This week, Shani Thornton (aka Child Life Mommy) and I brought Child Life services beyond hospital walls into our community. Via a referral from Jen Holahan, CCLS, a parent invited Shani to do some bereavement work at a girls and boys club. A staff member and former member of the club had recently died unexpectedly, and the kids and staff needed support. Shani reached out to me and asked if I would join her. How could I say no?
We armed ourselves with Anastasia Higginbotham’s book Death is Stupid, 3 rolls of toilet paper and Shani’s years of experience volunteering with bereaved children at Center for Hope. Our plan of action included a read aloud, followed by a group mural where the school-aged children could express any of their many feelings about their beloved mentor’s death. The club supplied a huge roll of white butcher paper, paint, crayons, markers, glue, yarn, glitter, pompons, and googly eyes. The kids supplied their hearts.
In addition to the mural, we set up a toilet paper target station in a corner away from the art activity. Kids could draw what was making them sad, angry or afraid, and then wail away at the target with sopping wads of water-logged toilet paper.
What did we discover? Well, first, the children joined us in a circle of chairs for the reading of the book. Some teared up while others got silly. We staid our course and refrained from redirecting any of it. We were surprised when almost all of them raised their hands when asked if they knew others who had died. Many relatives and pets had already paved the way for this loss.
Then we set them loose on the mural. They dug deep quickly, drawing and writing about their feelings and memories about the young man who had died at the tender age of 21. They told us stories of things they had done with him, what he enjoyed, how he had helped them with their homework. They talked openly about feeling sad and angry. One tween drew a heart, wrote “Death is Stupid” in the middle of the heart, and then crossed out ‘Stupid’ and added the words scary, mean, weird, confusing and heartbreaking.
Those who weren’t quite ready to join in the mural found solace in the target game, something that allowed for a more physical, visceral release of emotions. “I hate death” they wrote on the target. “Come Back!” One child drew a picture of himself crying, and then decided to cut the drawing off of the target, so that it would not be ruined by the wet toilet paper. Their bodies danced in anticipation as they lined up to take their turns spooling toilet paper around their fists. The toilet paper flew, splatting with satisfying force again and again, as emotion propelled major league-worthy arms.
When the smoke cleared, every child had contributed to both the mural and the target practice. We regathered in the circle, where Shani reminded them who they can speak to about their feelings as time goes on. The kids named their parents, counsellors, teachers and one another. We held hands and shouted their friend’s name as a final ritual.
Kids know what they need. When adults provide them with space, time, materials and a listening ear, kids know exactly what to do. They need to talk about the person they lost. They need to know that the adults in their lives can hear them without turning away or handing out platitudes. They need to know that they are normal, that their thoughts and feelings aren’t bad or wrong. And they need to know that the feelings will come and go, and that it’s okay to play and have fun anyway, even amidst the sadness.
After the room had emptied, as we scraped wet toilet paper off the cinder block walls, Shani said, “Isn’t this exactly where child life belongs?!”
Yes, my dear friend. This is exactly where it belongs, in the community where the children live day in and day out, and where death is stupid, scary, mean, weird, confusing and heartbreaking.