Independent Appeal: Learning to live without mother

Counselling can help bereaved children come to terms with the loss of a parent. David McKittrick reports from Belfast

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The Independent Online

Last Christmas Cameron Carter took the message he had written to his mother and fastened it to a balloon. Then, watched by his younger brothers and sister, their father released the balloon to float up into the sky sending the message up to their mum. Nine months earlier she had died of a brain haemorrhage.

Today Cameron, now aged eight, sits with his dad and shows me his work book, When Someone Special Dies. In words and pictures it explains the facts of death in an open and straightforward way.

Father and son are sitting in a bereavement counsellor's office run by Barnardo's in Belfast. Cameron takes a lively and intelligent interest as his dad talks frankly about how he and his four children – Cameron, eight, Ethan, seven, Aaron, three, and Leah, 20 months – have coped with the death of his wife, Denise.

Cameron, who is now doing well at school, listens attentively and nods as his dad Steve tells how his wife died suddenly, just minutes after giving birth. Her death left Steve with four children aged six and under.

Father and son both praise the bereavement counselling provided by Barnardo's – which is one of the three charities being supported by donations from Independent readers in our Christmas Appeal this year. Cameron points out pages where he has added words and drawings of his own to the book. He reads some of the book's text aloud: "Change creates loss and the change from loss is called grief," he recites.

The sessions have provided him with the language for his emotions, so that he speaks unselfconsciously about life and death, sadness, fear and anger. The book tells of things that "take some of the pain away".

Steve says, with tenderness and pride, of Cameron: "Counselling has brought a lot out of him. He now asks me amazing questions, like what my feelings are and how am I coping with Christmas coming. He's got a lot out of this, he has opened up – he's so mature for his age and is very thoughtful. For an eight-year-old that is fantastic."

Carrie Lindsay, the counsellor who works with Cameron and Steve, says: "Cameron is on a journey, but every child is an individual. A wee one of four or five can't understand that you don't come back after you die, they don't understand the finality of it."

The Barnardo's approach is one of openness, starting from the assumption that children are not born with an automatic understanding of death, and need clear and honest information and be allowed to display their feelings of grief.

Explaining a death to a child can be a difficult and painful task, but with the right help children can manage their feelings of pain and loss. Various techniques are used including keeping mementoes and the use of story-telling, painting and games.

Steve is an example of a parent committed to doing this. "Barnardo's have given us great support," he says. "I came to counselling myself, and meeting other dads who have lost their partners helped me massively.

"There's no single thing I can pinpoint, but there are so many different little ideas. My children have memory boxes that they keep under their beds, with little teddies and keepsakes. They each have memory boards in their rooms, and there's a board in the kitchen too, so if they're having dinner or breakfast they're seeing their mum all the time.

"Last Christmas we released little balloons sending messages up to their mum. We wrote notes and put them on the tree."

There are many sad and painful moments, Steve admits, especially on anniversaries and birthdays, which have to be coped with. "But something I picked up from Carrie is that you've got to talk about things.

"Yes, birthdays can be a sad time but when it was Aaron's we played a video of a previous birthday and there was Denise singing happy birthday with us – we were making sure that she is still part of our family celebration. That's what I found has helped us get through a lot of things."

Barnardo's employs many effective coping strategies to help individuals and families deal with symptoms such as anger, resentment, confusion, denial, depression and sleep loss. They stress the value of communication and relationships in helping children cope.

The aim is to address behavioural problems and increase concentration levels – Cameron's good performance in school is an example of how this can work – and make them feel more positive and happy about the future.

An advice line offers advice and support to anyone with concerns, while training and information nights are held for parents and professionals. Individual and group support is given to children and young people up to the age of 18.

"We just work with them until there's a natural finish," Carrie explains. "And then they will come back, maybe three or five years later. This is because at different developmental stages they explore their grief in different ways – when you're eight you don't have the same questions as when you're 12."

Each December families gather for events where they can share emotions and experiences: this is where Steve discovered many small but valuable things.

Working with grief might be thought taxing and difficult for Barnardo's staff, but Carrie says: "It's hard because you're dealing with really hard things in children's lives, and watching them deal with emotions. But when you see a child taking steps on their journey, managing their grief and seeing how they incorporate that into their lives – this job is a privilege, a real privilege. I love it, really love it."

The charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal

Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.

* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It specialises in traumatised children. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with children in extreme situations in a dozen countries – children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, long-term post-conflict disturbance in East Timor, and with Burmese refugee children in Bangladesh and Thailand.

* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes.