Listening to Loss: Children and Bereavement

bereavement quote

The Irish Childhood Bereavement Network estimates that in Ireland bereavement affects between 36,000 and 60,000 school children. Yet how many teachers or other professionals have the confidence to really talk to children about death and loss. Sometimes all that may be required is to listen or to give children a medium to express their feelings.

Here is a beautiful extract from ‘I’m Fine’ by A Wootten student of the Cork Life Centre outlining her experience around losing a parent.

Book Cover JPG

 

Dear Dad,…

I love you with all my heart.

I am 19 now and Victor is 17.

I wish you were here to see what a fine young man he has become.

I wish you were here to guide him.

I wish he could have you as a role-model and a confidant.

I am really worried about him. I am scared that I am going to lose him and mum like we lost you. I am scared that Victor might get depression, like me. That he might experience the pain that I do on a daily basis. I don’t want that for him. I love him and want so badly to protect him from it. He needs guidance and support. He needs a fathers love and input. He was 7 when he lost you!!!!! I have no doubt that he is hurting and that he misses you but he won’t talk to us!

Mum needs someone too. I can see she is hurting. I have always been able to see that. She loves you, she always has. She misses you. I am so so scared of losing her. I just want to protect mum and Victor. Seeing her in pain kills me. I wish there was something I could do. I wish I could make it all go away. I wish she could sleep. I want to give her the world. I would love to make her dream of riding a horse on a beach come true, but I have probably left it too late.

As for me…

I miss you.

I feel like I have forgotten you and I hate myself for that. I swore that I would never forget you. I promised I would take care of mum and Victor. I have failed. I am sorry.

What I would give to see you one last time, to talk to you again, to hug you and tell you that I love you…

What would you make of me now…?

Would you accept that I am only attracted to women?

Would you still love me if I wasn’t your “daughter”?

Would you be there for me when a girl breaks my heart?

Would you hate me for the marks on my body, my scars and tattoos?

Would you look at me with pride or disgust?

I’ll never know.

I’ll never get to introduce a girlfriend to you or to have you there if I get married.

I will never see you play with your grandchildren or hear you laugh.

There are so many things I will never know…

So many stories I’ll never hear…

 

As much as this all hurts me I hope that you are free of pain now.

I love you and I want to believe that you are proud of us, of your family.

 

 

Mr. Fix It

Cross legged with your twin,

Your earthy eyes shining with pride

And love.

Your understudy dutifully mimics

each action; his hero,

his father,

his teacher.

 

Sitting in a dusky dusty room,

Your hands covering his as the sander

Glides across the worn wooden floor

Lighting up his eyes with joy and fascination.

 

Outside, building a wall,

The determined grunt of the plastic hardhatted

3 year old version of you, Mr fix it Jnr,

Sitting in the sun, passing you brick after brick,

Tapping the brick to flatten it,

The only men in my life,

Hard at work in the yard.

 

The tears flowing from those same earthy eyes,

Mr fix it Jnr has lost his teacher.

7 years old and no longer a twin.

Left with only memories and pictures

of the man he aspires to be.

 

 

Not just hearing but listening to young people’s voices

Book Cover JPG

What an extraordinary week at the Cork Life centre for our annual Edmund Rice Conference. We have welcomed some wonderful guests into our community. As you enter our door you will see the following words ‘May all who enter as guests leave as friends’. We could not wish for better friends and advocates for children and young people than Deirdre Burke(Founder of the Guardian Project), Shane Griffin(Care Leavers’ Network) and Dr Tony Bates(Founder & Director of Innovation Jigsaw)

On Tuesday Deirdre communicated the need not to give young people just a voice but also an ear. Yesterday morning Shane generously shared his lived experience in the care system where more often than not he felt heard rather than listened to.

In the afternoon we were fortunate to have the support of Dr Tony Bates in giving a voice to one of our own young people by launching ‘I’m Fine’ by A.Wootten which is available to buy-contact corklifecentre@gmail.com for further details. This important piece of work chronicles a dark and difficult journey through the education system, through mental health, self-harm and thoughts of suicide. Who better to understand, validate and honour this journey than Dr Tony Bates. His words yesterday were so powerful we have asked his permission to share them.

