What the Church needs to know about loss

Every child coming into care experiences loss but there are things that we can do to support children and young people as they navigate living with loss

Yesterday was a momentous day in our house.

After weeks of wobbling, our six-year-old lost his first tooth. After all the attention this particular tooth received at home, it finally made its way free at school, but thankfully my son’s beloved teacher ensured it was sealed in an envelope and put in the book bag to come home. And then came the problem.

My son wanted the tooth fairy to visit – although not in the house, we know from past experience with Father Christmas that it’s best for mummy or daddy to meet them outside to do the gift exchange so there’s no anxiety about strangers coming into the house. But obviously he wanted the tooth fairy to come as he’d heard the stories about the pounds that appear (and in one case, one of the paper ones that makes five. We had made very clear that our tooth fairy dealt only in coins).

So we explained that if he left the tooth downstairs we’d give it to the tooth fairy and she would exchange it for the pound. And then we realised the issue: He had to say goodbye to the tooth.

I realise that a tooth may seem trivial, but my young son has already had to say goodbye to far too much in his young life. The birth family who were not able to provide the care he needed. The foster family who adored him. The sense of security and stability that every child deserves. At six years old, my wonderful boy has experienced extensive loss and this permeates his whole being, in a way that he simply cannot make sense of.

And who could expect him to?

Every child coming into care experiences losses like this. Even babies without conscious memory of the trauma. There is no such thing as being ‘too young to remember’ when the loss is so deeply profound. It exists in their core, an unnameable pain that is impossible to communicate even if they are able to use words. These losses are multiple and layered. More often than not they exist as ‘ambiguous loss’, a term that means the loss that occurs without closure or understanding and leaves a person searching for answers.

Adopting my son was a beautiful thing and we are privileged to be able to raise him, but I know that as much as we love him (and we do and we will), we will never be able to replace what he has lost, to fill all those gaps in his life, to ‘fix’ the ambiguity of the loss he has experienced. The act of adoption itself, while hopefully restoring much to him, still resulted in further loss and additional trauma.

The way that loss outworks in his life is constant. It ebbs and flows but it’s always there.

This time of year is a particular challenge as it approaches the time to say goodbye to another teacher, a familiar classroom, a settled routine. Even though school is not my son’s favourite thing, it is still a place where he has developed attachments and established a sense of security and he will feel the loss of that next week.

It will look different in different children. For some it will present as anxiety, in others it might be anger, in others it might seem more like disinterest. Usually, at its root, the emotions and behaviours they are presenting are masking fear. It’s all tangled up in how children build and grow attachments – or more commonly, how they struggle to do this given how previous attachments have been disrupted or severed, or never built at all.

Some children may become hoarders, holding on to every crumpled sticker and broken pencil. Others may struggle to hold on to anything, because their body is programmed to expect loss. It’s not uncommon for care experienced children to struggle with gifts – they may reject new toys or even destroy the things they treasure most because if you don’t have something in the first place, you can’t lose it.

While this is a difficult topic to think about, there are things that we can do to support children and young people as they navigate living with loss. If you’re part of the support network around a care experienced child or their family, here’s five suggestions that might help.

1. Talk to the parent or carer

We often comment at Home for Good that if an article says nothing else useful, as long as it says this it will still help! Every child is different and will respond to loss in different ways. While their parents and carers may not know exactly how they will react in any given situation, they may be able to suggest potential triggers or strategies that could help their children navigate things. This is an especially important thing to consider if you want to give something to the child – even something as simple as a sticker.

2. Don’t take it personally

Whether it’s an extreme reaction, a sudden switch in behaviour or how they relate to you, or a child intentionally spoiling something that was supposed to be nice (be it gift or experience), don’t take it personally. It is NOT about you. They are afraid, they are anxious, they are angry – and they have every right to be after the loss and trauma they have experienced. While it can feel appropriate to expect an apology, it might not always be possible. (There’s usually a lot of shame tangled up in that loss.) The best thing you can do is not make a big deal of it and let the parent or carer step in.

3. If they treasure it, you need to treasure it

Whatever it is. We have a lot of sticks in our house. Amongst all the other stuff. As our son’s parents, we do support him in trying to declutter occasionally, but we do this sensitively. If a child shows you something they think is important, or even extends you the privilege of looking after something for them, give it the attention it deserves. It might appear as nothing to you, but to them it’s highly valued.

4. Be sensitive around changes and transitions

For lots of reasons, changes and transitions are particularly tricky for care experienced children. The familiarity of routine can enable children and young people to feel more stable and have a sense of control. Therefore, any change or transition usually means the loss of something, and can exacerbate the already pervading sense of loss that continually gnaws at them. Wherever possible, especially in a church setting, communicate any possible changes with parents and carers in advance, and work with them to plan for transitions.

5. Don’t minimise loss – any loss

Whether it’s a child overreacting over a torn piece of paper or considering any aspect of their life story, resist the urge to make light of it. This is relevant both with the child and with their parents or carers. With a child, it’s so important that we acknowledge and affirm that how they feel is ok. With their parents and carers, it’s so important not to try and explain things away or suggest a glib answer or a comparison. The losses we’re talking about are profound. We might not want to dwell on them, but we certainly shouldn’t disregard them.

While these ideas are simple, they could make a huge difference for the children and young people you connect with, and the families who care for them.

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My son woke up this morning and gave me a wonderful smile, the little gap in the middle of his bottom row of teeth just peeking through beneath his top ones. He found his pound, and the lost tooth remains in a special pot in his drawer. It turns out the tooth fairy didn’t need him to say goodbye to it after all.

Author:
Amy for Home for Good


Date published:
July 2021


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