Helping children deal with death and dying

Bereavement counselling for children

I have worked as a Family Therapist for over twenty years in Child and Adult Mental Health Services and also as one of the Professional Advisers offering a ringback service for the Young Mind’s National Parents’ Helpline – The Parents’ Information Service.

Through my work I have become aware of the problems parents and carers have in talking to their children about death and dying. Many people in this present age are not sure what they believe and therefore do not know where to begin in discussing the subject with a child either before or after the event.

I therefore decided to write this childrens’ story, a non-denominational and positive story, to fill this gap and to help children to move on in the grieving process. I believe that adults may find it helpful too.

WHERE IS UNCLE PETE?
BY
AUDREY SANDBANK

Mum usually walked Samuel and his brother Jack home from school with his little sister Lily in her pushchair. Sam was in year three and Jack was in year five. Today was different. Dad had parked the car outside the school and Lily was in her car seat in the back. His brother Jack got in the front seat next to Dad. Sam was going to complain that it was his turn, when he saw Dad’s cross-looking face, so he strapped himself in beside Lily without a sound. Lily wasn’t chatting away as she usually did. Samuel felt he’d better keep quiet too until they got home. Home was only five minutes away and it was a rare treat to be collected by car.

But it didn’t feel like a treat today and Samuel was glad to get home to Mum who was standing waiting for them by the front door looking worried. None of them had spoken in the car and Jack and Sam thought there must be some bad news. Maybe Mum and Dad were going to get a divorce – some of their friends mums and dads had done that – but there hadn’t been any arguments recently and this morning at breakfast they had been laughing and joking and Mum had given Dad a big hug and kiss before he left for work – Samuel was sure it wasn’t that.

Mum said quietly “Go and get changed out of your school clothes and I’ll come up in a minute.

They went upstairs and did as they were told without the usual pushing and shoving. They both sat on Jack’s bed and waited for mum to come up. Sam had a funny feeling in his tummy and was glad when he saw Mum’s face at the bedroom door although she looked very pale and red-eyed as if she’d been crying. She came and sat down in between them on the bed and put an arm round each of them.

You know Uncle Pete loves to drive his Mondeo,” the boys nodded, “well he’s been in an accident.

Sam loved Uncle Pete. He was Dad’s younger brother and always made them laugh and chased them round the garden. One year he had even taken them on Eurostar to Disneyland in France.

Will he be OK? Can I see him in hospital?” Sam asked.

Jack said “Is he badly hurt?

A tear slowly ran down Mum’s cheek “I’m afraid he was killed”.

Sam burst into tears. Jack swallowed hard and tried not to cry. He hugged Mum, he hated to see her unhappy. Mum hugged both of them and Jack started sniffing a bit. Mum took some tissues out of her pocket and passed them round, taking one for herself.

It’s all right Jack, it’s OK to cry when we’ve lost someone we love, and it’s OK to feel angry too,” she said.

The tears flowed down Jack’s face. Sam hadn’t seen him cry like that since he fell off his new bike on his birthday and twisted his ankle.

Dad came up the stairs. “Mum‘s told you about Uncle Pete?” The boys nodded.

Sam flung himself at Dad. “It’s not fair, he’s my best uncle, why did he have to die?

Dad blinked hard, but the tears escaped, and joined the family hug. Mum took her hand from around Jack and softly stroked Dad’s hair the way she did Samuel’s when he wasn’t well.

You see,” said Mum to Jack “It’s OK for grownup boys to cry too.” Dad smiled through his tears and you could see how much he loved Mum.

Come on I’ll put the kettle on and make some baked beans on toast, that’s quick and easy.

They all went downstairs to the kitchen and Mum picked up Lily, who had been playing with her dolls as though nothing had happened, and put her in her high chair. But when Mum put Sam’s plate of beans in front of him, he couldn’t eat them and ran back upstairs into his bedroom. He sobbed and sobbed until he just ran out of tears. “Why, did Uncle Pete have to die?”

Every night he said ‘God bless Mum and Dad and Nanna and Granddad and Jack and Lily and everyone in the whole world’. Didn’t that include Uncle Pete or should he have said a special prayer for him? It was all his fault, he shouldn’t have left him out!

“No it isn’t.” He heard a reply in his head. “It was just his time. Trust Me he’s OK.”

