Keep young memories alive

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Helping children to talk about loved ones who have died can benefit the whole class, writes Patsy Way

Sarah cut straight to the point. "I remember when I was born and daddy was there too with mummy and me in the hospital. After three days he drove us home and took a picture of me and mummy on the settee. I was snuggled in my blue blanket that aunty Jen knitted me and mummy and daddy were so pleased that I was born." She continued with a stream of detailed memories of her early life in this little family of three.

Her mother Jane had died when she was two. Her father Paul recalled how Jane had received a diagnosis of terminal cancer when Sarah was less than a year old. "We bought the camcorder when Jane was first pregnant. Sarah calls it her 'born video'. We were recording family events long before we had any idea Jane was ill. I had no idea that it would have such meaning later."

Paul, with the support of family and friends, was bringing up his daughter without the physical presence of her mother. But Jane is very much a part of Sarah's life and thinking and she draws on a rich bank of memories to sustain this "relationship" with her mother who died before she was talking. The memories are partly created by photos and videos but a rich stream of memories continue to enrich her life through conversations with family and friends. Jane is included in her thinking about all aspects of her life.

I became very curious about the family's idea of remembering her mother.

Memory is often thought of as an individual activity and property. If I forget something it is my responsibility. I might be encouraged to "try harder" to remember and, of course, if I have misplaced an object somewhere this is helpful advice. However, my experience is that much memory is created and re-created in the moment. Does my memory of a trip to the seaside with my grandmother come from a mental memory trace or from discussions over the family photo album? It doesn't really matter. What seems important is that talking with others recreates the moment and adds new meanings and connections in my present experience.

New research into so-called infant amnesia suggests that very young children have much more memory capability than they are often given credit for, but many young children have little or no memory of a parent or significant carer who has died. In a culture afraid of talking to children about death, it is often seen as pointless to talk to very young children.

Children are then disenfranchised from a rich heritage of family memories.

Why should young children have less claim on family memory and connection than other older siblings?

The death of her mother was not a single event that Sarah "got over". Her family had supported her in adjusting to her mother's death and she clearly understands that her mother will not be coming back. However, her father was determined to reclaim the love and connection that were woven into memories of her mother.

Schools and nurseries have a role to play. Sarah was very comfortable "remembering" her mother with friends and family. When she went to school, however, simple statements like "my mum died" were challenged by classmates who said, "you don't have a mum", creating misery for Sarah. Her first year in nursery school had been marked by Sarah's sadness and confusion when she was discouraged by very well-meaning staff from making a card for her mother before Christmas and on Mother's Day. The intervention of a sensitive class teacher and support assistant helped Sarah through this period. In talking to Paul, they began to understand his thinking and changed their responses. They moved from well-intentioned sympathy for a little girl without a mother to an appreciation of the richness that Jane's memory added to Sarah's life.

Nor did it stop there. Other children in the class became involved in talking about what happens when someone dies, allowing for explanations of the widely different ideas people hold about what happens after death. Her teacher commented: "I would have been terrified to attempt a topic like the death of a parent, but Sarah and Paul have brought Jane into the classroom and she has vastly changed my thinking and helped me to talk quite differently with the children".

Christmas and new beginnings in a new year may be particularly difficult for bereaved families. Schools have a role to play from an early age in supporting bereaved children and educating all youngsters. A recent programme on Teachers' TV featured the partnership of the Winston's Wish organisation with local schools, supporting teachers with issues around bereavement. We are willing to discuss sex education for five-year-olds.

Handled sensitively, death is no less suitable a topic for tinies.

Patsy Way works as a systemic family therapist with the St Christopher's Candle Project, a counselling service focused on the needs of children, young people and their families who have experienced bereavement, often through sudden or traumatic circumstances, based at in St Christopher's Hospice, south London. Sarah is a composite of two children.

Support the bereaved

* Children need well-managed and varied support from school when facing bereavement.

* All children need help in understanding death and bereavement and schools have an obligation in this.

* Bereaved people need support to reintegrate the memory of the dead person into their present and future lives.

* Some children, especially very young ones, may not have many memories that they can recall independently. They need help from home and school in sharing and developing their relationship in a helpful way with the person who has died.

Policy, guidance and information

* National service framework for children, young people and maternity services, from the departments of health and education The Government's vision is that PHSE and citizenship frameworks and the Healthy Schools initiative include bereavement (core standards p55).

* Common core of skills and knowledge for the children's workforce (DfES).

"Some children may have to face very particular and personal transitions not necessarily understood by all their peers. These may include family illness or the death of a close relative". Included in a duty of "supporting transitions".

* Choosing health (DoH) says that this year half our schools will be "healthy schools" providing comprehensive PHSE and addressing bereavement.

* Childhood bereavement: developing the curriculum and pastoral support from the National Children's Bureau. To help school staff address death and bereavement through pastoral care and the curriculum.

* Young people, bereavement loss: disruptive transitions? J Ribbens McCarthy and J Jessup, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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