Blog: Supporting bereaved children through play

Published: 21 Oct 2020

Author: Sarah Helton
Blog: Supporting bereaved children through play

If we are blessed with life, then we must also experience death - the death of others and ultimately our own. Grief truly is inclusive, but is bereavement support inclusive? Sadly, the answer is no for individuals with special educational needs and disabilities.

"No child understands about death or grief after one conversation, they need to revisit the information, ask more questions and explore their thoughts." - Sarah Helton, Fellow 

My work aims to help create equality in bereavement support. Society is becoming increasingly more comfortable and better equipped to talk about the issues of death, bereavement and grief. There is also a wide range of resources and support for bereaved individuals. However, children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are rarely seen as grievers and therefore lack adequate support.

My 2018 Churchill Fellowship involved travelling to Denmark, Norway and the USA to look at best practice in supporting bereaved children with SEND. In each of these countries, I witnessed excellent child bereavement services, but as in the UK, the needs of bereaved children with SEND were rarely considered.

My Fellowship showed me that there was not only a lack of support for bereaved children with SEND, but also a lack of resources and research in this field. If there is to be equality in bereavement support, then resources need to be developed and research needs to occur. My Fellowship gave me the knowledge and confidence to consider how I could support this.

During my trip to Denmark I was inspired by a visit to the studio Lïv & Död (life & death) in Copenhagen. This studio had incredible works of art and artefacts about death and grief, including a coffin in the shape of a fish that children could touch and even get into. This helps children to see that death is a natural part of life and something that they can talk about openly.

A fish-shaped coffin at the Lïv & Död (life & death) studio in Copenhagen which aims to educate children about death and grief  

This made me question, why don’t children have toys to explore the issues of death, bereavement and grief? To resolve this issue, I started to design Good Grief Toys. Good Grief Toys are a set of 45 wooden toys which allow children to explore difficult scenarios through play. Each wooden piece can be used in a versatile manner to represent an infinite number of situations: visiting Granny in hospital, a parent dying, returning to school after a bereavement, receiving medical treatment, a road traffic accident, attending a funeral and more. The toys are designed for children aged three to 12 and for individuals with SEND.

No child understands about death or grief after one conversation, they need to revisit the information, ask more questions and explore their thoughts. Good Grief Toys allow them to do this. Good Grief Toys also provides adults with the resources they need to help deliver difficult news and to support the development of the child’s understanding of the situation and their emotional reaction to it.

A post-travel grant from WCMT funded me to look for the perfect toy maker and to develop a prototype of the toy set. In September 2020 Good Grief Toys® were officially launched. So far, I have received lots of positive feedback from teachers, schools and bereavement charities.

The Good Grief Toys® created by Sarah to help children explore death, bereavement and grief  

However, designing Good Grief Toys was only one part of the change that was needed. Research into the needs of bereaved children with SEND is required, to demonstrate that children with SEND do experience grief and to identify best practice in providing bereavement support. 

So, in February 2020 I applied to study for a PhD in the field of bereavement and individuals with intellectual disabilities. This is something I had never considered prior to my Fellowship, even though I was desperate for this research to take place. Alongside my studies I am also working with the national bereavement charity, Winstons Wish which was founded by Churchill Fellow Julie Stokes (CF 1992). Winstons Wish commissioned me to write a book about supporting bereaved children with SEND called We All Grieve. This book has recently won the 2020 Teach Primary Award for SEND. Following the success of We All Grieve’, I have designed a SEND bereavement training course for Winston’s Wish which I will be delivering for the charity from19 November 2020.