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

A Q&A with Rosalind Bradley – author of A Matter of Life and Death

We talked to Rosalind Bradley about her new book, her motivations for writing it and her relationship with the concept of death.  Bradley_Matter-of-Life_978-1-84905-601-4_colourjpg-print

What motivated you to write A Matter of Life and Death?

The trigger for this book was my mother’s sudden death while she was staying with us in Australia, on holiday from England. It was a few days after ‘9/11’. One day we were strolling around the Sydney Opera House, the next day she was in Emergency Department following a cardiac arrest. I can still recall the physical and emotional numbness I felt that day and for many months afterwards. Her death completely shocked me as there had been no signs of any ill-health.

I had just started a new job, which certainly suffered as I tried to come to terms with this new reality. I am convinced now that the emotional numbness I felt inside me, which later manifested itself in chronic back pain, was the build up of grief inside me. In the wake of my mother’s death and the death and destruction from ‘9/11’, I became intensely curious about death and gradually, through a long period of spiritual and physical renewal, I accepted what had happened.

Several years later, after two close friends who were siblings died, I felt even more driven to come to terms with what is death? I knew I had to face up to my own fears and decide how I wanted to live the rest of my life. Exploring the mystery of death in all its rawness and complexity and gleaning some meaning from it led me to create A Matter of Life and Death.

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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<<


Moon BalloonAuthor Joan Drescher, A Journey in the Moon Balloon: When Images Speak Louder than Words, shares highlights from her home in Hingham, Massachussets after a wonderful trip to the 2015 International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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How to support grieving college students – Part 2

Between 35% and 48% of college students have lost a family member or close friend within the last two years. Grieving college students can often feel isolated and vulnerable, and may feel that no one else ‘gets’ what they are going through. In the second part of this two-part post, co-author of We Get It, Heather Servaty-Seib talks about the book and how it can be used as a tool to support grieving college students.


We Get It is the product of the power and compassion of 33 resilient grieving young adults who took the risk in sharing their stories with others.  As the authors/editors, David and I were honored to receive their stories and to organize them in a way that we thought would be most useful and helpful to others.  As David noted in the prior blog entry, our primary audience of focus is grieving college students and young adults.  We want them to know, through reading these stories, that they are definitely not alone and that in many cases they will find their own thoughts and concerns in print in the narratives of their grieving peers.

As someone passionate about supporting grieving individuals, and who dedicates the majority of her academic and clinical efforts to encouraging and empowering young people in their grief journeys, I have always wanted to assemble a resource for grieving college students. But, over time, I realized that grieving college students did not want or need a book that I, as a counseling psychologist and professor, would write for them! Rather, what students and young adults need is to hear the stories of their peers and to know that they are not the only ones who feel/felt torn, lost, transformed, newly determined about life, etc. I believe this book will make a true difference, and I am proud of David and every single young adult who contributed to this volume.

In addition to reaching out to grieving individuals, this book was also written to offer guidance to those who want to support grieving college students and young adults, including family members, friends, counselors, professors, or university staff members. Reading the stories included here can provide helpful insights into the unique and dynamic nature of grief. If you are someone who is seeking to be a supportive presence in the life of a grieving young adult, we hope you will consider reading our book and that you will leave wiser and better able to acknowledge, normalize, and facilitate the grief of these young adults.

David and I want to express our sincere appreciation to supportive others who decide to read We Get It. You have taken a significant step in making a difference in improving the experience of grief for young adults. By reading the narratives in this book and considering the reflection questions, we hope that you will be able to offer the high quality support that you wish to provide. We know it will mean a great deal to the grieving college students and/or young adults they seek to support.

In the final chapter of the book, we actually provide a list of suggestions for those who seek to offer support to grieving college students and young adults (e.g., non-grieving peers, parents, counselors). We separated the chapter into general tips for supporters and a few additional specific tips for parents, non-grieving peers, counselors, college personnel and professors, and support group leaders. We provide a brief description of each suggestion followed by quotes from the authors to help illustrate the “lived” experience of each of these ideas. These suggestions are tips that grieving students themselves have offered. Some of these suggestions were reported by many, whereas others were only noted by a few. We encourage you to view these ideas as possibilities and be sure to personally evaluate how well each may or may not fit for you.

