16 to 23 November 2023 marks Children’s Grief Awareness Week in the UK. It’s a reminder that, though they may not be as outwardly vocal about it, children grieve, too. Children’s Grief Awareness week is a time to explore and shine a light on the services that exist for bereaved young people – so ahead of it, we’re sharing the inspiring, heartfelt stories of the families facing grief head on.
My name is Laura.
I’m 37, and I live in Hextable, near Swanley. In April 2022, I became a widow – and a single mum to Sonny, who was just four and a half years old at the time.
When my husband Stephen was diagnosed with bowel cancer, it was only once things were too late. ellenor stepped in to care for Steve, from our home, for the time we had left. But that time was short – and within seven weeks, he was gone.
I never really knew what hospice care was before then. And, even as it was all happening – in the days following Steve’s diagnosis, and later his death – it still all feels to be a blur. I was processing my own grief; attempting to hold things together in the face of the loss of my life partner and the central pillar of my support network.
Yet of course, it wasn’t just me I had to keep going for. It was our son, too.
But how do you explain to a six-year-old where his dad – his best friend – has gone? How do you get him to open up, when you’re struggling to do that yourself? To make him understand, when you have no clue either?
It was only when I got the call from Jolanta, Play Therapist at ellenor, that a light began to appear at the end of the tunnel; the glimmer of a way to help Sonny find a voice for his grief.
Within weeks, I was driving Sonny to his first GEMS (Grief Every Memory is Special) day. It’s a group, which ellenor facilitates, for young people who’ve lost their loved ones. It provides a safe space for them to socialise, have fun, and talk about their feelings with other children going through the same thing. Who’ve lost a sibling, grandparent, or parent to life-limiting illness – and can relate on a deep level to what the others there are going through.
ellenor’s GEMS days are aimed at children betweens 6 and 16 years, so we worried that Sonny – who was almost five when he attended his first session – was a little too young. And, like any small boy thrust into an unfamiliar scenario, he found it difficult to leave my side when I dropped him off.
That soon changed!
When I picked him up later, he’d absolutely loved it. They’d made coloured shapes out of cardboard and built their own bracelets. A few weeks later, when it was time for his session, he wasn’t clawing at my leg, or scared to go in – he positively skipped inside. Now, he’ll pipe up at the start of the week with something like “I can’t wait for Saturday”. When I ask why, he beams, and replies: “Because I can’t wait for GEMS!” As for him being too young, he instantly gelled with much older children, becoming both a friend and a vocal contributor.
Sonny gets a lot of support at school, and the children in his class are amazing. But he doesn’t open up with them in the same way he does at GEMS days. He understands that the other children are in a similar situation – that they’ve all lost someone close to them.
Sonny knows that he can have those conversations here. That it’s a safe space; and that he is not only listened to but understood.
Seeing Sonny take to GEMS – watching him go from strength to strength there and turning that initial fear into friendship – has been transformative. And in many ways, it’s helped me process my own grief, too. In the last GEMS session, the adults attended for one portion, to discuss our own experiences and feelings. There were a lot of tears around that table.
I’m very good at knocking back my emotions – hiding them, burying them behind a smile or a shrug – but I couldn’t help it. Hearing those stories, and being able to relate to them? It’s been incredibly helpful. GEMS days have supported not only Sonny, but us as a family; they’ve shown us that it’s okay to let your feelings out. And that it’s okay to cry.
Even the creativity side of things has brought us closer together. In one activity – in which the adults and children made shapes in separate groups, then came together at the end, to share them – it turned out Sonny and I had both focused on football. It’s a huge part of my life (I played semi-professionally for 15 years) and now I coach Sonny’s football team.
It was lovely to see that football makes Sonny feel supported, and that he uses his time on the pitch as a kind of release for his emotions. Football is a kind of freedom for us both. It’s our support network; how we connect.
But I didn’t know that until he got up and shared his shapes.
Had ellenor not made GEMS available to us, I really wouldn’t have known what to do. He’s grown massively attending them; and what he’s learnt at GEMS days in terms of being able to express himself and talk about his feelings, he’s brought home.
Soon, Sonny will start attending play therapy here at ellenor as the next step in his bereavement support. Plus, since he knows the people here, and is familiar with the building, he knows exactly what to expect when he walks in. He feels safe. He is safe.
Now, with Sonny getting older and understanding more, the questions are coming. Questions he didn’t ask back then – difficult questions – but that he has to ask to navigate his journey; to understand, eventually, what happened to his dad.
Thanks to GEMS, though, that path to understanding is well-lit. It’s well-paved, with signs to guide his way and people there at every bump and bend in the road. Not only me, and his extended family – but children going through a very similar thing.
Because of GEMS days – which encourage and facilitate the making of precious memories – we also have mini-monuments to Sonny’s love for Steve scattered throughout the house: from memory boxes and photo albums to jars filled with multi-coloured sand, plus references to Star Wars. That was Steve’s favourite film franchise; if he could see how far Sonny’s come, he would be extremely proud of his boy.
I know there are so many other families out there facing the same sort of circumstances. People like us, but who don’t – or can’t – access the services we’ve been so fortunate to benefit from…or simply aren’t aware that they exist. So, this Children’s Grief Awareness Week, please make it your mission to find out more about what these services do – and how, perhaps, you can help support them – because they’re so, so important.
Find out more about ellenor’s GEMs days, read about how our play therapy helps Kent and Bexley children process grief and loss, and – to contribute to ellenor’s invaluable services to local young people – make a donation today.