“How can he be OK if he’s dead? Where’s he gone? Is he up in the sky? Can he see us? Who are you?”

“Be very still for a minute and you’ll know who I am.”

Samuel was very still, then he knew, even though it was May. “You’re Father Christmas!”

The voice laughed softly. Although it was a very old deep laugh, it had the simple delight that his little sister had when he pulled faces to make her laugh.

“I’ve been called many names but sometimes children think I’m Father Christmas.”

“I knew you were real. Jack said you were just pretend and Mum and Dad filled our stockings” Sam shut his eyes, he was feeling tired and he remembered the great presents that Uncle Pete used to bring.

Mum opened the door slightly and looked in at him. “Poor love, he’s cried himself to sleep.” She went over and gave him a kiss.

Sam opened his eyes “I’m not asleep, I want to know where Uncle Pete is.

Mum was quiet for a moment. “I’ll go and get Dad and Jack and we’ll talk about it.

Mum went out and came back with Dad and Jack. “It’s a good time to talk, I’ve put Lily to bed.” She looked at Dad “Sam wants to know where Uncle Pete has gone?

I want to know too,” said Jack “I expect he’s just gone out like a light.” Dad nodded. Sam looked upset.

Mum looked at him “Some people have died for a few minutes and then been resuscitated.

What does ‘resustated’ mean?

It means the doctors have used drugs or pressure on their chest or something, to start their heart beating again. Anyway, some of those people when they woke up told stories about a long tunnel with a bright light at the end and a few went even further out into the bright light.

That’s called a ‘near-death experience,” said Dad “and most of the stories are very similar.

Mum said “Some people think that the people we love, and who have loved us, are watching over us.

Dad said “Uncle Pete always had a sense of adventure, I don’t think he’d waste his time looking back at us. I think he’d be curious to find out what lies ahead. I wouldn’t want to feel that our love had been responsible for grounding him.” “Go for it man!” Dad said under his breath.

Samuel felt a bit better. It was beginning to sound as if there might be more to this dying business than going out like a light. He climbed on to Mum’s lap. His head became very heavy on Mum’s arm. Mum lifted him up gently and carried him upstairs. He didn’t notice when she took off his socks and shoes and pulled his jeans off and then pulled his jumper over his head.

She gently laid him on his pillow and covered him with his duvet. Mum went back downstairs and Jack had the special treat of having his parents to himself. Dad read to him from his favourite Harry Potter book. He snuggled up to Dad on the settee to show him he was sorry about Uncle Pete – it must be awful not to have your younger brother any more. He made up his mind that he would buy Dad his favourite Twix bar with next week’s pocket money and try not to tease his brother so much for being such a bad catcher.

Meanwhile Sam had woken up again. He wasn’t in his bedroom any more. He was at the seaside. He couldn’t remember how he’d got there. Dad must have put him in the car when he was fast asleep and driven down to Brighton. But it didn’t look like Brighton.

There were no buildings or boats and it wasn’t the stony beach that hurt your feet but soft velvety warm sand which felt like Mum felt when you snuggled up to her. The sea was gentle and warm too, like hot chocolate without the stickiness and there were lots of people swimming in the water and paddling in the soft sand along the edge. Samuel paddled in the warm sea too and looked around for the rest of the family, but they must have gone off for a walk while he was asleep.

It was a bright summer’s day but he couldn’t see the sun, it must have been somewhere because the whole sky glowed with a bright light and there was not a cloud in sight. Samuel jumped over a little wave and instead of coming straight down, it was as if he were wearing ‘seven league boots’ and he landed some distance away. Fortunately the water was shallow and it didn’t matter.

He remembered an old TV film he’d seen of the first astronauts landing on the moon. They had been able to jump like that because the moon is so much smaller than the earth and there is less gravity there. The ground doesn’t pull you back down so quickly. He remembered that Jupiter is the biggest planet in our solar system.

“I’m glad I’m not on Jupiter the gravity there is so strong I wouldn’t be able to walk properly, I’d feel so heavy. It’s much more fun feeling light and being able to jump really high.”

A group of people came towards him carrying trays of sparkling drinks in long glasses. He picked one up and took a sip of the most wonderful liquid he’d ever tasted. Mum had once let him have a sip of champagne at a family wedding party, but this was quite different, sort of sweet but not sickly sweet. The champagne had been sort of bitter and had too much sparkle. This had a sparkle, but the sparkles shot through your body so that there was nowhere that didn’t receive the soft warmth of the liquid.

