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A person reading a book

How are stories used in grief support?

Winston’s Wish is a child bereavement support project funded by BBC Children in Need. Through services, activities and support they give hope and confidence to children and their families. In a special piece, Di Stubbs, a practitioner at Winston’s Wish, looks at how stories can be used to explore issues with a child who has been bereaved.

Those working with bereaved children, such as the practitioners at Winston’s Wish, know the vital importance of stories.

We use the telling of stories in many ways to support those who are grieving, looking at the story of what happened when someone died, the stories and memories of that person and the stories in books that bring comfort.

It helps them to feel that this is their ‘story’, they own it…

Even young children appreciate being told about what happened when someone died.

It helps them to feel that this is their ‘story’, they own it and can tell it to themselves or to other people in a way that they understand. Sometimes this is referred to as ‘mastery’ – the sense of ownership you can develop over events that have happened and the meaning that this death has to you.

Telling the story of what happened can also help practitioners begin gently to explore what impact and what meaning this death has had for this child.

We’ll do this by considering the meaning of this particular death, person, time, family and child. Having a sense of the meaning and story helps us to determine the most appropriate support for individual children.

Ask me about the time she at an entire chocolate cake
Stories can also continue the important bond between the child and the person who has died

Much grief support work involves recalling memories – the ordinary everyday ones, the difficult and painful ones and the golden, precious ones. It’s about finding ways in which these can live alongside each other comfortably.

Not all memories are good ones. Sometimes children have few memories because they were very young when someone died or that person had been living apart from the family.

It is even more important, in these circumstances, to help a child retain any memories they have and to find ways to weave together memories and stories in order to develop a deep and real sense of the person who has died.

Stories can also continue the important bond between the child and the person who has died.

We encourage family and friends to jot the very beginnings of stories on sticky notes or postcards for children to claim as and when they choose.

This isn’t as onerous a task as writing the whole story out and has the benefit of being more memorable to the listening child as it is in the form of a story told about their special person.

So someone like Uncle Mike might jot down: ‘The time your dad and I got stuck on the school roof’. Or Grandpa may note: ‘Ask me about the time she ate an entire chocolate cake’.

The sharing of stories makes a child feel special and cherished and, in hearing these stories, they become their own ‘memory carriers’, taking these stories and memories together into their own futures and the stories of future generations.

When I was little, I was always impressed by stories my mum (your Granny Annie) told me about my grandfather (your Great Grandpa Ed). Apparently he played the drums brilliantly without ever having a lesson and he once ran non-stop from his home in Derby to Nottingham Castle for a bet
The sharing of stories makes a child feel special and cherished

The very act of reading a book together usually involves a snuggle – which is all part of the process of weathering the storm of grief

The right book at the right time can inform, expand understanding and provide comfort. It can also help a child to give a voice to the thoughts and questions they might have tangled up inside. The very act of reading a book together usually involves a snuggle – which is all part of the process of weathering the storm of grief.

Most classics involve a child who has had a mum, dad, or both die (think of Sarah and Colin in The Secret Garden, Heidi, Oliver Twist, The Little Princess).

New classics are joining this tradition; most children by the age of 11 will have heard the stories of the orphaned Harry Potter. Indeed, by the age of 5, many children will have watched a story in which a child experiences the death of a parent – be that the Lion King, Snow White or Bambi.

In recent years, there have been many wonderful books written specifically to support children who have been bereaved and to address the reality that parents, siblings, grandparents, pets may die.

Some offer usefully straightforward factual information; some offer endearing ways of understanding what has happened; some are more whimsical or more spiritual.

The Winston’s Wish Freephone National Helpline (08088 020 021) can offer suggestions for differing situations and also suggest our own publications about supporting bereaved children. Or some suggested books can be found here.

Our work with children is about hope, not despair; about what continues, not what ends

Using creative ways to help a child to tell the story of what happened, encouraging the telling of stories within families, prompting memories, and suggesting story books: these are some of the ways that organisations such as Winston’s Wish use stories.

Our purpose is: to listen when a child is grieving; to act when a child needs our help and to know what to say when it is time to talk. Our work with children is about hope, not despair; about what continues, not what ends.

Di Stubbs – Practitioner at Winston’s Wish
Feb 2019

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