Alyson Marsh is an author and illustrator, as well as an art teacher. Her book, A Better Place is designed to help children and adults deal with loss and offer hope in difficult times.
Since the start of the pandemic, thousands of people have lost their family members – and learning how to cope with grief has now become an essential part of our lives as we adjust to life after lockdown.
We know that different people experience grief in different ways depending on their personality, situation, background and age. Alyson’s book, A Better Place, is based on her own experience of losing her father 14 years ago. We caught up with Alyson recently, and she shared a bit more about her experience, her book, and her advice for helping children positively manage grief.
5 ways to help a child deal with grief
Fill the silence
Q: Is the silence around grief something that you have experienced in your life?
A: “I lost my father when I was four months pregnant with my first child. I needed to grieve but I also needed to be aware that I had a child inside me. Certain family members were not very kind about my need to grieve, telling me that I had “cried enough” and “needed to look after my baby.”
“It felt so cruel to me, but it also worried me and made me doubt my own feelings. I was lucky that I had a good therapist at the time who affirmed me in my emotions and gave me the permission I felt I needed to grieve in the way that was right for me. Perhaps because I had a child inside of me at that time, I started to wonder how it would have felt to go through this loss as a child.“
“Having been through the grieving process and knowing the power behind it I wanted to provide something to support grieving children, which is why it is so important for me to bring the book into schools where the children can have access to it.“
Q: Why is interactive engagement with grief important for children?
A: “Having taught art for 23 years, I know the power behind self-expression. Sometimes it’s really hard to talk. I wanted the children who read the book to be able to take ownership of their grief so there are pages in the book when they get to draw what they think the better place will look like that their loved person is in now.“
“But not all kids love art (as an art-teacher I can attest to that!) and some find it hard, so there are pages when they can write things down instead. The point is for the child to engage in their own way.“
“The book has been tested in schools with y5 students who suggested interactive activities and these were the ideas they felt most connected to. Drawing in the book makes it theirs – there is even a section at the back of the book where the child can put their own photo of the person they have lost, turning the whole book into a valuable keepsake that they can return to and use to remember their special person. The book is a gift, designed to help a child have ownership of their grief and a record of their own memories.“
Help the child clarify their language when they’re grieving.
Q: What is the struggle with the language we use around death?
A: “There is a lot of confusion about the symbols and metaphors we use around grief; in the book, the main character, Thora, struggles with the idea that so many grown ups are suggesting different ideas about where a person goes after death. Thora needs time and space to work out where she believes her Dad is.“
“The book is designed to be pan-religious and completely open to interpretation so a person who is reading can bring their own beliefs to the book. It’s important to make space for a child to create their own language about death in a way that makes sense for them. Not every child is going to believe or accept the idea of a “a better place” that people go to after death, but the key idea of the book is that whatever we believe, the people we love stay in our hearts forever. The book is perfectly set up for a parent, or an older sibling or a teaching assistant to guide a child through.“
“There is a big fear and sensitivity about “saying the right thing” when it comes to grief, but I believe we have to accept things as they are. Children in particular feel that fear of the worry about the afterlife, even if they have been brought up in a religious household, they still might feel a little worry or fear. It’s important that they are able to talk about those fears, allowing them to be reassured and comforted by the adults in their life. The book can help a child do that.“
Let a child imagine their lost person in the present tense.
Q: How has talking about your Dad as if he is still here helped you grieve?
A: “When you lose someone who’s been in your life for so long, you feel like you’re still loving them. I don’t think you can put a time limit on how long that lasts, it’s taking me a long time to properly grieve for my Dad.“
“In the book, Thora talks about her Dad in a better place “where he can catch the biggest fishes and smother them in kisses,” and it’s important for her to imagine that he is existing somewhere. I do believe that my Dad’s spirit is existing somewhere; I dream vividly about him sometimes.“
“For children, it can be very jarring to suddenly go from living with someone in the world to not having that person there, it’s jarring for us all. In the book, there is a space where the child reading it can write down what they think their loved one might be doing right now. It can be helpful for a child to speak about their loved one in this way.“
Try and process grief with your children where appropriate.
Q: How do your children take part in your grieving process?
A: “My children didn’t know my Dad personally, but they’ve witnessed my grieving process and I don’t want to hide or lie to them about it. I don’t believe in putting on a brave face, though I do protect them when it’s appropriate. I mindfully show my true feelings to them.“
“My upbringing wasn’t like that at all. When my grandparents died, everyone just put it away and moved on. I believe these conversations are really important for nurturing and maturing our children, especially conversations around grief. I believe it stops when children have to shut down when they are frightened and worried, which I have seen so many times in children as a teacher. When I see that, I know a child doesn’t have an outlet for their grief or feelings. I think this can be really hard on the child’s mental health.“
“I am so grateful that my children can openly share their feelings with me without a fear that I will tell them off or dismiss them, and I think they have learnt to do that from the openness I have modelled to them. As a parent, it’s important to me that I am a strong example of a person who can acknowledge their feelings, accept them, and manage them openly. I believe that skill will help them have good mental resilience in life.“
We need to talk about how we feel, it’s as simple as that.
“As a society, we need to recognise the need we all have as individuals to open our hearts and share how we feel. Everyone should have the opportunity to do that. For many young children and adults they just don’t have that opportunity and it can be devastating – a man that I went to school with and have known for a long time recently committed suicide, seemingly out of the blue. It really brought home to me that how something looks on the outside and how somebody looks on social media is not the truth.“
“We have to share how we feel with one another; it needs to be okay to say “I feel sad,” or “I feel unhappy,” without judgement. I’d love to think that my book is part of that process and will help ease people’s pain. I really hope that in this time of tragedy, when so many people are being plunged into the world of grief, my book can offer a little bit of hope.”
To buy a copy of Alyson’s book for your own family or as a gift, you can make a purchase on her website here. To stay in touch with what she’s up to, you can follow her on instagram here and Twitter here.
Alyson loves to hear from potential readers so please reach out!
If you would like to delve deeper into any of the topics raised by Natasha, she recommends the following resources:
You may also find the following resources on our website to be helpful:
- Blog article on “How to Manage Loss in lockdown”
Dedicated grief and loss page