Vladislav, aged six, next to his mother’s makeshift grave at their home in Bucha, where she died of a suspected heart attack during the Russian onslaught. The photo next to it was taken just a few weeks before the war. (Photos courtesy of The Times 09/04/2022)
Recent newspapers and news have shown images of the heart-rending devastation inflicted by Putin’s genocide. Even when we are moved to tears by what we see and what we read, the rhythm of our life continues; we can usually still get up from the breakfast table and get on with the daily routine, whatever that looks like.
Here at AC Ed we have been preoccupied with thoughts of the mental and emotional needs of those fleeing Ukraine who make it through the red tape and land in Britain. Some escaped before the fighting reached their district, but nearly all will be carrying some burden of trauma, some profound loss which makes daily living a challenging chore.
When you and I grieve for someone we love, our brain somewhere acknowledges it is part of the human condition to lose someone much beloved and we are dragging our feet along a well-trodden path of heart-aching pain and desolation. At the time, it may seem that we will never be able to make the adjustment from being a seamless partnership, two in one, to the aloneness of being a surviving half. But we do, in time, accept the reality of that at a head-level and – even longer afterwards – at a gut level. There comes a point where we recognise that our imprinted memories have become part of the fabric of us – and we may at some point be ready to invest ourselves in a new friendship or a new relationship.
This pattern is as true for children as it is for you and me. They need to be able to accept the reality and the deep pain of their loss – and make the adjustments necessary to go on living without their mum or their dad, for example. They need somehow to find meaning in the loss they have suffered – and commit it to their memory bank, integrating bits of their beloved mum or dad into their own self-identity. Only when they have accomplished this will they be able to move on and re-commit to new relationships with new parental figures.
To accomplish this ‘normal’ grieving process the child has to be resilient enough to be able to think about their dead mum, for example, and recall what life was like with her in all of its various hues. They need to be able to bear the pain perhaps of regret or guilt – the ‘if only’ moments that haunt us all – and have the stamina to face life without her.
BUT if her death has been traumatic, if it happened in war – or by suicide, or murder – then at the point where the child tries to connect with thoughts of mum, the trauma generated by the circumstances surrounding her death is re-experienced. And this gets in the way of grieving. This is PTSD at its most cruel. It is a condition known as Childhood Traumatic Grief (CTG) – a condition characterised by a child’s inability to complete an adaptive process of grief.
So the child will re-experience frightening or otherwise distressing memories of how mum died and what was happening around her. This intrusion into consciousness makes it hard for the child to recall the happy times with mum – they can seemingly not reach that place. They also tip into avoidance, where they will rigidly avoid memories of mum, even the good ones, because to engage with them will inevitably then trigger the dark memories of her dying. So they won’t want to reminisce, or look at old photos, and they won’t want to celebrate her birthday – or their own – because to do so will be too painful. And they may well become angry if adults insist that this is the route they should be taking.
AC Ed have therefore developed a training session – and are in the process of developing an online resource – which explores traumatic bereavement and the practical strategies that the support network around the child can use to help alleviate CTG. It is ideally suited to those working with children who have come to Britain as refugees – but also for those children in care who have experienced the double whammy of developmental trauma followed, later on in their lives, by a traumatic death in their family.
Martha and Rachel