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Leann's Story: How Play Therapy helped my Grieving Children

The first time Leann heard of ellenor hospice and the care that we provide was only after her world, and that of her seven children, had been turned upside down.

It was three years ago, and her husband Peter had been diagnosed with an advanced form of liver cancer.

“The hardest bit was sitting the kids down and trying to tell the kids that this was it – that Daddy wasn’t going to be here forever. That was the hardest conversation I’ve ever had with my children.”

Wanting to spend his final days in the company of his big family, Peter was cared for by us from the comfort of his own home. Tragically, he passed away within just ten days of diagnosis, with what would have been his 58th birthday on the horizon. Peter Williams died surrounded by all of his children – Jack (now 25), Ben (24), Harry (21), twins Adam and Olivia (18), Kiera (17), and Molly (10).

ellenor is There

“When they’re gone, no one tells you all the stuff that comes after it, which is where ellenor was fantastic. They stepped in and supported us; not just me, but every single one of my family.” It was then that a promise was made.

“Never leave us,” Leann recalls asking of one of our nurses. “Be there when no one else is.

She promised me on that day, she put her arms around me and gave me a big hug and said that we will be with you every step of the way, even when everyone else is gone. And they really were.”

Of course, being there for families going through the toughest period of their lives is something that’s woven into the very fabric of ellenor's ethos. Our commitment to holistic care means that the hospice doesn’t restrict its focus solely to the patient, but aims to support their loved ones, too, in whatever shape or form that might take.

Supporting the Whole Family

ellenor took us for family therapy, where we could all speak about Peter. It helped make us realise that, though he may be gone in person, he would always be with all of us. For the boys, who were rebelling against it and getting angry, they needed that. 

Being a bit older, they wanted to be the macho men. They’re grownups, not children, but at the same time, they wanted to be children. They’d just lost their Daddy, so ellenor kind of let them be that, and supported them at the same time. It was good for all of us.”

Molly Williams had just turned seven years old when her Daddy passed away.

“She was like his little shadow,” says Leann. “She just went everywhere with him. When Molly started at school, he got a job there as a caretaker.  He’d take her to school in the morning, and she’d see him around the classrooms. For her, going to school was a big reaction to where Daddy was a constant reminder.”

“It was the hardest for Molly; she went off the rails a little bit. She refused to go to school, she clung to us all. She regressed right back to babyhood, doing this walk like she was a toddler, and talking like a baby. When she lost him, she lost a security blanket, so she just needed to go back to a time she felt happiest.”

Play Therapy is a Safe Space for Children

To help her open up about her grief, and unlock the inexpressible feelings invoked by her father’s death. Molly was given the opportunity to partake in a block of play therapy intervention.

Play therapy is a therapeutic approach to helping children explore painful or distressing feelings that they may be unable to work through via a verbal medium. Channelling the use of toys and equipment, their own experiences, and their relationship with the therapist, children are able to understand and resolve their difficulties or trauma.

ellenor play therapist Jola was fantastic with her. For a while, Molly wouldn’t talk about Daddy. But through play, toys, and drawings, Jola got her to talk about him, so that when we mentioned him, Molly didn’t go into meltdown. She’d sit there quite happily, and listen, letting us talk.

For those few precious moments after the session, she was my little girl – she was Molly. After her father’s death, it was like a light had gone off inside her, but for those few seconds... it was flickering.”

Though play therapists keep parents in the loop with regular progress updates, the sessions themselves are kept confidential – not that Leann minds too much.

“I didn’t need to know everything. I just trusted Jola completely, that she would make my baby better. She was making her the confident little girl that she was before. It was like a magic button for Molly, it just switched her on and let her be who she needed to be at that time. I don’t know what happened in those rooms, but whatever it was, it was fantastic!”

“I didn’t know that ellenor was for children. When I thought of the hospice side of it, I just thought that ellenor dealt with older people who were at the end of their lives. I didn’t realise that there are young people in there, young families with play therapy and GEMS days were available for kids. I don’t think people know enough about ellenor – I didn’t.”


