“Can he make mommy appear?” was a response to the Merlin (the magician) puppet I brought out for little “Annie” to play with. I was stopped in my tracks and then replied hesitantly, “No sweetie, nobody can do that….I know how badly you want mommy back. It must be very hard for you because some days you miss her so much. Lets read a book about somebody else who might feel like you do.” (The interactive iPad book was called the “Broken Heart” and it was about a heart that was sad and had a band aid on its crack. Then he discovered other things that made him happy and the “boo boo” became smaller.)
I worked with 3 year old Annie for several months. Annie lost her mom almost a year ago to cancer. She outwardly appears well adjusted and smiles throughout the day in her preschool class. However, dad had enlisted my help because Annie had been acting out, sleeping in his bed and seemed to be confused about the recent past- all typical reactions to such a great loss as this one.
As an art and play therapist, I have been letting Annie act out her frustrations and grief through a variety of age appropriate activities. We use the dollhouse and figures to “play out” family situations; such as the little girl doll getting a new bed for her room and being excited to sleep there. There was even a time when she threw the doctor doll across the room and screamed “You took my mommy away! Bring her back!” As a therapist we use the play to allow these cathartic expressions to unfold.
We made a memory book with pictures of her mom. This was difficult but it allowed Annie to be guided gently through her feelings and allowed me as her therapist to assess her understanding of death. Dad had been using a symbol of a star to represent mommy and each night they looked into the night sky and said good night to the “mommy star”. Therefore I used this symbol quite often in the art work that we did; thinking that this would hopefully remind Annie that mommy was with her “symbolically”, but not coming back. However, a 3 year old wants what they want and can not think this way; at least consciously.
The understanding and permanence of death in young children can be inconsistent – as I have been learning more with my experiences with Annie. The sorrow of a loss is overwhelming and is very often is not felt or understood and is not expressed fully at this age. The approach that I have taken is to be with the child in and out of these stages, set-backs and times of awareness. Do not push them or change their perception; accept them, nurture them and offer empathetic support. But most important, be truthful even if it is a painful truth. Like the way Merlin the magician is not going to bring mommy back, we as therapists can not always make the pain go away, but we can create a safe space for the child’s feelings and insight to emerge in their own time.