Navigating the Wilderness of Grief: Sibling Bereavement Support in a Children’s Hospice
Kathryn Nicholson, RN, MMT, RCC, Canuck Place Children’s Hospice
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The grief experience is uncharted territory for most people – and there is no map to show the way. Families who have lost a child are under particularly intense pressure from within and from the outside world. The parents are usually exhausted and devastated. Changes in family dynamics, patterns, schedules and expectations often result in frightening uncertainty and chaos for the surviving siblings at the very time they are needing their sense of trust and safety in the world to be restored.
At Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, we are very aware of the need for gentle, open, non-judgmental therapeutic support for both parents and siblings who are grieving. For this reason we offer an ongoing parent support group which runs concurrently with our sibling support groups. Families come to the hospice bi-weekly. We begin and end with a gathering circle which includes parents and children; their respective 90 minute groups are then held in different rooms in the hospice. These groups are not drop-in; families are asked to pre-register and encouraged to attend regularly for whatever period of time feels right for them - usually anywhere from 3 months – 2 years. They are welcome to participate until they feel ‘finished’ – there is no time limit imposed.
The sibling groups are divided according to numbers and ages:
- ‘Littles’ group: 0 – 4 yrs
- School-age group 5 – 10 yrs
- Pre-teen and teen group 11 – 16 yrs
We use expressive arts, educational tools, peer support, and recreational play time to accomplish our therapeutic goals, which are to help the children:
- face the reality of the loss
- experience the feelings associated with the loss
- adapt to the loss and re-configure/re-engage with their own lives
Music, art, and play are very effective therapeutic modalities for children. Music, in particular, can be a container, a catalyst and/or a vehicle for exploring and expressing difficult feelings and experiences. In our groups, children are encouraged to bring in favourite recordings to share, analyse/change lyrics, write and/or record their own songs, improvise instrumental music to reflect different feelings etc. Sometimes we create art to express the music, sometimes we sing, sometimes we dance! Music is a profoundly magical, mystical tool that can enable mind, body and spirit to integrate and transform life experiences in a holistic way.
One of the chants that the children in our group love to sing, drum and dance to is:
Standing like a tree with my roots dug down,
My branches wide and open.
Come down the wind, come down the rain,
come down the sun
to a heart that is open to be
Standing like a tree.
These words speak of resilience and survivorship – concepts which the children absorb through the music. Therein lies the teaching and the therapy!
The Author: Kathryn Nicholson, RN, has a Masters Degree in Music Therapy and is a Registered Clinical Counsellor. She has worked in rehabilitation nursing, cancer care and pediatric palliative care and has been at Canuck Place Children’s Hospice in British Colombia for the past six years. To balance the often intense hospice work, Kathryn fills up on joy and fun, as choral director of the Universal Gospel Choir where she conducts this 60 member community choir. www.canuckplace.org
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