Death is something that touches every family at one time or another.
It can be particularly harrowing for those who lose someone over the festive period – especially children who find themselves without a parent, sibling or loved one for the first time in their young lives.
Thankfully Strathcarron Hospice, which already does so much to offer support and ease suffering, has developed a specialised course which aims to help youngsters – and their families – cope with their grief.
‘Seasons’ is designed for children and young people, aged five to 18, who have experienced the death of someone important to them. Over a seven-week course of 45-minute sessions it seeks to help them understand loss and change, providing them with practical tools and strategies to manage their responses.
Senior social worker Kirsty Freeland, who has been with the hospice for 13 years, was the person who came up with initial idea for Seasons.
She said: “Grief is a really individual thing – some youngsters cope well, while others struggle. It also depends on the youngster’s situation – maybe they have lost both parents, maybe they have lost one and have a parent left to care for them.
“We try to keep everything as familiar as possible for them, but if their whole life has been turned upside down because of the death then it is a much bigger struggle.”
Kirsty stresses the programme is not counselling or therapy, but an educational experience.
“Everyone’s circumstances are different, but there are common themes attached to grief. The course is purely educational, it’s not counselling – if someone needs something like that we can provide it separately.
“We help them cope with the feelings they are experiencing and allow them to get on with their lives. The person who has died, whether it be a parent or a sibling, that’s been a good, close relationship for the youngsters so it’s good to hang on to those happy memories.
“Hopefully we help them recognise it’s okay for them to go on and be happy in their lives.”
There are adult sessions which run alongside the youngsters’ groups as well, since Seasons aims to help the whole family.
Kirsty said: “There’s no point helping a child cope with the loss and then have them go back to their family which is still struggling to come to terms with it.”
The age of the children often dictates how the staff run the sessions – with various activities aimed at younger children and a more grown-up, adult approach for teenagers.
“Younger children are not so good at articulating their feelings so we involve them in a lot of activities. They can tell us what they feel through drawing pictures. Teenagers are able to say how they feel so we tend to do a lot more talking with them.
“It’s always very informal no matter what age group we are dealing with. They usually come straight from school, so we give them something to eat and drink before the session starts and then come back for another chat at the end of the session.”
The sessions are held in the daycare area of the building, which provides a safe, comfortable and fun environment, allowing the youngsters to relax and be themselves.
Kirsty knows the worst thing a young person can do is “be brave” and not let their true emotions come to the surface.
“It’s not about you hiding your feelings from everyone else in the family. Children think they are protecting the family by saying they are not upset about it, but it’s better to share that grief.
“We try to let the children know it’s okay to show their feelings.”
A celebration session is held at the end of the seven weeks, providing an opportunity for the group to review their work, reconnect, and bring a parent, carer, or friend to join in the fun.
The smiles on faces at the end is reward enough for staff who have seen youngsters grow and develop through Seasons.
Kirsty said: “When they come in on the first night they are quite upset and feeling low – they have all lost someone special and are struggling to come to terms with all that.
“By the end of the course they say they want to keep coming because they have enjoyed it so much. It’s hugely rewarding when you see the difference in them.”