Guest blog: Therapeutic storytelling in early years bereavement

Illustration of two children knitting

Children aged between 5-10 yrs find it difficult to talk about their feelings in the same direct way that adults do.

Have you noticed how a child reacts if you ask them directly, ‘How do you feel about Granny dying?’ Most likely they will look away from you, change the subject, or just shrug and say, ‘Don’t know’. These are typical reactions from children whose cognitive capacity has not yet developed to the stage where they can understand and verbally articulate their feelings, like adults.

The risk, therefore, is that children will feel isolated and lost in their grief if no-one is speaking in their language. Children’s natural language is play, and they relate more directly to metaphor, which is why we need to consider introducing a different approach to childhood loss and bereavement, if children are to feel heard in their grief.

Therapeutic storytelling is one such approach, which uses metaphor to help bring about healing change in traumatic circumstances such as loss and bereavement. Therapeutic stories create sufficient coherence to facilitate talk about felt confusion or misunderstanding. (Gersie: 1997).

The process is powerful in its simplicity. When a child identifies with the story character, (for example, an animal losing his mother), and goes on the journey with the character, the child is able to process their traumatic emotions and feelings through the story character.

As a result of this, disturbed thoughts and feelings can be clarified with greater ease, and troubling memories are often worked through in a non-confrontational way for the child. This narrative cover gives children the chance to have their say about their loss without the challenge of committing themselves to an opinion.

The narrative structure of therapeutic stories closely follows the hero’s journey, where the main character faces a challenge that he must learn how to overcome. Obstacles will appear along the way, and it’s this central challenge which the child can relate to.

The story character learns life lessons, and importantly how to draw on his own inner resources, and those of the helpers who appear on his journey path. The story ends with the character winning his battle, and thus being transformed by the experience. 

Ideally, therapeutic stories should be read to a child, so that an adult can answer any questions. It’s important to recognise that if handled sensitively, a child’s questions can lead to them opening up about their circumstances, but this must not be pushed.

Continuing with the animal example, I have heard children express sadness about an animal’s loss, which is their indirect way of expressing their own sadness. They feel safe doing this, which means that the grieving process can begin on their terms.

Amanda Seyderhelm is the author of Isaac and the Red Jumper, a book and guide for Early Years bereavement, a Certified Practitioner of Therapeutic Play, and trainer in the role of therapeutic storytelling in Early Years trauma. She lives and works in Rutland, UK.

www.helpingchildrensmileagain.com

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