Again, although our primary focus is on getting We Get It into the hands of grieving college students and adults, we definitely believe that the book can offer real and practical guidance to family members, friends, counselors, professors, or university staff members. You will truly be amazed by the candor, depth of insight, and eloquence of the 33 young adults who share their stories in We Get It.

Heather L. Servaty-Seib, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist. She is currently a professor in the Counseling Psychology Doctoral Program in the Department of Educational Studies at Purdue University, US. Dr. Servaty-Seib also maintains a small, grief-focused private practice. She is well-published in the areas of adolescent and young adult grief, social support and grief, and she is a past president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Much of her recent scholarship has been focused in the area of student bereavement, with articles published in both The Counselling Psychologist and Death Studies. Dr. Servaty-Seib was heavily involved in implementing a bereavement leave policy for students at Purdue University, an effort which has set a precedent for other campuses. She lives in Lafayette, IN.

Learn more about We Get It.

Read part one of this blog post.

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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‘Contact with Nature can be immensely healing.’

Caroline Jay founded and runs the Seeds of Hope Children’s Garden, a national charity which aims to promote the use of nature in helping children manage loss. For twelve years she ran a SAND (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity) group, supporting families after the death of a baby. We spoke to Caroline about using life cycles to teach children about change, how nature can help us come to terms with loss, and how her own experiences inspired her to write her new book, Seeds of Hope Bereavement and Loss Activity Book.

What inspired you to write the book?Jay_Seeds-of-Hope-B_978-1-84905-546-8_colourjpg-print

A love of Nature and of being outside in the sun and air has been my inspiration for the Seeds of Hope Activity Book – that and the realisation that so much in Nature echoes the changes that happen in life.  None of us can live life without change.  All change implies loss and new beginnings  – and this is a pattern ever present in Nature.

In your book, you use life cycles in Nature as a means of explaining death.  Why did you choose that particular method?

Mainly because life cycles are fun!  How amazing to see frogspawn turn into tadpoles that then turn into frogs!  Or a grub become a caterpillar that disappears into a chrysalis out of which bursts a butterfly!  Also because looking at the lifecycles that happen all the time in Nature can help us understand that change and loss are part of a natural order.  “Death is a part of life is a part of death is a part of life is …” and so on as the circle turns.  A seed becomes a plant that becomes a flower that becomes a fruit that contains the seed from which a new plant will grow.  A baby becomes a child who becomes an adult who becomes an old person who will eventually die as new babies are born.  The 4 stages of the life cycle in Nature reflect the 4 stages of a human life.  The pattern continues: there are 4 seasons in the year, 4 weeks in the month, 4 quarters in the year.

Have you found yourself applying the methods you describe in the book in your own personal life?  Have they been helpful?

When my first child, Laura was stillborn, I found myself completely out of balance.  My hospital notes said I was a mother but I had no child.  The world around me seemed suddenly full of babies and heavily pregnant women.  The pain of grief was palpable.  I took long walks in the woods.  I found contact with Nature and the outside world to be immensely healing and grounding at a time when my world had been turned upside down.  Grief for most people can be a very dark place.  Planting seeds or plants and watching them grow in the Spring after the darkness of Winter can be uplifting and provide some hope of brighter times to come.

Does the grieving process for children and adults differ greatly?

The huge range of emotions we may feel when grieving – sadness, anger, shock, disbelief, fear, guilt, numbness to name a few – are generally speaking the same for children and adults.  One difference is that children are usually only able to stay with their feelings for short periods of time – a bit like jumping in and out of a puddle, they may be very sad one minute and want to go out and play the next.  Adults will generally have easier and clearer access to the information surrounding a death or a loss whereas children will generally be dependent on the adults around them to tell them the facts.  It is a natural instinct to want to protect children from painful life experiences but, in the case of a death, this can lead to confusion.  Children fare better when they are given honest information.

What has your experience with SAND and the Seeds of Hope Children’s Garden taught you about how people deal with loss?

