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The Colour Purple: How Play Therapy Helped 10-Year-Old Amelia Understand – and Overcome – Grief

Sitting across the table is a quite remarkable 10-year-old girl.

Enthusiastic, eloquent, and with eyes radiating curiosity and interest, Amelia – along with her mum Sam, who’s perched next to her – makes for an engaging interviewee.

But behind Amelia’s positive demeanour is a girl whose history is characterised by deep grief and bereavement.

Amelia’s dad and grandad – the two most significant male figures in her life – passed away within just 14 months of each other. The former following a bout of COVID-19 in January 2021; the latter in March 2022, after a 20-month battle with esophageal cancer.

“When my dad [Amelia’s grandad] was diagnosed in August 2020, Amelia was only eight,” Sam explains. “She didn’t understand the concept of it. Earlier in life, she’d already suffered the losses of two important people – her great-grandma and great-aunt – which had a massive impact on her. So when we told her about grandad, she didn’t absorb it very well. She was upset all the time, and getting cross with herself.”

Soon, Amelia’s granddad was under ellenor’s care. We helped manage his condition: providing palliative and, eventually, end-of-life care.

But a key part of our service and ethos isn’t merely to serve the needs of the patient – but to support their families, too. 

Here’s where Jola Martis, our play therapist, entered the picture.

Play therapy is an innovative therapeutic intervention designed to help children express their feelings – particularly those relating to grief and bereavement – through a non-verbal medium. And in a safe, supportive environment where the child doesn’t have to worry about upsetting or triggering other family members – also grieving – with what they say.

“Play therapy was an opportunity for Amelia to explore her emotions,” Sam reflects. “To talk about them without being pushed into talking about them. For any child, it’s that opportunity to have a secure bond – and a strong relationship – with an adult who’s outside the situation. To be able to talk to them, and feel safe and supported.”

In play therapy, Jola uses a range of tools and techniques to stimulate the senses and engage the child’s imaginative instincts – be that through colour, shapes, and puppets, or by drawing, building, acting, or storytelling. The sky’s the limit!

“The play therapy was fantastic,” says Sam. “There was a long time between Amelia’s grandad’s diagnosis, and his death. Jola was able to break down that length in time in a way Amelia could understand. To check Amelia’s grasp of what was happening; of what the expectations were, and where [the illness] would lead – so she didn’t get any false hope. It allowed Amelia to process her grandad’s illness at a speed that worked for her.”

So what does play therapy look like from the perspective of its pint-sized participant?

“Play therapy is awesome!” Amelia grins. “It’s lots of fun. In play therapy, you can say how your day has been without actually saying it. But you’re expressing it while you play, draw, or build – and through the colours and shapes you use.”

Sam agrees. “Amelia’s always loved imaginative play. So for her, it was the ideal medium for exploring complex illnesses, and how they progress. How they make us feel, too – and how we deal with them to build resilience.

“I think it was easier for Amelia to have those conversations through play. She’s never been a child to talk about her feelings. She expresses them better via a more creative avenue.”

One of the activities involved grinding salt and coloured chalk together – an act signifying, as Sam explains, “letting the emotion out.” Jola then worked with Amelia to pour the freshly-coloured salt into a bottle – shaped like a love heart – to represent Amelia’s grandad.

“I chose the colours,” remembers Amelia. “Red was for anger, at grandad being taken away.

“Purple is my favourite colour – it always means something good. So purple represented happiness, and was there to remind me of all the happy times I had with my grandad.”

Following her grandad’s death, play therapy enabled Amelia to come to terms with the grief in a method and medium she understood and felt comfortable with. Yet play therapy also helped Amelia before her grandad’s death. 

Working – or better, playing – with Jola empowered Amelia come to terms with her grandad’s condition and prognosis – many months before he passed away. But rather than this understanding causing stress or anxiety, or preventing Amelia enjoying her last few months with her grandad, it did the opposite. It gave her a renewed appreciation of how precious his remaining time was – and encouraged her to make the most of it.

“Dad stayed with us for the last six weeks of his life,” Sam explains, “and received care from my home. Amelia cherished that time. She knew he was poorly, but it meant she could have that time for those extra cuddles. Those little five-minute chats; taking him a cold drink, or cutting his cake. Watching rubbish TV together, just for the sake of watching it.

“Those intimate moments are ones not everyone gets, because they don’t have the time to process the enormity of things. But because Amelia knew the path and progress of her grandad’s disease – which play therapy gave her – she was calm, accepting, and resilient. And able to make those memories with her grandad in the final days and weeks of his life.”

Jola’s play therapy helped Amelia through all stages of grief; through each step of one of the most challenging periods of her life. But as her mum explains, play therapy has benefits not only for recently bereaved children – but for everyone.

“For every family, it’s crucial that a child has that impartial person to express their feelings to – whether it’s through play, reading a story, or simply being there at the other end of the phone. Because even a child without comprehension, or who might say nothing, is still gaining so, so much from that bond.

“They can say what they need to say. And that’s important.”