Why We Need to Break the Silence Around Suicide, Especially for our Children

Louise Moir explains why she wrote Rafi’s Red Racing Car, details her own experiences, and expresses the need for a breakdown in the stigma that surrounds mental illness and suicide.

I lost my husband to suicide in 2011 following his brief decline into mental ill health that was triggered by a job redundancy. My sons were aged 4 ½ and nineteen months. Rafi’s Red Racing Car is the book that I wished I’d had at that time to help me with the terribly painful and bewildering task of trying to explain to my boys what had happened to their Daddy.

Before their father’s suicide, my children had not yet experienced death of any kind, so they had absolutely no understanding. I quickly learnt that their grief was too raw and overwhelming for them to be able to tolerate me talking directly about the tragedy that had enveloped us all. Very young children are very visual and respond well to explanations in pictorial or metaphoric realms. I found a wealth of good, age appropriate books that helped to explain death and the emotions that surround loss and these helped tremendously. Identifying with the character in the book who was experiencing similar events and emotions to themselves enabled my sons to externalise their own feelings, begin to understand their experience and led to them asking me questions about their own loss.

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No matter how young the child, honesty is the best way…


That is according to Nathalie Slosse, author of Big Tree is Sick, who tells the story of how the book came to be, as well as laying out her case for complete honesty as the best way to engage with children when helping them to understand serious illness.

In surveys on what values ​​we consider important, honesty is always highly rated, usually even as the most important quality. However, when it comes to honestly confiding something serious to our children, we often want to spare them the grief that the harsh truth can bring. It is a dilemma I struggled with when I was treated for breast cancer, and it’s why I want to provide a resource to others in the same situation today.

Sometimes people ask me “Did breast cancer change your way of life?” I wish I could reply that this was not the case; it’s true that prior to my diagnosis I followed my heart when it came to important life choices. But if I’m honest, I must admit that without the painful episode in 2007, I would not be doing what I do now. The battle I had with breast cancer as a mum of a two year old boy helped me discover that I can help people find happiness in difficult circumstances. In 2010 I founded the association Talismanneke to further explore that path.

But let’s start at the beginning.

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Children’s Grief Awareness Week: Grief Pulls People Together

Children's Grief Awareness

The arrival of Children’s Grief Awareness Week sees author Emmi Smid reflect on some memorable feedback to her ambitious book – Luna’s Red Hat. The beautiful book helps children cope with loss and suicide, and here Emmi shares some of the insights gained from creating and sharing the book with the world.

A few months after Luna’s Red Hat had been published, I received a letter in the post, which included a booklet made out of several A4 sheets of paper, stapled together. The cover of the booklet showed an interpretation of the cover of Luna’s Red Hat, drawn with colour pencils and way more colourful and playful than my own version. I was very intrigued. I opened the booklet and found more copies of drawings from the book. They were drawings from a child, I could see that, but I found it hard to guess their age, as they were really good. I remember being very touched at this stage. To think that someone had spent time observing my drawings and copying them so precisely – very sweet!Children's Grief Awareness

On the next page in the booklet I found a letter. It turned out that I wasn’t looking at one artist’s work, but at two! The letter was written by two girls whose words touched me deeply. I decided to contact their teacher assistant, Sharon Wills, who had sent me the booklet on behalf of her students, to ask about the girls’ inspiration to write to me, and how old they were. What she told me made my heart melt even more. The girls were both 11 at the time, and they were trying to support their friend, whose mother was dying from cancer. Continue reading

What is death? And how can we help children understand it? – Marian Carter

bereavementIn this extract from Helping Children and Adolescents Think about Death, Dying and Bereavement, Marian Carter draws upon her experience as a chaplain who has worked in hospital and hospice settings to suggest ways that we can help children come to terms with death. She questions ‘What is death?’ and goes on to describe the different experiences that children have with it, and how we can reflect upon these experiences to improve our emotional support. The book, which looks at how children comprehend the death of a loved one, pet, or even their own death, places a particular emphasis on the importance of listening to the child or adolescent, and adapting your approach based on their responses.

>>Click here to download the extract<<

Pooky Knightsmith: Three good reasons to write bad poetry

You don’t need tKnightsmith_Using-Poetry-to_978-1-78592-053-0_colourjpg-printo be a poet to write poetry, and you don’t need to write ‘good’ poetry to get a lot out of it.  I’ve found that the very act of writing and reviewing poetry can be incredibly therapeutic regardless of what we might produce.  Letting go of the idea that we need to be in some way talented with words to write poetry can open the door to a truly engaging, interesting and meaningful way to explore and express how we’re feeling.

