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Children's Grief Awareness Week: "Each young person's grief is unique.'

On Children's Grief Awareness Week, Esther Gwynne gives an insight into the work she does supporting young people whose parents, grandparents, sibling or another significant person in their lives has received end of life care from Saint Francis Hospice. 
"I want to meet the person who will be helping my children with counselling when I die."

What a powerful statement and privilege to be given by this parent, to allow me to work therapeutically with their children to help them prepare to say goodbye to their parent forever and to cope with the grief afterwards. Not long after meeting, the children had to say goodbye to their parent, forever. 

I will often use 'young person' throughout this blog, as I believe that all persons under 25 are people but simply younger in age. They are deserving of the same type of intensive therapeutic support an adult would receive but with a difference pace and space.

The death of a significant person in the family is a trauma suffered by a young person. Nothing can prepare you for such a loss; to see your loved one become seriously ill and then to never see them again.   

Sometimes people can become unsure about their feelings, but grief is very normal. It is absolutely natural to feel all sorts of weird emotions - shock, numbness or even "feeling like you are going mad and you will never be able to get out of bed, breathe or go on with life", as I often hear from young people. Having the space to express all a multitude of feelings while on an emotional rollercoaster, and being re-assured that it is normal, can be hugely relieving.  

As a Child and Adolescent Psychodynamic Psychotherapist, registered with various professional bodies, my role here at Saint Francis Hospice is to support the children and young people whose loved ones have accessed any of our services.    

Having worked as a Psychotherapist in both primary and secondary schools before coming to Saint Francis, I became faced with a different type of loss in a child's life- absolute loss. 

Each young person's grief journey is unique to them and should be supported with a unique approach. 

The main bulk of my involvement with families is often providing 1-2-1 therapeutic sessions for preparing to say goodbye, and how to cope with the painful grief after their loved one has died. This can take place at our specialist therapy room here at Saint Francis Hospice, at school, at a local café, at a park or at home. The funding for this service as provided by Children in Need allows this support to be provided - it is important that they are felt understood. 

This is where the relationship between the therapist and young person is imperative. I like to think I am not a stereotypical Psychodynamic Psychotherapist, and form a real therapeutic relationship based on trust, honesty, inclusion, and acceptance. The intensity or depth provided by the therapist in a session does not change due to age, but rather the methods and language used becomes age appropriate so that it can be understood. 

Depending on stage of development, we can use art and various creative means and planting seeds to help with the communication. Sometimes we may need to talk about what happens when the body is breaking down and stops working or ask questions such as what happens at a funeral or a cremation service? Will the fire hurt them? What happens to them when they have died? Can I visit them? Why, why, why?  All of these questions - and more - are perfectly normal in the grieving process, and we can think about them together as client and therapist. There is no right or wrong answer.  

Sometimes, playing a game of chess (and being badly defeated by a young person!), can fuel some in-depth talks such as having nightmares, being anxious all the time and seriously worried that someone or themselves in their family may also die. This leaves permeating concerns for a young person about The Future and if there will be one for them, a feeling of abandonment or rejection.   

When a young person shares their dreams in a session and understands how to analyse their own dreams focusing on the feelings, they are equipped with self-awareness, self-insight and a coping skill for life.  

Each and every single session with a young person is extremely powerful. For someone to trust you as a therapist to share with you their emotional pain, doubt and possibly life-crippling feelings can only be described as 'powerful' and 'enduring'.

Angry outbursts, low mood, apathy, lifelessness and so on, are all normal emotions when we are grieving. Having a safe space through therapy to explore such feelings and develop coping mechanisms can hugely minimise further problems in later years - and that's why I do what I do.  


All of the photos were taken from Fireworks and Feelings, an annual art day we organise for children and young people with the support in the form of both funding and volunteers from the Havering branch of The National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies. Esther was also lead 'Foot Up', organised in partnership with the YMCA.