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ONLINE JOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net) ISSN 1605-7406

ISSUE 14 MARCH 2000   CONTENTS   HOME PAGE

loss

Never too young to help

Noreen Ramsden

The author, from the Southern Natal Children's Rights Committee, describes a widely-used approach encouraging children to improve the quality of their own lives and those of others a most valuable reminder of the qualities of childhood we should be encouraging.

Child-to-Child is an approach to working with children that is used in 87 countries all over the world. It may involve one child helping another, or a group of children helping each other, or children influencing their own families or a neighbourhood. It is used in schools, in refugee camps, among street children, by scouts and guides, social workers, and religious groups.

The basic idea is that children can help to build a better world, and in so doing they can have fun together, feel important and needed, and learn co-operation and leadership. The adults who help the children in Child-to-Child activities encourage the children to reflect on their own lives and their neighbourhood, and then to choose an activity that will improve the quality of life for themselves or others. This may be forming a soccer club or cleaning up the park; asking the traffic department for speed humps to slow down taxis on the road past their school or putting on a play about the dangers of smoking or abusing drugs. There is an entire Primary Health Care programme based on Child-to-Child.

In an established group, where there is trust between members and the adults who accompany them, support for friends who have experienced death or disaster occurs naturally. All too often, adults encourage children to 'bury' their grief; they distract the child and do not allow the group to talk about the unpleasant experience. It is, however, very important for children to begin to understand some of the feelings they experience when death and disaster strike: feelings such as sorrow, anger, guilt, betrayal, anxiety, fear and even resentment possibly towards others who have not suffered as they did. Adults can help children to explore feelings: what they are and what causes them.

Children can be encouraged to tell stories about what made them happy or sad, angry or frightened: to sing happy or sad songs, to draw pictures about feelings, to act out role plays that show a wide range of feelings.

In a group, children can share their experiences, such as how they felt when someone close to them died, how they showed these feelings, and what made them feel better. They can share the nightmares and anxieties they so often have to suffer as a result of the hurt. They can plan how to help a child (or children) to feel better by being a 'good friend' and can discuss what good friends do. This may be hugging and showing physical comfort; it may be encouraging them to join in games; it may be talking to them or even explaining to a teacher why Thabo seems 'naughty' in class. They can help each other to make sense of life experiences religious beliefs are often a great comfort.

Activities for a children's group
The adult tells stories or the children make up stories to explain feelings, possible causes of feelings, and the signs of different feelings.

Guessing feelings: children take it in turns to say a sentence, such as "What are you doing?" with different expressions of feeling (angrily, sadly, happily or with surprise or fear). The other children have to guess what the feeling is. This can also be done in drawings: for example, children guess the feeling when they see someone running away (fear) or wanting to fight (anger).

The children may combine to draw a big picture showing pleasant happenings and feelings and another showing violence and unhappy feelings. Role plays or sketches can be made up and acted by some children for the others to identify the feelings of the characters: a lost child, a girl who has torn her dress, one child snatching something from another or teasing another.

Ask the children what they would do if they saw a child who was:

Can the children think of ways of helping others feel better

Help them to plan an action to help others or to help others understand the feelings of children. Raising awareness about feelings can be done by a poster or by making up a song and teaching it to others, or by putting on a sketch at a gathering a religious meeting or school assembly, and so on.

The loss of a loved one is just as painful to children as it is to adults. Children may also be further distressed by the grief of their parents or other adults close to them. Children need someone to listen to their thoughts and fears. This is often difficult for family members who are trying to face their own feelings and memories.

ASAP: Affection, Security, Attention, Play
Children may not always show signs that they are grieving, but they will always need affection and security. Adults, and other children, can help to give them this. Children also need attention: someone to listen to them and to take account of their feelings. Children also need friends to play with. In play they can take control of their lives; play helps them to feel that they are important, that they belong and are needed. It helps them to relax and also to express their feelings.

Death
Death means different things in different cultures and religions. It may be frightening, or we may think that it is a natural part of a political struggle, or we may believe it is God's will or our destiny (Karma). We will explain death to children in different ways, depending on our own beliefs, culture, and situation. But children will be helped by our explanations and attitudes, if death is seen to have meaning and not to be senseless.

Children are also helped, as are adults, by the customs and rituals that each community has built up around a death in the family; mourning and burial customs are important.

Ask the children what their families do when someone dies. Does it depend on the age of the person or whether they are a man or a woman?

Is there a feast or a ceremony and, if so, who takes part in it? Are children included? Do people wear special clothing and, if so, for how long?

Children can be encouraged to ask old people about traditional customs. Are these still carried out?

Are there traditional songs about how death came into the world? Children can make up plays, songs and stories about the customs they have discovered.

Stories from the children's and adults' own lives, from newspapers radio, or TV can provide starting points for discussion and for children to think of ways of helping others. After each story the adult can ask, "If that person was in our group, how could we help?"

Activities
Children can share with each other about a time when they:

Discuss what a child needs if s/he is unhappy after a death: friends need to be very gentle, good listeners and patient. The child must be allowed to show sadness by tears and in other ways. Children should not be surprised if their friend takes a long time to get over the sadness. Other children can help them just by being with them, hugging or holding hands, playing a game with them, or doing something simple to show that they care such as giving them a small gift.

It may be too difficult for children to talk about their feelings when someone they love has died. Adults and other children can encourage them to express feelings in other ways such as drawings and poems.

Primary school children in Uganda wrote about AIDS:

The old and the young have died
The rich and the poor have vanished
The handsome, beautiful, the ugly
have disappeared

Because of AIDS the killer
Last week you killed our father
The other week you killed our mother
Now you are killing our brother
Leaving us orphans.

Children have different feelings after death, not only sadness. They can often feel guilty about the death; they can also feel angry, frightened, confused, and unable to accept that someone they love has gone for good. They may feel that they have been abandoned. Children may have some of these feelings for many years after the death. The feelings may be very strong and difficult to cope with. When children show these feelings, people may think they are behaving badly.

Children (and adults) can help by understanding these feelings. There may be one person, even a child, that the grieving child trusts and likes more than the others. This person can really help by listening and accepting what the child says.
Children can understand that if another hurt or loss occurs later on, the first hurt comes back, often with great force. When children have lost someone they love, other children (and adults) should remember to:

Talk to the children and be friendly. When we ignore them or the death, this adds to their sadness and painful feelings.

Listen to them. It does not help to say that we know how they feel: it is difficult to know how someone else feels. Be patient.

We should not make them think that they should get over the feelings quickly.

Encourage children to join in play and other activities, but do not force them to do so. Don't say things like "You'll soon get over it", or "lust think of all the good things you have", or "Everything will be all right." This suggests that the child should deny his or her feelings.

Hanbury, Glare (Ed.) Child-to-Child and Children Living in Camps, The Child-to-Child Trust. Available from: Teaching Aids at Low Cost (TALC) PO Box 49, St Albans. Herts. AL 4AX. UK. ITK

Reprinted from Recovery (subsequently renamed ChildrenFIRST)