Hello, my name is Nic and I work in the young people’s bereavement team at St Gemma’s. With the help of my colleagues here, we provide therapeutic support for young people who have lost, or who are losing, a loved one.
My colleague Wendy and I have a background in social work and we also have three specially-trained volunteers. Between us we have a wealth of experience working with young people and I also have my counselling training and experience working with adults. A really rewarding part of my job is to work with children and families at one of the most difficult times in their lives.
Grief is confusing to adults and it’s even more so for children. They may not understand what’s happening or why they’re feeling a certain way.
Some young people are referred to us directly from the Hospice and other palliative care teams, while others come to us through their school or GP. We work closely with schools and other organisations who may be involved with the young person’s welfare. We cover the whole of Leeds, not just children with a connection to St Gemma’s, and I’m proud that we’re well-known as a fantastic local resource for bereaved children.
Every young person is different, and the issues they’re experiencing can depend on their support network, life experiences and developmental stage. Many bereaved children have trouble sleeping, struggle to concentrate at school, or experience self-esteem issues. Their behaviour may change – they become withdrawn or lash out in anger. There are lots of different emotional dynamics going on.
Bereavement is hard to talk about. A lot of people don’t even want to think about it. But we all process things by telling our stories, and having time to talk is so important for young people who are grieving. Some children struggle to talk about the person who has died, while others want to tell their story and explore what happened; sometimes they want to talk about what happened on the day their loved one died but not everyone wants to discuss this.
One child I saw recently had never spoken about the day his father died. His mother just hadn’t been able to talk about it, so it was still all bottled up inside. It wasn’t easy when he finally described what happened that day, but I could see the relief on his face. Children make sense of their feelings and the world around them by retelling their story, and one of the ways they do this is by talking.
Children also get a lot from listening to each other talk about similar experiences. We’ve been working on ‘This Is Us’, a new resource created by young people to tell their stories, in their own words, about how they managed their bereavement. It’s very special to see them make connections with their peers who understand what they’re going through.
The work we can do with a child before a parent dies makes a huge difference in the long term. The child might have lots of practical questions like where they’re going to live and what will happen to the dog. You can’t take away all their pain but you can discuss things they’re worried about and help them find answers to their questions.
Most of the young people I see have a parent who has died or is dying. But it could be any significant relationship – a grandparent, an older sibling or even a close family friend.
The team and I are excited for the imminent opening of the pavilion in the Hospice gardens. We’ve been seeing children at the Hospice for years but we’ve never had a child-friendly space we can use year-round. Our dedicated building will have a big area for group activities and play therapy like messy art and sand play, a kitchen for cooking sessions, and racks to display the children’s paintings. The space will be perfect for our ‘memory days’ when the children make something that reminds them of their loved one who died and talk about their grief. The pavilion will also have a smaller, quiet room too for counselling.
We believe that this purpose build child-friendly space will make a difference to the children we work with. The environment where we see children really impacts how relaxed, how engaged and how open they are able to be.
Our amazing supporters have made sure St Gemma’s is here for local families for 45 years, and I know that together we can continue caring for bereaved young people in our community. Thank you for your wonderful support.