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Bereavement is a distressing but common experience. Sooner or later almost all of us will suffer the death of someone we love. If we are young at the time of the death then it is often our first experience of bereavement and we can struggle emotionally and cognitively to cope with the loss.
Children are often the ‘forgotten mourners’ in a household stricken by a tragic death. Adults might think that by not confronting the issue head-on, they somehow shield children from the pain; adults might think that children don’t understand death, and therefore aren’t affected deeply by it; adults might themselves be so caught up in their own grieving that they struggle to include and comfort children at such a raw and difficult time.
Grief is the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we experience when someone loved dies. Mourning is the outward expression of our grief, and mourning is necessary for healing to take place. But who can bear to sit alongside a mourning child and hear their story?
Balloons, a small local charity covering Exeter, Mid and East Devon, was set up almost six years ago to do exactly that. Balloons has supported over 350 bereaved children and young people, and worked with in excess of 500 families; and awareness about their services continues to grow.
‘We understand the complex pain that families go through, especially after a tragic and catastrophic death. Supporting vulnerable children and young people after bereavement is what makes us civilised as a society’
Sara Bennett, Balloons CEO
Many of the referrals come from schools. Educational professionals note the negative impact that bereavement has on the child’s school attendance, engagement in lessons, compliance with homework, anger management and peer relationships. Allowed to continue unchecked, that unprocessed grief has a long term negative impact on children’s educational pathways. The largest group of children who are school excluded for bad behaviour before age 9 are those who have suffered a bereavement (Home Office). Educational professionals note that with the support of Balloons, children remain engaged with their studies and maintain positive, supportive friendships with their peers. They find ways of coping in school despite their grief and can continue their educational journey in a positive way.
Balloons can’t stop the trauma of the death of a loved one from happening, but they can intervene to improve the chances of the affected children coping positively with their loss so that the long term negative consequences are minimised. In particular, Balloons supports children to find ways to manage feelings of anger, abandonment and guilt. Responses to bereavement are complex, and left alone to cope children can feel isolated, confused and overwhelmed. Statistics clearly indicate the huge spike in referrals to mental health support services for children affected by bereavement. Anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide are significantly higher amongst bereaved children. Balloons uses creative interventions and builds a safe space for grieving children to tell their grief story; to process anger, to unpack guilt and to rebuild a more constructive framework for coping. Families report that the positive impact of Balloons intervention lasts long after the 1:1 support had ended.
‘I missed my mummy and I was afraid because she was gone. My Balloons lady let me talk about mummy when no one else could’
Grieving child – aged 8
The grieving process is a journey and children need to know that adults will walk with them on this journey by helping them process their feelings. Allowing the child to talk about the hurts they are experiencing in their own way and at their own time is one of the best ways to teach a child positive coping skills for their grief and for life.
‘Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve’
If you want to know more about the amazing work that Balloons does, you can contact the CEO, Sara Bennett, on 01392 826052 Email – email@example.com
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