Living The Life

How To Talk To Children About Death

Grief feels like fear – wrote C S Lewis and when my phone rang one morning three years ago, I knew instinctively that something was wrong. My daughter’s best friend had gone missing from school the day before so when the Head of Pastoral Care told me that Naomi had died I was shocked, but not surprised. She had committed suicide. She was just 17.

That was the first time I fully recognised the emotional impact of Facebook for, in the midst of their grief, the social networking site gave Naomi’s school friends an outlet to eulogise for via that passive means of expression, her friends and family became part of an online grieving community with comments that ranged from celebration to adoration. Through their memories they were exercising what bereavement experts call “continuing bonds theory” where the bereaved continue an attachment to the person that has died. It is completely different from the way previous generations dealt with difficult situations which was very much to avoid comment and exposure – for fear of prolonging the pain.

Today there are thousands of pages dedicated to the memory of someone who has died and there is no doubt that the posts can offer comfort to the bereaved family and friends as comments, recollections, photos and memories form a bedrock of support. But, for some, isolated in their rooms with just their laptops for company, unregulated postings could be more difficult but, nevertheless, it does provide an acceptable means of expression.

But how can “continuing bonds theory” be applied to young children. When my sister in law, died at the age of 39 from breast cancer I thought about the children in our extended families as well as all the children she had taught. In what now seems like an effort to exorcise the grief, I wrote a story about a teacher who dies.

I had been inspired by the local hospice, St Gemma’s, who had constructed a Tree Of Life on to which bereaved relatives could hang a copper leaf inscribed with the name of a loved one who’d died, and, motivated by the powerful effects of memory as means of healing, my book, The Copper Tree, was born.

I wanted to include people, rather than animals, as main characters; to avoid metaphors and euphemisms as the language needed to be clear and without ambiguity – saying to a young child we have “lost” someone can lead them to believe that we may find them again. I also wanted to avoid whimsical notions of heaven. Bearing in mind conversations I’d had with my young daughters I remembered encouraging them to think of all that they had learned from, and shared with their aunt, for that would sustain them during the more difficult times.

The Copper Tree developed into a story of a small group of young school children who are encouraged to prepare for, and come to terms with, the subsequent death of their teacher, Miss Evans. Sprinkled with light hearted moments, I revised the text after seeking advice from bereaved families, from teachers and bereavement consultants and addressed key parts of the national curriculum with regards to grief. At the centre of it all I considered the simple needs of young children exploring the feelings of grief and loss for what might be the first time.

In The Copper Tree the children are encouraged to think about all that Miss Evans has shared with them – or taught them. These memories are then inscribed on to copper leaves and fixed on to a copper tree as a reminder of her lasting legacy.

There is a lot of interest in the book from the far east where there have been many natural disasters. I hope I have tapped into something that they have long valued in their culture – that memories live on and that celebrating a life is far more comforting than being fearful of the fact that they ever existed.

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