He thought of his family and how much he loved them and how much they loved him. He remembered his class teacher who shouted at the boys in his class. He suddenly saw clearly how much she loved them and how sad it made her when they played around in class and how proud she was when they did well. He’d work harder next term and make her proud of him.

Then he suddenly felt unkind for laughing at Tim (who had a funny leg) when he fell over. He would help him and be his friend. James, another boy in his class, was sometimes horrid to Samuel when he missed a catch, but James was a kind boy too and helped his mum, he didn’t have a dad. Sam felt so lucky to have his dad, instead of getting upset with James and trying to trip him over he would invite him over to play football with his Dad and Jack next weekend. The drink made Samuel feel sort of grownup and he reached out for another sip when he was stopped by a voice saying “No! It’s not your time!”

“What did he mean,” thought Samuel “they were drinking the sparkling water, it wasn’t too early for them?”

Then he realised that they were different from him. They looked like space people from Mars or somewhere, he could see straight through them! They were filled with light and kind of glowed. He wondered if he should be frightened of these strange people. They seemed to be kind and were offering what he somehow knew was Loving Water to other people who had just arrived and were looking a bit scared.

Some of the people with the water had broken away from the group and had gone to meet them as if they knew them, putting their arms around them and calming them down. Then they gave them a drink of the Loving Water which sort of switched on their light so that they shone like the others. Then they gave a little jump, or rather a big leap, of happiness and walked over and joined the other Shining Ones.

Sam looked at his tummy, he was in his shorts, but he looked just the same as usual, he didn’t have any glowy light. Suddenly he heard a whimpery noise and turned round to see a little bundle on the sand next to him. He picked it up and started to rock it in his arms and sing to it like he’d seen mum do with Lily when she was little, but it didn’t stop crying, it seemed so unhappy.

One of the light people came over and gently took the baby from him and gave it some Loving Water in a baby’s bottle. It stopped crying and drank thirstily. Then the baby simply grew and grew until it stood up and stretched out to take a glass of Loving Water from another Shining One and drank it in quick gulps. The baby was now a child who pulled away from the person who had been holding him and ran off happily to join a group of children who were having a game of football.

All the children were glowing just like the grownups. They weren’t noisy but they were laughing and happy and having a good time. Samuel wondered whether to join them. He walked shyly over to them paddling through the warm velvety sea, but as he got close to them they seemed to move away. They just went on playing their game and didn’t seem to see him. He could never quite catch up with them and eventually he gave up.

His attention was drawn to a place in the sand that seemed to be erupting as if someone was digging through the sand from below. Suddenly an angry face popped up. It looked so strange in a place where there was so much happiness. It was followed by a pair of shoulders, then arms and, with a pop, the whole body came out. Then Samuel noticed that there was someone else digging through and this person was crying with great gulping sobs. They ran up to the Shining Ones and begged for the Loving Water, but the Shining Ones shook their heads sadly. The diggers flopped down in the sand looking confused and unhappy.

“I expect it’s not their time yet like me, but how do you know when it’s your time and why didn’t I have to dig through the sand like them” wondered Sam. “I don’t understand.”

He went over to the young girl who was crying and tried to comfort her. She didn’t seem to notice him and just stared at a bottle of tablets in her lap as if they could fill up the emptiness inside her like the Loving Water. It was the first thing Samuel had seen from his world apart from the baby’s bottle. In the end she got up and joined a queue of others like herself and the angry man. Occasionally one of the Shining Ones would go over and offer a glass of Loving Water to someone at the front of the queue. They would suddenly fill up with happiness and light and leave their sadness and anger behind and go and join the Shining Ones.

“It must be the right time for them now” thought Sam. “I wonder if I should join the queue as well?” but when he tried to join them the others would walk straight through him so that he was always at the back of the queue. “It’s never going to be my turn.”

He wandered off across the soft sand wiggling his toes. He felt so happy and warm until he saw another digger who was digging so slowly and feebly that Samuel felt he had to help him. He got really worried because the digger was so weak and helpless. He seemed to be very ill and he went to get one of the Shining Ones to help him. They came immediately with a soft pillow for his head and made a hollow in the sand so that it was like a bed. Then they gave him some sips of loving Water.