Tony bates 2

I’m Fine by Amy Wootten

Book launch in Cork Life Centre | May 3rd, 2017 | Tony Bates

It seems like everybody’s talking about mental health. For the most part, I think this is a good thing. For too long this issue was not talked about. “Not a word” was a phrase that quickly followed mention of someone close to us who had any hint of a problem with their ‘nerves’.

Shame about our emotional struggles has certainly receded in this country, but it’s been replaced by fear. We’re may be talking more about mental health, but we’re still very spooked by it. Maybe because we know how bad things can get, maybe because we know how that a personal crisis can end it tears. Or maybe our fear is based on something more fundamental: we fear being judged, being rejected or thought less of, if we were to admit just how vulnerable we feel.

Amy tackles this fear head on, in her own unique way, in her memoir, ‘I’m Fine”. This is her story of how she gradually stopped denying how bad she felt and acknowledged the hurt in her mind and body.

Writers are concerned with truth and what moves us. For Amy her inner life was often a dark place. She wrote to make sense of her experience. She wrote to hold back the darkness:

My mental state continued to get worse until eventually I decided that writing about it really couldn’t make things any worse. I was desperate yet I didn’t have a clue what to write. It took a while but I began to get really comfortable writing and things just seemed to flow once I developed ways to reassure myself that no-one would have the ability to stumble across my journals.

I write because I can express myself, honestly, without fear of immediate judgement or retribution. I write because I find it much safer than talking. The paper on which you confess your secrets won’t judge you or mock you. The page on which you share your opinions will not become confrontational; it will not raise its voice or get defensive. It will always remain neutral. In a nutshell … writing allows me to express myself and explore my thoughts and opinions in the most honest and vulnerable way that is possible.

Writing calmed Amy. It turned her distress into words which she hand-wrote onto a blank page. Seeing her pain captured on that page wasn’t easy. It made her difficulties harder to deny and harder to run from. But it also brought some relief. Her thoughts were no longer trapped inside her head. And the pain in her body eased a little.

 

Another writer fond of putting things down on paper was Shakespeare. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with him but he’s worth checking out. When it came to distress, he believed very strongly that words opened the door to healing.

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.”

 

When we are able to express our experience in words – or through whatever medium comes most naturally to us – we give ourselves a way to step back from whatever is happening, to hold it in our minds, so that we can think about how to respond. In contrast, distress without words gives rise to symptoms and reactive behaviours that keep dig us deeper into the darkness we are trying to escape.

Amy turned her distress into words, which in turn became a bridge to a few key trusted  people with whom she shared what she’d written. Words gave her a way to express her truth and turn her conflicts into conversations.

For most of my life I have struggled to keep up the act, the facade of being ‘fine’. Even in the midst of a panic attack, I was ‘fine’, I had to be ‘fine’. A few years ago I met people who weren’t prepared to accept that I was ‘fine’. People who saw through my facade and who not only told me, but showed me they cared and that it mattered to them that I hurt. It took two years for them to earn my trust but once they had it I was able to be honest with them and show them that I wasn’t fine, that I was struggling.

 

People think mental health is about feeling good. It can be and there’s nothing wrong with feeling good. I tried it once; it was fun. But genuine mental health is about facing what is difficult in our life and finding ways to deal with it. When we turn towards, rather than run from, what is difficult, we feel more real. Gradually we see our problems as workable and we feel alive in ourselves. Our problems may seem huge, like a vast mountain looming up before us, but when we take even one step up that mountain, our stress level drops; that mountain becomes one step lower.

There is another way that writing can help. ‘Suffering can be born when it is made into a story’ (Karen Dixon). Recovery in mental health means being able to weave the raw elements of our lived experience into a story that makes sense of our lives and connects us with other people. Mental health is a story that can be told; mental illness is a story that’s never been told.