Everybody responds to loss and bereavement in different ways.  There is no right and wrong way to travel the road and there are no shortcuts.  Very generally speaking men and women tend to grieve differently in that women are inclined to want to talk about their feelings for longer while men are more inclined to want to take action to restore the status quo.  Partners, whether male or female, often grieve in different ways and at different speeds.  In the case of a child’s death, the loss is equal and therefore no one person is better able to support the other.  Some seek out a support group while others prefer to grieve privately.

How do you hope your book will make a difference?

The activities in the book serve to provide structure for and clarify the grief process for a child allowing them to see the natural process of the cycle of life in Nature.  The images encourage exploration and observation of creatures, plants, and seasons.  The way in which a child’s journey through grief is handled will fundamentally determine how they manage all future losses in adulthood.  I hope the Seeds of Hope Activity Book will empower children to explore their feelings in ways they can understand – by drawing, playing, exploring and having fun.

You can find our more about Caroline’s book, read reviews or order your copy here.

Breaking the final taboo – a talk with Dying Matters.

Final Chapters: Writings About the End of Life is a moving collection of short stories and poetry pieces originally written for a competition run by the Dying Matters Coalition. We caught up their Director of Communications, Joe Levenson, to find out more about the idea behind the competition and why they believe a collection such as this can be not only moving but also significant in getting us all to open up about that final taboo – death and dying. 

Final Chapters: we need to talk about dying

Joe Levenson

Every minute, someone in the UK dies but for many people talking about dying and facing up to their own mortality remains the final taboo, something either to be ignored or postponed indefinitely for a day that many of us like to believe will never come.

While most of us say we’re comfortable talking about dying, the reality is that the majority of people are still shunning important conversations and practical actions to manage their end of life care and final affairs. This reluctance to talk about dying also means that shared experience, which could be a real source of comfort and support, is often hard to come by.

It was against this backdrop that the Dying Matters Coalition was set up by the National Council for Palliative Care in 2009, with the aim of raising awareness about the importance of talking more openly about dying, death and bereavement. With over 30,000 members from across the voluntary, public and commercial sectors Dying Matters is at the forefront of trying to make it easier for everyone to talk about dying.

For many people writing about dying can be less difficult than talking about it and more therapeutic. That’s why Dying Matters initially launched its Final Chapters creative writing competition, and why we are so delighted that a collection of 30 short stories of poems from the competition has just been published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Final Chapters

Final Chapters

This collection provides a great opportunity to think and talk about dying, death and bereavement – too often a taboo subject – and we hope that it will appeal to a wide range of readers. We also want it to become required reading for all those with a professional interest in end of life care.

So taken were we by the response to the Final Chapters competition which saw 1,400 entries including many of an exceptionally high standard, we have also just announced the launch of a new writing competition, While there’s still time: writing about putting things right. We really hope this will provide another great opportunity for people to use the medium of short stories and poems to reflect on end of life issues.

Certainties in life are few but dying is one of them. That’s why we hope that as well as providing a great read, Final Chapters plays a part in breaking the taboo about discussing dying.

By talking more openly about end of life issues and taking actions such as writing a will, recording our funeral wishes, registering as an organ donor, planning our future care and sharing what we would want with our loved ones we can help to ensure that we all get the chance to live well until we die.

You only die once, so don’t leave it too late to make your wishes known or to provide support to those who need it.

Joe Levenson is Director of Communications at the National Council for Palliative Care which leads the Dying Matters Coalition. Find out more about Dying Matters here.

You can also follow them on twitter: @DyingMatters


Helping people through the holidays.

In this blog post, John Wilson, bereavement counsellor and author of Supporting People through Loss and Grief, shares some thoughts on how grieving people can cope with the difficult holiday season, and how those around can try to help and support them.  

Supporting People through Loss and Grief cover

Supporting People through Loss and Grief

This Christmas will be Sophie’s first since her husband David* died in early Spring 2013. Her eyes filled with tears as she recalled a long-standing family tradition. Each year since the children were small, the family would drive to a plantation in a country park and select their Christmas tree. They would all sing along to festive music on the car stereo, and once home, would decorate the tree together.