One of the Shining Ones who seemed to be in charge said “That’s enough, he’ll go to sleep now, and when he wakes up we’ll give him some more” Sam heard the voice in his head but he couldn’t see her lips move.

Samuel realised that there were lots of others like this man, men and women of all ages and some children but mostly grownups. He’d thought before that they were sun bathing, although there was no sun, but they were only sleeping. Occasionally the Shining Ones would wake one of them up and give them a glass of Loving Water. Then they would get up, strong and happy and full of light, and walk away to join the Shining Ones.

Then there were others who seemed to just arrive suddenly like he had. Some of them would get up, look around, and then mysteriously disappear as quickly as they came, but many stayed and joined the Shining Ones.

“I wish someone would explain all this to me” thought Sam. He heard a voice calling his name – “At last, it’s my turn now.”

He turned around to see a familiar face. It was Uncle Pete! He ran to hug him, but he forgot about the lack of gravity and missed him. Jack would have laughed at him, “I’m a rotten catcher!” he thought. He had so many questions…….

How did you get here, did you come in a spaceship?” asked Sam.

I just sort of arrived,” said Uncle Pete. He knew Uncle Pete was an airline pilot, maybe he could fly a spaceship too.

But Mum and Dad said you were dead? I’m glad you’re alive. Mum and Dad and Jack and Lily are going to be so happy when we go home. Have you had some of the Loving Water?

Uncle Pete smiled sadly “Sorry Sam, I can’t come back with you. But you tell everyone I’m fine and that I send my love, especially to Dad, and give Lily a big hug for me.

But I don’t understand, who are these people and where are we? Who are those other people lying in the sand?

The people lying in the sand are very ill and have come here for treatment.

And why do they keep telling me and the people in the queue that ‘it’s not time yet’ and why aren’t we allowed a drink of that lovely water?

Don’t worry I’ll give you some to take back home. The ones in the queue have tried to force their way in before they were ready and they just have to wait their turn, sometimes it takes years. You’re really not supposed to be here, and I don’t know how you came.

Well I’m glad I’m here because now I know you’re not dead. What about the people who keep disappearing?

They are those who nearly came here too soon, but were sent back home quickly to wait with their family and friends until the right time. It’s a bit like coming to a party for breakfast instead of tea. You just have to go home and come back at teatime.

I’ve never done that,” laughed Sam “I’d feel so silly. I’d have to ask Mum to come and fetch me.

Sometimes they go back because someone doesn’t want them to go and they come and fetch them.

Samuel nodded, it seemed to make sense. Then, as he looked around, he saw some people refusing the Loving Water and walking with their heads looking back over their shoulders. “What about them?

Those are people who haven’t learned enough or done enough to help the people on earth before they came here and want to have more time. Or they may have left someone behind whom they don’t want to leave. When they drink the Loving Water they’ll learn that they’ll be able to catch up here and that they don’t have to wait long to see their family and friends, they will be here soon. A day here is like a year at home and a year here is like fifty years at home.

Samuel nodded wisely. He’d seen a programme on T.V. about space and time and it had said that the further and faster you travelled through space, the less earth time it took. When you came back you would be younger than everyone else. They must be a very very long, way away and it must be a very small planet because there wasn’t much gravity.

So that’s why all the Shining Ones look so young!

As he spoke, one of the Shining Ones sort of lit up much brighter than the others and went off like a firework without the bang. “Lily would like that, she doesn’t like bangers” thought Sam.

As if in answer to his unspoken question, Uncle Pete said “She’s one of the lucky Ones, she’s ready to move on to the next place. It’s a bit like going to a new school, lots more to learn and find out and a great Head Teacher.

Is there Loving Water there?

You don’t need it there.

“That’s a shame” thought Sam. “I’ll try and remember to take some with me when I go.”

Who are all those people swimming in the water?

We call them ‘Weekenders’. They’re a bit like you. They just come for short visits to swim in the sea and enjoy the peace and quiet. When they go home they feel better and all their problems seem much smaller.

Come on,” said Uncle Pete. “Lets go for a swim too.

He stripped quickly down to his pants. Sam didn’t need to. They eased themselves into the warm velvety water. It felt like swimming in Loving Water and Sam poked his tongue out to taste it. A voice inside his head said “NO” but not before he’d tasted the wonderful sparkly sweetness with just a hint of salt. No wonder the ‘Weekenders’ liked swimming in it.

