Parents tell how an innovative Limerick project helped their children deal with grief

Donal O’Regan

Reporter:

Donal O’Regan

“SHE THOUGHT that she had killed her dad.

“SHE THOUGHT that she had killed her dad.

She was 8 at the time she went to the Children’s Grief Project and had bottled that up for a year. She was different after she expressed that and she never would have told me only for Sr Helen.”

These are the words of a grandmother who brought her granddaughter to see Sr Helen Culhane of the Childrens Grief Project.

Located on O’Connell Avenue, the project is a support service for school-aged children and young people affected by loss through death, separation, or divorce. It provides a safe and supportive place for children and young people and their families who are grieving.

It was founded in September 2009 as a pilot project by Sr Helen and the Mercy Sisters. Since then they have seen 300 children, held 1,500 sessions and last week they launched their new website.

At the launch of www.childrensgriefproject.ie Joyce Williams, support group member, said the project has grown as sadly “grief and loss is so prevalent in our society”.

The free service has many volunteers and works hand in hand with other agencies in Limerick.

The website was launched by Michael Byrne, of acton|bv – web design company – and Sr Helen said they have come a long way since they started.

“One of the first parents I met asked me ‘are you a therapist?’ I said ‘no’. She asked me ‘are you a counsellor?’ and I said ‘no’. ‘What are you then?’” she asked.

“We provide a support service. Counselling and therapy is very important but sometimes you need support and a listening ear. It sounds so simple but it is very important, ” said Sr Helen.

They meet children and teenagers from four to 18 for five session. After the third session “something seems to happen” says Sr Helen and it did for the son of one woman and granddaughter of another who spoke to the Limerick Leader after the website launch.

To protect their anonymity their names have been changed.

“My son died in tragic circumstances. His daughter Alice, my granddaughter, was 8 at the time. We met Helen and the first thing I said is what am I after doing. I couldn’t stop crying and my granddaughter never saw me cry as much. I thought I might do more damage.”

“Over the five sessions, Helen would call you down for a bit of chat before you leave. After the third session Alice was very nervous about me coming in but she wanted me there.

“Helen asked her ‘do you want to share something with your granny today?’ and she did. Alice was very edgy, holding me tightly and she told me she thought she had killed her dad, ” said Joanne.

Alice’s father died while she was playing with him.

“She was so relieved to know she wasn’t the cause of his death. She was carrying that for a whole year. I thought she was doing terrific, her school said she was getting on fantastic and she is a very outgoing and intelligent girl.”

After the tears Alice said: “Granny I couldn’t figure out how I was going to tell you I killed dad.”

Following the experience Joanne says her granddaughter was different after expressing her unfounded fears.

“She never would have told me only for Sr Helen. She would have kept it bottled up. She said that she ‘couldn’t bear to hurt me anymore’.

“God love her, ” said Suzanne, who also spoke to the Leader and has been through her own heartbreaking experience.

When her son Stephen was six, her husband committed suicide. A year later Suzanne brought Stephen to meet Helen.

“Sitting here reminds me of the first day I came to see Helen. I was struck instantly by how far I’ve come myself personally and my son equally.

“When I came to see Helen I was obviously looking for some support for my son who at the time was six. It was a little over a year since his father had died. For me it was equally traumatic. His father had died in very tragic circumstances and I was coming to terms with it myself even a year on. I had only just started counselling - it took me a year before I was ready to talk about it and felt Stephen should have someone to talk to other than me, ” explained Suzanne.

Like Joanne, Suzanne was worried that her son might be bottling up his feelings to protect her.

“To be truthful I felt he was doing fine but I am his mother. Maybe I don’t see what others see. Even though we have a very open relationship, we spoke about his dad’s death very openly. I just wanted somebody else to talk to him to reassure me that he was OK and if he wasn’t to tell me, but also to let him know if he was very upset and sad that he could talk to somebody about it in a way that wasn’t going to upset me.

“My fear was that he might be holding something back even though we talked all the time. I was concerned he might be sparing my feelings to protect me, ” said Suzanne.

If anybody can get children to talk it is Sr Helen.

“She wants children to feel she’s their pal, not mum’s pal. She tells mums to go away and read a magazine and says ‘we’re going to have some fun’. My son being six sees the room filled with toys, a sand-pit and paint and is thrilled. If you sit a child down they won’t talk but if they’re distracted that’s when you get them to talk, ” said Suzanne.

“After the first hour I was anxious to see if he was going to be worse. I was worried I was inviting trouble on myself to get him to open up and talk about things maybe he doesn’t even understand, but he came out very happy, ” she added.

A coupe of years have passed and on the morning of the website launch Suzanne asked Stephen to reflect on his time with Sr Helen.

“It was nice. Helen helps me with the words to talk about how I’m feeling, ” said Stephen.

After the sessions Suzanne said she got reassurance that Stephen was okay and he had the opportunity to talk about his feelings in a very relaxed environment.

Both Suzanne and Joanne agree that the tragic deaths of Alice’s and Stephen’s fathers is something that the children will be dealing with for the rest of their lives but they say “the earlier you start giving children support and an outlet the better it will be for them in the long run”.

That is what the project provides. Learn more at www.childrensgriefproject.ie or on 061 313037.