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Play Therapy: Essential in helping bereaved children process grief and loss

"You are teaching me that I need to try to understand what my daughter is feeling and to concentrate on what she trying to communicate to me about her feelings in the play sessions."



When most people think about what we do here at ellenor, they will think of the symptom management and the end-of-life nursing we offer patients. But we also know that it’s essential to work to support the mental health of those they leave behind.

For children especially, grief can be a massive, bewildering issue. Fail to help them deal with it, and the implications for those children and young people, not to mention the NHS’s already overburdened CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service), can be enormous.

ellenor has a multi-disciplinary approach to working within our local community, using our limited charitable funds as prudently as possible to support a range of children’s bereavement services, always remembering that everyone experiences grief differently.


Play therapist, Jolanta, talks about her work with children.

“I’ve worked as a play therapist at ellenor for over five years. As a psychologist, I specialise with working with children aged from two to 12 – it’s the period of their lives during which this sort of therapy will have the biggest impact because, at this stage, they often use play as an expression of what they’re feeling. Children are referred to us through a variety of routes: via their own families if we’re looking after their relatives, via GPs or local hospitals, and via local schools. Schools can also access our support in helping their staff understand bereavement better through our outreach programmes.”

“We offer as standard 12 play sessions, each lasting for 30-45 min. – but we can and do extend that time frame if the child has more complex issues. Around each activity-based session, a multi-disciplinary approach involving parents, family, schoolteachers, counsellors – even social workers if appropriate – is designed to give each child the best, most helpful support given their individual circumstances. Safe-guarding issues are of course always at the forefront of anything we do involving children, too.”


What happens at a play session?

“First and foremost, the child has a safe space in which to express, through play, what’s going on in their emotional lives. We work one-on-one and, though I will interact with the child, absolutely it is him or her who sets the agenda. I want to see, through play, where the child will take me, with a range of activities helping them to express anything they might be feeling, any worries they might have. It’s all about finding the best method for each child to explore, process and cope with grief and the stresses it brings. In play therapy, children use a variety of means to express themselves including figures and toys, art materials or creative writing. In my experience play is the free expression of a child’s innermost feelings and they will engage in activities that’s best expresses these feelings.

We can also offer feedback to parents and guardians, empowering them through sessions to use play to listen to and communicate more effectively with, their children in ways they may not have considered before.

Children process so many things in bereavement, including anger, loss and loneliness. And sometimes that bereavement brings additional traumas and fears to the fore as well as anxiety about any changes in their own circumstances – a house- or school-move, for instance – that the bereavement may bring. Play therapy and how we use it to help children process their grief is vital, the intervention that really does make a positive difference, both to children’s day-to-day lives and to their future emotional wellbeing."


"I just wanted to say thank you for everything you have done for Lexie. The time and effort you have put in to understand her needs has been astonishing. When she started her sessions with you, she was an angry little girl who was overcome with grief from the loss of her auntie who she was very close to. You have managed to pull her out of a dark place and walk her through her emotions in a way I never could whilst trying to grieve myself. It has been so lovely to recently see that smile on her face again, and to know she has learnt how to cope better with this huge loss."

Jade, Lexie’s Mum


What is GEMS? 

GEMS stand for Grief: Every Memory is Special. It’s a group we run about five times a year for around twenty children aged seven to 16, all of whom will have lost either a sibling, a parent or someone very close to them. The children come together to share their emotions about loss, and the group interaction is a powerful antidote to any loneliness they may suffer at home or school, where perhaps no one else has been through what they’re going through. Here, everyone gets it. Friendships are formed, the kids can talk about issues they’re facing, and we can prepare them for questions and situations they might have to deal with. But GEMS days are also about having fun together, so we combine creative therapeutic activities with fun, team building type outdoor activities such as survival skills in the forest, trips to the seaside or boxing training teaching resilience and perseverance.

“During Covid, we needed to ensure that families under our care received the care and support they need.  We’ve been forced to learn new technologies, deliver our care remotely and adapt our ways of working allowing children to stay connected with each other.  Our GEMS workshops were available online giving greater flexibly and helping us to reach and work with a wider group of parents and children. We were also able to provide Child Parent Relationship Therapy offering a unique and sustainable intervention to families, where the therapists teaches and mentors parents in learning the skills that can help make changes in the lives of their child.  This is an offering that lends itself well to online services as it can be offered flexibly as per the parents’ convenience and timings.

“As with all the work ellenor does, it’s about equipping people to cope with the here-and-now and to know they can handle, or can get help in handling, whatever the future brings – difficult times, yes, but much to enjoy, too.”