In this blog post I’m exploring three key reasons why I’m an advocate of writing even the most terrible poetry – I hope it inspires you to give it a go (if so, you may find the fifty poetry writing prompts in my new book, Using Poetry to Promote Talking and Healing a good starting point).  Continue reading

Download a therapeutic resource from Pooky Knightsmith’s new book ‘Using Poetry to Promote Talking and Healing’

Knightsmith_Using-Poetry-to_978-1-78592-053-0_colourjpg-printThere are five poems in this extract from Pooky Knightsmith’s new book Using Poetry to Promote Talking and Healing. Each poem, written by Pooky, is the subject of a common mental health issue borne of her own experiences in the field of mental health.  They address panic attacks, anxiety, depression and anorexia and are accompanied by supporting questions and activities to help open up difficult discussions.  They are an ideal resource for therapeutic, classroom and family settings.

“Unlike so many stereotypes about poetry, this book is practical, unpretentious and heartfelt, with applications for helping people- young and old- way beyond mental health settings.”                                                                                                              -Nick Luxmoore, school counsellor and author of Horny and Hormonal

>>Click here to download the extract<<

Tackling bereavement with children in school

With an established background in psychology and education, author John Holland has written numerous books for JKP about bereavement and loss. In this blog, John gives insight on his firsthand experience in working with bereaved children in schools – which also happens to be the core topic of his newest book Responding to Loss and Bereavement in Schools.

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Developing Luna: representing grief in childhood

Emmi Smid, author of Luna’s Red Hat, walks us through her creative process as she developed Luna’s character: from her name and her look, to her dress and her special hat.

The name Luna

The name Luna is not a coincidence.  Luna is Latin for moon. Symbolically, the name Luna stands for transition, renewal and balance, among other things. I thought it a suitable and hopeful name for a young girl who is coming to terms with the loss of her mother.

The Moon is also a place most ordinary people can’t reach. What goes on up there is incomprehensible to us. At some point in the story, we see Luna’s Mum depicted on the Moon, trapped in her own world and out of reach. People who have dealt with a suicidal loved one will be able to empathise with this.


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Luna as a Rabbit

While I was developing Luna, I played with the idea of using an animal for the main character, as you can see in the sketches below, but eventually decided against this idea. Suicide is a fathomless notion, whether you are a child or an adult. In this specific case, I felt that it was very important to show children (and their family) that they are not the only ones going through this. Therefore, I wanted to illustrate a representation of an ordinary family.luna rabbit 2

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Luna as a girl

Ever since that I made that decision, Luna’s look went through quite a few changes – from using different materials, which gave her  a different feel as a character, to different heights; from tall and gangling to the petite but feisty 6-year-old she is now.luna girllcollage

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Luna in 3D

I also made a 3D version of Luna, so I could play with light sources and shadows, and use photos I took of her as a reference for my illustrations.

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Luna’s Dress 

Luna’s dress, with its checked pattern, stayed the same throughout the process. It was inspired by a dress my Aunt Judith used to wear when she was around that age. The dress has appeared in several of my fine art pieces throughout the years, as you can see below, and finally found its destiny in this book.

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Luna’s Red Hat

Ironically, the thing I struggled drawing most was Luna’s red hat! It was either too small, too floppy, too big, too bonnet-y, too red, or not red enough, and even looked like a fire brigade hat or a UFO. You name it, I’ve drawn it, over and over again.

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Emmi Smid is a children’s book author and illustrator. She was born in the Netherlands but currently lives and works in Brighton, UK. Learn more about Luna’s Red Hat here.

The Story Behind Luna’s Red Hat

Featuring suicide in a picture book may sound like an unlikely combination to some people, which is why we’ve asked Emmi Smid, author of Luna’s Red Hat to explain what motivated her to write and illustrate Luna’s story.

That art is a necessity to society’s well-being and structure is, in my humble opinion, a fact; creative people have the ability to shine a light on important matters from different perspectives. Through their words, visuals and sounds, these products of creativity encourage us to ‘think outside the box’, touch people’s hearts and bring people closer together.

My background originates in Fine Art. With my above-mentioned image of “The Artist” in mind, I struggled to find the ‘use’ for my own art within our modern day society. What do I have to offer that could potentially add something positive to how we think about and deal with current social matters?

