I had a very serendipitous moment involving a film the other day- and I’m not talking about that John Cusack/Kate Beckinsale mess.
My love of the Leeds Animation Workshop– who make short films on educational and social issues- has been discussed here several times, so it felt like fate when I stumbled across a copy of their Not Too Young to Grieve in a library. (I’ve mentioned how much I like those too.)
Whilst child bereavement isn’t exactly the most cheerful of topics I was still pleased to have the opportunity to watch it. Not Too Young to Grieve approaches the subject sensitively, and Julie Stokes of Winston’s Wish (a childhood bereavement charity) praised it for highlighting this group of “forgotten” mourners, and for allowing the viewer to look at things from the often bewildering perspective of a child.
The ten stories- narrated by Alison Steadman- which make up the film explore different situations involving children grieving, and how both they and their families and carers might respond to these.
It starts with Amy, a very young baby, and looks at how the death of her mother affects her father- which reminded me a little of Jack & Sarah initially. The loss of her mother also impacted upon Amy however, and starting with this story emphasises the point that no one is too young to grieve. The accompanying booklet reiterates that if a child loses a carer their routines will be disrupted and they’ll sense things that they’re unfamiliar with- so they’ll naturally be disturbed.
Not understanding what’s happening can be an incredibly stressful thing for people of any age, and this can be compounded for children because they don’t have the tools to articulate their confusion. This is illustrated neatly in Harvi’s tale- where his mother is initially frustrated with him, but realises that his behaviour comes from not understanding where his (dead) dad has gone, or why his (mourning) mum is acting so strangely.
When Robert’s mother dies he goes into foster care- and I feel this story is an important inclusion as it serves as a reminder that grief isn’t the only negative consequence of a parent or carer dying. Exacerbating this serious shift in his lifestyle is the fact that the situation isn’t properly explained to him- all he knows is that “something horrible” has happened. Euphemistic language might seem more comforting than the brutal truth, but it may only serve to confuse and scare children. It’s far better to properly explain what’s happened so that they are able to move on.
Sunita’s situation emphasises the problem of not explaining clearly to a child. When her younger brother dies (from an illness) she blames herself for not being gentle enough and doesn’t quite get the situation- she thinks that her parents are keeping the baby away from her as a punishment for her bad behaviour. Parents cannot assume that young children have a grasp on abstract concepts like “death”, and although their plan to not have Sunita at the funeral was well-intentioned, ultimately her aunt’s insistence that she should attend was sensible. It helped her to understand the situation, and being around other people who were upset by what had happened made her feel less alone.
In Michael’s case, he also doesn’t quite comprehend what’s happening when his sister dies and his parents have to explain it to him several times. Their initial explanation that they’ve “lost” his sister makes him very angry at them- and determined that they’re going to find her. This really underscores the point that it’s better to honestly (if simply) explain the situation to children rather than hiding behind circumlocution, and that it’s important to open up dialogue about it so that children can express their ideas and fears.
Natalie doesn’t appear to be upset in the wake of her brother’s death, her emotional turmoil displays itself in regression. Although her parents find this bizarre, on reflection it’s not so different from the fact that they- understandably- are also struggling to go back to work or to get on with housework. When dealing with a grieving child, adults don’t need to ignore their own grief and they ought to allow themselves a chance to relax. Stressed people aren’t going to be much help to a saddened child, and this is why support networks are important too.
When Jacob’s mum dies his father doesn’t try to hide behind florid language, but simply tries to palm off the responsibility of breaking the news to a nurse. This, and his “cheer up, and be a man” approach to his young son’s grief, is unhelpful and cowardly. Children don’t need to wall off their emotions in order to protect themselves from their impact, what they need is support. It takes a lot of strength to face up to sadness- whether your own or someone else’s.
The segment about Josie demonstrates the way in which children copy adults’ behaviour. Because her mum tries hard to put on a brave face after Josie’s father dies, Josie thinks she is expected to soldier on in the same way. It’s only when her daughter begins experiencing psychosomatic pains that the mother realises that they need to talk about death. The section where they explore the topic of death through Josie’s toys illustrates how powerful a tool play can be for children- the way that allowing them to express their ideas creatively can be both therapeutic and allow others insight into their mindset.
When Megan’s (single) mother dies she goes to live with her dad, and this exploration of different family structures neatly taps into the issues broached in the Leeds Animation Workshop’s film Joined-Up Families. Both parent and child have to get used to each other, and to new patterns of behaviour. The fact that they’re supported by the school and wider community is certainly helpful too.
The last story, Daniel’s, is different- in that it’s about a boy whose dad died before he was born. Because he was told about it (in a straightforward fashion) he doesn’t feel disconnected or full of questions he didn’t know how to ask. Instead he always had photos of his dad that he could look at, knew stories about him, and celebrated his birthday with his mum. When, later in life, he gains a step-father and new siblings they don’t detract from that.
It’s a positive note for the film to close on, and the accompanying booklet- along with expanding on the points and containing useful suggestions on how to respond to bereaved children- lists helpful resources and organisations. I think the central tenets- that it’s important to explain things properly and that no-one’s a super-human who can do without support- are important to remember outside of this specific issue too.
Not Too Young to Grieve can be purchased through the Leed Animation Workshop’s website, where they offer discounts for bulk buying. Like Costco, but without the stress- or all the suspicion about storage and shelf life.