Uncle Pete swam further out, inviting Sam to ride piggy back. Samuel felt a few drops of rain fall from the sky, but there were no clouds. Samuel put his tongue out to catch them. Aah that’s where the saltiness came from, they tasted like tears!

Uncle Pete interrupted his thoughts, “We need everyone’s tears to fill the sea, so we always have a supply of shining water Not a single tear goes to waste, but every tear changes into the sweet sparkly water that brings happiness, love and peace.”

“I shall never forget this wonderful day with Uncle Pete, or was it really a year? Would he have to go into year two when he got back because he was too young for year three?”

Samuel was beginning to feel tired. His legs felt slippery in the silky Loving Water and he fell off Uncle Pete’s back. He began to sink down into the water. An inquisitive Dolphin came up and nudged him, then floated under him so that he was riding on his back. The Dolphin swam down with him through the Loving Water and there were hundreds of brightly coloured fishes all around him, just like in the Brighton Aquarium.

Then they were swimming down through tall wavy sea grasses all green and blue and red, swaying in the water. He couldn’t see Uncle Pete but he felt quite safe. Just then the Dolphin rolled over and Sam fell off his back on to the soft, red, sea floor. He opened his eyes and for a moment looked into Uncle Pete’s blue green eyes just like the colour of the sea.

Time to wake up for breakfast,” said Mum. “It’s a good thing it’s Saturday, I’ve never known you sleep so long.“ The blue green eyes were Mum’s. Samuel was lying on the red rug next to his bed.

Up you come. How did you get on the floor?

He smiled up at Mum and stumbled to his feet. He pulled on his rabbit slippers and his dressing gown. The sun was shining in through his bedroom window. He hadn’t seen the sun for weeks, or was it days or hours? He wasn’t sure. He went downstairs with Mum. The rest of the family were sitting round the kitchen table.

Dad looked up. “You’ve had a long sleep.

Mum got out his special football bowl and poured in some of his favourite chocolate cereal as a treat, she gave Jack and Lily some too then topped their bowls up with crispy cornflakes. Mum didn’t like them having too much sweet cereal so they always had half sweet and half plain.

Sam replied “I haven’t been asleep, I’ve been to see where Uncle Pete’s living. He sends his love especially to Dad and a big hug for Lily.

Lily looked pleased to have been given a special hug for herself.

You don’t go out like a light,” he looked at Jack “You go to a lovely seaside place where they have delicious sparkly, Loving Water, but you’re not allowed to have it unless it’s your turn Uncle Pete said I could take some home with me.

Mum smiled and hugged Dad. The children joined in and they had a big family hug.

I think we’ve already got some of that Loving Water in our house, but let’s top it up with some juice from this bottle that Uncle Pete brought us last time he was here,” she poured out some lovely sparkly apple stuff into their beakers, it was delicious.

That night when Mum was kissing him goodnight Sam told her more about the space place that he’d been to.

Mum said “You’re a lucky boy, you’ve learned a lot about the place Uncle Pete’s gone to. Thank you for bringing back his special message to Dad. You’ve made Dad feel less sad.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Samuel never forgot the Shining Ones from outer space. He tried hard to be kind and learn things so that when it was his time to go out there he wouldn’t look over his shoulder at the earth he’d left behind. He would be allowed to have a whole drink of Loving Water and he would see Uncle Pete and lots of others and wait patiently for the ones he’d left at home to join him. Until then he’d stop trying to trip Jack up. As it turned out, he didn’t need to, because Jack was also trying to be nicer to him. Jack had realised that he was lucky to have a younger brother.

The two brothers became best mates just like Dad and Pete. As they grew up Samuel realised that the Shining Ones were not from a strange planet but had all come from Planet Earth – but only when it was the right time. In the meantime he would get ready for that time by finding out all he could about everything and helping all the people who needed his help. A warm glow began to grow inside him like the loving water that made him feel safe and happy.

© Audrey Sandbank

About the author

Audrey is an experienced and registered family psychotherapist in private practice offering family psychotherapy and individual counselling. She is based in Reigate, Surrey and attract clients from South East, Berkshire, Sussex, Hertfordshire and London.

To find out more about Audrey’s work, visit her therapist page here


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