During my time at the University of Brighton, where I read for a Masters degree called Sequential Design/Illustration, I started revaluing the importance of the picture book, and how a balanced ‘marriage’ between words and pictures can teach not only children, but also adults, simple but profound lessons in life. So, I started by revisiting my collection of picture books that handle the topic of death: Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death and the Tulip, Oliver Jeffers’ The Heart and the Bottle, among others. Then the penny dropped. As beautiful and heartfelt as each of these picture books were, none of them touched upon the topic of loss through suicide. I noticed this because I have lost loved ones to suicide. I was 16 when my friend Bram committed suicide. We were the same age, and we were raised on the same street. We went to primary school together, and after that to secondary school. As far as I knew Bram was always going to be a part of my life, until he wasn’t. His sudden death came as a shock to all of us – Bram’s family first of all, my family, our mutual friends and their families, our teachers, the school, there was a real ripple effect.

In the spring of 2009, when I was 21 and had moved from my home country the Netherlands to England to study Fine Art at University College Falmouth, my aunt Judith committed suicide. She left behind her two daughters, Merel and Silke, aged 14 and 10 at the time. Being away from home, I felt rather disconnected from my family. I was concerned about my cousins – with all of us struggling to grasp the notion of suicide and getting our lives back on track, how were my cousins going to deal with this at their age? I felt powerless and useless.

Fast-forward to January 2014, and there I was discussing the idea of designing a picture book about dealing with loss through suicide with one of my tutors at the University of Brighton. I was very passionate about the idea but the fact that there weren’t many books about the topic made me doubt myself. “If you are not sure, then maybe you should start by finding out why there aren’t many children’s books about suicide?” my tutor suggested. So I sat down and came up with a number of reasons why: the notion of death is difficult enough for children, let alone dying by apparent ‘choice’; we live in a society where children are wrapped up in cotton wool and are protected from real life for as long as possible; Suicide is still a social taboo.

None of these reasons felt very satisfying – in fact, the more I thought about it, the stronger the urge became to confront and perhaps even tackle those reasons. Children are as clever as adults, with the difference that they lack life experience. The only way for adults to help children gain life experience is to provide them with the tools to deal with life, as and when it happens. Social taboos are created and perpetuated the same way: it all boils down to our own lack of tools to be able to empathise rather than judge, communicate rather than ignore, and confront rather than beat around the bush.

Unfortunately, people commit suicide. I have felt isolated and lonely when trying to deal with overcoming the loss of my friend and my aunt, and I have seen the effects it has had on my family and friends. If we adults are struggling, then how will young children deal with such a loss? Determined and on a mission, I created the first series of sketches telling Luna’s story:

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I posted the sketches on my blog and asked people for feedback. The reply of Alexis Deacon (writer and illustrator of picture books such as Beegu) made me take a step back and reconsider my approach: “You might try offsetting the sadness with moments of humour or just exploring different kinds of sadness. After all, the message is an important one and you are more likely to reach a wider audience if you don’t club people round the head with it!”

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Considering the sensitivity of the topic, I also decided to get feedback from specialists in the field. During my research I read the book Couldn’t You Stay for Me? by Dutch bereavement specialist Dr Riet Fiddelaers-Jaspers and contacted her. Riet has been an immense help ever since, providing me with feedback regarding different stages of grief and sharing her expertise with me. She also agreed to write the ‘Guide for Parents’, her contribution in the back of Luna’s Red Hat, which is designed to help parents, carers, teachers and professionals to support and communicate with children who have lost a loved one through suicide.

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In search for feedback from parents who have been through similar situations, I contacted Belgian bereavement institution Werkgroep Verder. They agreed to share my manuscript with some of their clients, and I received some very useful and eye-opening replies. The one that got to me most was feedback regarding one of my illustrations. I wanted to show Luna being overwhelmed by her own anger, through drawing a big metaphorical red wave of anger behind her. A parent rightfully pointed out that one never knows whether the child was exposed to the incident, and that “splashes of red liquid” may cause further pain. I instantly decided to make the wave blue instead.

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Designing Luna’s Red Hat has been a tough but blessed learning curve, personally as well as professionally. There are many more insights into the process that I could show you, but the main insight I would like to share with you, is that we can learn to embrace our losses together, however heartbreaking they may be. I wasn’t able to physically be there for my cousins Merel and Silke when they lost their mother, but I dedicate this book to them. If Luna’s Red Hat could provide parents and their children with a new perspective or hope in even the slightest way possible, then that would mean the world to me.

Emmi Smid is a children’s book author and illustrator. She was born in the Netherlands but currently lives and works in Brighton, UK. Learn more about Luna’s Red Hat here.

 

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