We’ve been telling each other stories for years in this country. At the edge of a wild Atlantic where our very survival was always at stake, we told each other stories. These stories were not merely to entertain or distract us. People like Peig told stories to validate suffering and give people hope, to give them a map. Her stories also reminded her community they were in this together and that they needed each other for survival. “Ar schath a cheili a mhaireas na daoine”, she wrote.

As Amy crafts her story – over two years of journaling –  we see her change in important ways. Her earliest entries are marked by self-loathing and pretence, but in her later writing she owns her truth and speaks without apology:

From: People want to think that everyone is okay. They are more comfortable believing that everything is okay; and you do not want to shatter that. So you play along and pretend that everything is fine, you lie. Those two words have become a part of you, a layer of your armour. You try your hardest to make sure that that is the only thing that others see.

 

To: I am a self-harmer, to be precise I am a ‘cutter’. I have only recently stopped cutting and begun trying to recover. I am a realist though; I know that if I get ‘clean’ the urge may always be there. Anytime something happens or I feel anything that isn’t ‘positive’, the first thing that will probably come to my mind to deal with it is to cut.. . Trust me when I say this, it might help for a little while but it takes over your life. When I started I thought I could control it, but I quickly realised that it controlled me. I also firmly believe that no one should ever have to feel the immense shame, fear and guilt that comes with self-harming.

 

Amy stopped pretending; she doesn’t minimise or romanticise her pain; in her story there is no magic bullet, no prince (or princess) who rides in on a shiny white horse to save her. I imagine that what’s happening here today must be her worst possible fear. She’s has dropped her armour and has chosen to be here today and share her truth with you. This is an enormous act of trust, for which we all thank you Amy.

Another striking feature of this story is the shift from mistrust to trust; from intense loneliness to relationship. Reading each page, I was struck by Amy’s persistent longing to communicate, to be heard, to be accepted. Running alongside this longing was an equally strong reluctance to trust others. This pull-push conflict was exhausting. But she persisted as did people around her who gave her a feeling of safety, and the time she needed to risk opening up.

FROM: My problems are my own burden. No-one else need know how messed-up I am. I won’t be anyone’s problem, anyone’s burden. I’ll sort my own issues out.

 

TO: As unrealistic as it may be, you want someone to care enough to try and see through your charade, your facade. You want someone to prove to you that you matter, that you are worth it… a part of you wants someone to be there when your defences crumble. You want someone to physically see how much you are hurting, how much you are struggling…Admitting that I wasn’t okay, that I wasn’t fine was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I felt so vulnerable and guilty, so exposed.

 

This centre forms the backdrop to Amy’s story. It plays a vital role in her journey. People like Don, Rachel, her mother and many others in this centre believed in her from the moment she stepped through these doors. The hung in with her when she hid from them and were there for her when she chose to share her truth. They are also heroes in this story.

The Cork Life centre is viewed by some people as an example of alternative education. But what is alternative education? I’m sure there are many definitions and descriptors but what distinguishes “Alternative” education are at least 4 things: A personalised curriculum; close working relationships between teachers and students; negotiated programmes of learning; collaboration and mutual support.

This is surely what is meant to happen in genuine education. it’s the alternative to this ethos – what we call ‘mainstream’ education – that is causing real problems for many of our young people.

 

 

closing thoughts

The writer and poet Anais Nin wrote a line that resonates with Amy’s story:

“There came a point in my own life where I had to be true to myself; there came a point when the pain of remaining tight in a bud was greater than the pain it took to blossom.” Anais Nin

We each come to mental health when the pain of pretending and hiding becomes too exhausting. Sometimes it takes a crisis in our lives to puncture that defensive umbrella we hold over our heads and mistake for ‘sanity’.

Mental health is the slow sometimes painful struggle to step into and own our own truth. To settle for some false persona, some socially desirable version of ourselves is unbearable, particularly to a young person. But to be real with others takes a lot of courage. You risk everything when you trust your broken self to others.

