Guiding young people through grief and loss

We always hope that our children won't be forced to deal with a major loss, but if there is a death in the family, Victoria Hospice offers counselling and other resources to give kids the power to parlay one of the most difficult challenges of human existence into growth, connection, and community. 

Allyson Whiteman, Child and Youth Counsellor at Victoria Hospice, has been with the organization for two decades, and helped create the youth program. “The original assumption was that the adults in the family were supporting the children and teens, but that was not a fair assumption. Often, a parent is deep in their own grief. Or they really want to support their child, but they have no idea where to begin that conversation, so it never happens. Victoria Hospice provides parents with the support they need so they can confidently start that dialogue with their child.”

100 years ago, families grew up with death around them; it was seen as part of life's process, too common to be left unspoken. “Now it happens over here, off site,” adds Allyson, waving her hand toward the window. “For example, sometimes parents will sneak out a pet that has died and secretly replace it—death isn't viewed as the learning opportunity it could be. We don't quite know how to deal with it, especially with children. We shield them from the truth, but their imaginations can be far more traumatizing.”

By offering individual, family, and support-group counselling for children of all ages, Victoria Hospice recognizes the multi-layered needs of families when someone is dying or has died—that “even the smallest person has needs, and a voice that's worth hearing,” says Allyson. “One of the bereavement programs is called Touchstones, for five-to-12-year-olds. It's a combination of discussion time, creative time, and art activity connected to the theme. A lot of times it's easier for children to express themselves non-verbally.”

“Younger children like things like paper, felts and puppets—creative, expressive ways of working,” continues Allyson. “For a 10-year-old girl, I might have beads; they need something to focus on, so their direction is down here [she indicates her hands]—they're much more relaxed then, and comfortable to talk. For adolescents, many respond favourably to the metaphorical, like tabletop sand trays that feature figurines, stones, and small objects. An approach that is slightly less literal can help move the healing process to a deeper level.”

Sometimes a loss is expected, as in the case of a long-term illness or advanced age, but if there's been a traumatic death caused by a sudden event the resources at Victoria Hospice are always available to the greater community, even if they have had no previous contact with the program. “For children, it's important to keep in mind that they will re-grieve the loss at each stage of their development,” adds Allyson. “For all of us, but for kids especially, there is no absolute timeline for grieving. The support is here, whenever it is needed.”

The vital services provided by Victoria Hospice are funded in major part through community support. Every donation helps to guarantee accessible, exceptional care for thousands of Victorians each year.

[This article was originally published in the July 2010 edition of Focus Magazine.]

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Quality palliative and end-of-life care for all: Our mission is to enhance the quality of life for those facing life-limiting illness, death and bereavement through patient and family centred care, education, research and advocacy.