In her grief counselling session, Sophie and I, her counsellor, were discussing how she and her three children should buy their tree this year. Should they try to continue the family ritual as if Dad was still with them, or should they do something entirely new? Sophie had talked to her children, who were certain that they wanted to continue the tradition.

At times such as this, there is no escaping the reality of a loved-one’s absence; a situation rendered even more poignant by a holiday others are celebrating. Be it a religious or secular holiday, a birthday or an anniversary, the loss of those we loved and continue to love, evokes bittersweet memories.

Of course David, husband and father, will be with his family when they choose their tree. He will be in their hearts and thoughts; more so perhaps, if they are brave enough to continue this and other rituals in his fond memory. One of the many things my bereaved clients have taught me is the power of symbolic meaning. David will be with his family symbolically. This is not at all the same as pretending that nothing has changed, because for this family, a lot will be different this holiday and on all future holidays.

Not so very long ago, it was believed that to overcome grief, the bereaved needed to relinquish the lost loved-one. “Let them go and move on”, we were told. We accept now that bonds with the deceased can continue. This does not mean clinging on vainly to the past, but it allows the life of our lost parent, child, sibling, lover or friend, to become part of our future. The lessons they taught us, the examples they set us, the values they lived by and the jokes and stories they shared, become immortal; family lore which we can choose to bequeath to each new generation.

Symbolism and ritual are valuable human activities. At festivals and holidays we will inevitably be drawn to think about those no longer with us, whether we like it or not, so let us deliberately and consciously embrace the opportunity to recall the ways in which they continue to affect our life. At the hospice where I work, and at many hospices, relatives can sponsor a light on a tree at Christmas. We call it “Light Up a Life”. The switching on ceremony is emotional, but both happy and sad thoughts are evoked, and in many cases shared. Whoever it is you have lost, there is something helpful in knowing you are not alone in your grief; a reason why collective memorial events serve to heal. You may consider lighting a candle or taking flowers to a grave or to a special place significant to your loved-one. Perhaps you might make a donation to a charity in his or her name.

Not every bereaved person has close family nearby. Childless people bereaved of a spouse often struggle when they lack the continued sense of purpose and meaning which comes to those lucky enough to have children, or even grandchildren. It is easier to maintain a sense of purpose when you have this motivation to “keep cheerful”. Bereaved spouses with no dependents have to find novel, symbolic ways to continue a bond with the partner they have lost. One of my clients would retrace the steps of a favourite moorland path she and her late husband had often walked. At holidays and anniversaries she felt that this brought them closer together. It was important to her that she walked the route alone, to give herself time for reflection. This need for solitude can be very important. For many newly grieving people, December marks the end of a sad year and the hope of a new start. Many bereaved spouses have told me that they would like to have some time on their own on Christmas Day, but that well-meaning relatives will not allow it. If you have a recently bereaved friend or family member who has asked to be alone, at least for some of the day, please try to support this wish. Remember that being alone is not the same as being lonely, and that sometimes the loneliest place to be is in a room full of happy people.

When I see my clients for the last time before New Year, generally in mid-December, I say to them ”Try to have the best time you can”, because to say, ”Enjoy yourself” would be insensitive and unhelpful. There are ways to make a difficult time of year more bearable, and I hope that here I have provided a few pointers.

*Sophie and David are pseudonyms. The real ‘Sophie’ has read this text and has given consent for her story to be told.


John’s book, Supporting People through Loss and Grief, will be published 21st December 2013. You can read more of his expert advice by following @JWilsonOnline on Twitter.

The comfort of music at the end of life – an extract from Musical Encounters with Dying

Runningdeer_Musical-Encount_978-1-84905-936-7_colourjpg-webWhile teaching piano to an adult student, an unexpected diagnosis led Islene Runningdeer to explore how music could provide a deep sense of comfort and support at the end of life.

Read more about the story here

This extract is taken from Musical Encounters with Dying, in which Islene Runningdeer shares many moving and inspirational tales about her work with patients facing death. This supportive guide considers the key ingredients for bringing music into palliative care settings such as creating a therapeutic relationship, helping patients to reach final goals, showing sensitivity to cultural contexts, and dealing with difficult emotions.