This book is Amy’s experience of taking that step. I’ve no doubt it will resonates with each of our journey’s. Because we have all been ‘FINE’. And we’ve all had to learn the true meaning of that word. Which isn’t really a word at all, but an Acronym: F***ed up; Insecure; Neurotic; and Emotional!

We all want to get to a place where we stop apologising to the world for who we are. Where we can stand in our own truth and echo Martin Luther King’s words: ‘I am somebody and I do count. I refuse to allow anybody to tell me that I’m nobody. I do not need to be ashamed of myself, ashamed of my heritage, ashamed of my body, ashamed of my hair. I have dignity. I have worth. I am beautiful’.

MLK was a star for an oppressed and alienated people. In Amy’s world, stars are critical.

 

In my mind, as long as there are stars, there will be hope and there will be guidance. I guess you just have to hold on to that shred of hope that if the stars can survive and shine through the darkness then you can survive your darkness, your struggles.

Amy, you have described the darkness and the importance of the stars in guiding you. What you should know is that we’re all stumbling around in the dark. Today you are a star for us.

This book will light a path for many others who are trying to see a way forward through some darkness. They will get it because you write in a way that is utterly believable. You don’t water down the pain of living you don’t make recovery sound like something easy. Those who are really hurting will feel validated by your story. They will see themselves in lines you’ve written and feel less alone. In your refusal to deny the darkness – but also your refusal to give in to it – readers will recognise a strong woman whose courage is infectious.

So follow your star Amy. Keep writing. This story isn’t over. This is just Season One. There are many others to be written. You make us all less afraid, you give us hope.

Thank you Amy.

Dearth of data and information about youth in the juvenile justice system

#jjusticeblog

It’s interesting how stories about child protection and youth justice from different parts of the world often mirror what’s happening here in Ireland.

A story from the U.S. this week reports on the dearth of data and information about youth in the juvenile justice system.

The report is called Denied Existence  and calls on the authorities to implement a comprehensive juvenile-justice data collection system.

This certainly reflects the Irish situation, where we know very little about these youth.

The Courts Services collates scant detail about young people in court, and monitoring of oversight of outcomes for the 3,000 plus young people moving through the youth courts is almost nonexistent.

A recent audit of the Irish youth justice states: Currently, a centralised source of information regarding young offenders and young offending in Ireland does not exist. As outlined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, this information is essential to establish effective systems for data collection and to ensure that the data collected is evaluated and used to assess progress in implementation, to identify problems and to inform all policy development for children.

It points out that as far back as 1985, a government report stated a “continuing need for research analysis, discussion and deeper understanding of the issue of juvenile offenders in Ireland.”

As with the U.S. study, the Irish paper highlights the “need for an independent agency responsible for maintaining a centralised, contemporaneous resource of data pertaining to young offenders and youth offending in Ireland.”

How long more will we be waiting?

Leaving Cert Exams: 7 Years of Hell in 7 Days

An extremely powerful piece from one of our students.

#butterfly

Leaving Cert Exams: 7 Years of Hell in 7 Days

7 years I have been in the second level education system in Ireland.

7 whole years.

I have undergone 7 years of scaremongering, of judgements, threats and dismission and condemnation.

4 years of being terrified to go to school in case I had forgotten something or had overlooked some work.

4 years of shaking so badly that I physically couldn’t write.

4 years of getting about 3 or 4 hours of sleep on weeknights because I was so scared of the following day.

My experience of primary and secondary education in Ireland has shattered my self-esteem, obliterated my self-confidence and annihilated my sense of my own self-worth.

It has been 5 years since I had my first major panic attack.

17 years of fighting anxiety and depression on my own because my faith in others and my ability to trust anyone with anything had been destroyed.

All of this, and much more, has led up to 7 days. I was given 7 days to essentially prove myself to others, to prove my intelligence and to make my teachers look good. At least, it would have if I had stayed in mainstream school. Most of my teachers there were only concerned that the exam students’ results made them look good in others’ eyes.