Puppet-Making Play Therapy Workshop

Of course, we are there to support the whole family – so it’s not Molly alone that has benefited from the hospice’s holistic approach. Along with her younger sister, Kiera participated in an our facilitated puppet-making play therapy workshop. Conducted online, due to the pandemic, where she created a puppet representing her Grandad Brian, who was also lost to cancer.

“It’s not just for the bereavement side of it, but for the isolation” Leanne explains of the group session. “They physically build something and pour their emotions into that thing.”

For Molly – who made a puppet in the visage of her father – it was all about the detail.

“She was already thinking about the story, what she was going to say, what she was going to do and how he was going to talk. Molly was already bringing him to life, which I think helped her because she was remembering things that Daddy had done. She found his mug and some shortbread biscuits, as well as a Toblerone because that’s Daddy’s favourite chocolate. She wanted her puppet to have the things Daddy liked.”

Leann, who observed the cleverness and creativity of the poignant puppet-making from her own front room, witnessed first-hand the kind of confidence and camaraderie the session invoked.

“The children aren’t just making puppets, they’re making a companion, it’s giving them a focus so they don’t feel so isolated in it all. My girls are quite shy and reserved, but they were talking to the other children, engaging in it all. I saw every one of those kids’ faces, and they all got something from it.”

GEMS (Grief: Every Memory is Special)

Kiera, along with her older siblings Adam and Olivia, has also attended ellenor’s GEMS (Grief: Every Memory is Special) days. 

These typically run around four days every year for groups of up to 20 children, and combine creative therapeutic activities with fun, team-building activities, such as boxing training and forest survival skills. They’re oriented towards helping children share their emotions around loss, make friends, and prepare for difficult situations or questions they may have to deal with in the future.

“It’s about sitting with someone else that you don’t have to explain yourself to,” Leanne muses. “I think that’s what the children get from the GEMS days. They don’t have to tell anybody – you all know why you’re there. You all know that somehow, somewhere along the line, somebody’s lost someone. Even though you’re all dealing with it differently, you know that you’re all there for the same reason.”

As for Leann herself, she has accessed a course of the hospice's free counselling service, as well as attended the charity’s open ‘Bereavement Cuppas,’ which are chances for grieving individuals to come together and share a hot coffee, or a crisp nature walk. But it wasn’t until chatting to Rebecca, from our Bereavement Team, that concentrating on her own grieving process crossed Leanne’s mind.

“I was focussing on the children having all this support. Apart from Rebecca no one ever said to me ‘what about you? You’re running around making sure that they’re all grieving, but when are you grieving? When are you taking time for you, to realise what you’ve lost?’ That was a big shock, to ask myself – do I count?

Providing Holistic Care for All Ages

Leann, overlooking her own needs in the grieving process is, perhaps, reflective of some of society’s wider misconceptions or blind spots when it comes to hospice care in general. How many people know, for instance, that charities like ellenor cater to people of all ages? That they don’t just treat the symptoms, but the individual and their families, and that the care doesn’t end when a patient passes away?

“I didn’t know that ellenor was for children,” Leanne admits. “When I thought of the hospice side of it, I just thought that ellenor dealt with older people who were at the end of their lives. I didn’t realise that there are young people in there, young families with play therapy and GEMS days were available for kids. I don’t think people know enough about ellenor – I didn’t.”

Keeping Promises

Though it’s been three years since Peter Williams passed away, he stands proudly in the memory of his family, as does a certain promise made by ellenor the week he died.  It’s a promise that has been kept.

“Even now, three years down the line, Jola still messages me, or rings me occasionally,” Leanne says. “I know that if I pick up the phone, ellenor’s there.”

Olivia has since done a skydive, leaping out of the air at 10,000 feet with just a parachute for company to raise money for ellenor. Molly, meanwhile, keeps a memento from her days of play therapy (her ‘Daddy Box’), which she takes out and explores fondly with her Mum and siblings.

ellenor doesn’t just bring one thing,” Leann smiles, “it brings so much to so many different people. Lots of people feel that ellenor is just a hospice, but it’s so much more. Contact them and see what they’ve got on offer for support. What works for us isn’t going to work for everybody, but you should still look in ellenor’s direction because I just don’t think everyone knows that they can.”