictional character dies should model the same language as when a significant personal loss event occurs such as a death of a loved one. The language that is most supportive of children is the same for every loss or grief event that may happen and by applying this knowledge to the everyday disappointments we become a “safer human being” that a child can talk to when/if a personal tragedy happens. I have outlined below some of the phrases that I have found useful in my pastoral work with children and they are a great way of keeping the focus on the child:
It is helpful to say:
Can you tell me a little about it?
I can`t imagine how devastating/heartbreaking that is for you.
I can see how disappointed you are.
Everything will be ok
Don’t be sad
Give it time
Anything that is about you not them.
If you would like to feel more confident about talking to parents and children about loss please get in touch with me firstname.lastname@example.org
My courses run regularly at Pownall Hall School or get in touch via my portal page http://www.independentschoolsportal.org/nicola-clifford.html
You can find information on availability for your school to participate in my six weeks ‘Helping Children Deal With Loss’ course in which I can accommodate up to 15 members of staff either in your own setting or here in the beautiful grounds of Pownall Hall School, Cheshire. If you have any comments or questions about this article please leave them in the comments box or hit the ‘like’ button for your feedback is very much appreciated.