In the centre it is different. There is none of that pressure. There is no sense that the leaving certificate is the be-all and end-all of your life. Yes, it is important but your results should not determine your self-worth. For me that was the hardest thing to wrap my head around. I was indoctrined into the educational systems view of academia. I whole-heartedly believed that anything less than 100% means you failed, and because you ‘failed’ then you are worth nothing. Exam results were the only thing that mattered, it was irrelevant whether you were physically and mentally healthy as long as you got 600 points in your Leaving Certificate.

I have fought tooth and nail in order to live up to these expectations and to uphold them. To an extent, I still do believe that exams are the only thing that matters. However, I have to acknowledge that while I know I will not get a ‘perfect’ Leaving Certificate, or even a ‘great’ one, the fact that I went into that room every day and sat there and attempted those exams has to be the most important thing. I gave up striving for 600 points quite a while ago. I have had panic attacks. I have had little sleep. I have had some excruciatingly bad days. But I did it. I fought and today I am 44 days without self harming. I sat my exams, I did what I could. They are nearly over, by 4:31pm tomorrow it will all be over. The Leaving Certificate will be over. That prospect is absolutely petrifying, what now…?

 

 

Lessons “Sofia” can teach

Sofia, a virtual child created to give a face to refugee children, haunts Cork Life Centre’s deputy director, Rachel Lucey. Here, she explains why.

Sofia is a virtual child.

She was created by UNICEF Sweden using 500 images of real children in conflict to represent many millions of refugee children globally.

“I am not real I’m the face of all the children suffering from emergencies no one talks about,” the tagline of the campaign states.

But the issues Sofia has stirred up for me are so very real, and her image has haunted me ever since I first saw it.

Sofia not only represents children across the world, invisible in their plights, but those closer to home, the children whose stories are never heard, and who never get the opportunities they so deserve.

Every day in the course of my work, I am deeply privileged to work with children whose human challenges and struggles have left them on the edges of, and eventually outside, the mainstream education system.

When families and children are brave enough to trust you with their stories and journeys and allow you to work with them, that knowledge and privilege drives you to understand, to try to make a positive impact – and to advocate on their behalf.

It is easy to be shocked and disillusioned with the lack of a response and lack of empathy to the refugee crisis and to the suffering of children in any circumstance or any part of the world. How can people not respond?

It is easy to depersonalise what we do not know, what we do not understand, what we have not experienced. But if you meet a Sofia then all this will change, and you will think and worry and feel not just for Sofia, but for all the children in similar circumstances that you have not had the opportunity to meet.

I have never met a child whose story, strength, unique personality and talents did not teach me something wonderful and hopeful about the world, albeit a confusing one that seems brutal at times.

And while I cannot always be certain of the impact we at the Cork Life Centre have made, and always feel we could have done more, I am at least assured these children were given opportunities, became part of a community where they were treasured, valued and where they mattered; where somebody missed them if they did not appear, where there was someone to not just listen but hear them, and where if there was a problem we were always ready to try and work on it together.

So regardless of the onward journey or direction these children’s lives took and even if there are further struggles waiting for them on the horizon, I can feel assured they know our red doors are always open to them.

But as referrals increase and resources remain the same, it is with a heavy heart that I think about all the children I will not meet- those we will not greet at the red door. And there are many. We receive calls almost daily seeking placements at a level of demand we cannot meet. This is one of the most difficult parts of the job.

There are many children in Cork alone –  over 4,000 annually that leave education early  – that we will not meet. Roughly 10% of children in this country do not complete senior cycle education and this figure doubles in DEIS schools. I do not know what all these children look like, and I do not have a Sofia to represent these many faces and stories. But I know without hesitation there is something good to be unlocked in each one, if only we work to find the key.

We need to move beyond statistics and stereotypes and recognise the individual needs, strengths and rights of all children to learning environments that meet their needs not just educational but social, personal and human.

Every child deserves a champion, deserves at they very least their ‘one good adult.’ But how are we going to achieve this if we do not recognise them individually? This for me is what Sofia represents. An attempt to recognise not just a collective story, but each individual one.

By corklifecentrein Children, UncategorizedApril 20, 2016708 WordsLeave a commentEdit