Conversation with Shanice McLeish from the United States - author of 'Grief on the Playground'
Kasia - You are an author of the book for children 'Grief on the Playground', which will be published in September. Why did you decide to write about this topic and why, according to you, is it so important to talk to children about dying and grieving?
Shanice - Before we start, I just want to say thank you, Kasia for your grief activism and publishing these conversations around death and dying. We do need them across generations, across cultures and across seas.
So getting right into your question, I decided to write about grief because there were not enough educational tools that educate people on this tough subject. It was really important to me to have a voice and to share with other children that they are not alone while dealing with the death of a parent, sibling or someone that they loved. I also believe that it's important to normalize the conversation around grief and dying because it's something that we all face, children and adults alike. In addition, where I come from, children grew up not allowed to express their feelings and they learned to internalize everything. For this reason, there is this huge need to talk to children about grief and death and to give them space to understand how they feel.
Kasia - What are the needs of children and teenagers who are experiencing loss? I imagine that they must be very different depending on these two age groups.
Shanice - I'm just gonna piggyback on what you just said. They are very different and they differ from child to child. There is no need that fits all types of grief processing. It's very different also between age groups as we can observe various cognitive differences in children and teenagers.
Let me give you an example of a two year old who just experienced a mom’s death in their life. It's very common for older adults around them to make assumptions that they won't remember or they'll be okay, because kids are resilient. Does that sound familiar to you?
Kasia - Absolutely.
Shanice - Actually, a research has been done which shows that this is farthest from the truth. The child was young when their mum died but at the same time the child noticed major differences and changes in their life. They know that the mum is no longer around and the energy of the people around is different because they are grieving themselves.
I was also taught, being in this grief world, not to use the word ‘loss’ per se. If you say to a 5 year old: ‘I lost my mum’, this 5 year old will say - ‘Well, go and find her’. If you say the same thing to a teenager, they’ll understand that your mum died. So there are so many differences here because there are so many developmental stages.
Kasia - As you said at the beginning, it is crucial to give children a voice to understand how they feel in their grief and a safe space where they can talk or not talk if they choose to. How to start a conversation with a grieving child?
Shanice - It again differs from child to child, but a few examples that I can give you just to start the conversation are: ‘How are you feeling?’, ‘What has it been like for you since your mom/dad/sister/brother died?’ or ‘What changes have you experienced?’. If you approach the conversation with complete openness and understanding, this is a great start. I encourage people to have these conversations. There's a lot to learn from them. I grew up hearing a phrase: out of the mouths of babes. And it really just says to me that children have a lot to say, they don't hold back and they will tell you like it is. This is a very wise and beautiful thing about children.
Kasia - It must be a very lonely experience when children decide to hide everything they feel and want to share because there is no one who wants to listen to them.
Shanice - It is very lonely and I say that from experience. I feel like it's our role, as of people speaking on the behalf of other people experiencing grief, to make sure that they don't feel alone.
Kasia - So what can we do to support children? I know that one way is to talk to them, but what else?
Shanice - The best advice that I can give on how people can support grieving children, is to be there for them and with them. This includes talking to them but it is also about being emotionally and physically available. And most importantly, creating opportunities for them to remember, recall and share feelings of their loved ones.
Kasia - When a child experiences a parent's death, the second parent is going through their own bereavement meaning that, often, does not have emotional space to fully support the child. How to encourage other people, such as family friends, neighbours or teachers, to step in, support the family and learn how to manage a child's grief?
Shanice - I think the easiest answer is to bring awareness by normalizing the conversation, hence normalizing grief. People who have never experienced a profound death in their life, will never understand what it feels like but they can empathise with that feeling and find ways to support the child, family or second parent. There are a myriad of resources out there and organizations who are showing how to do that. Many people are just afraid of stepping out and doing something new, something that may feel uncomfortable to them. And that’s where the issue lies. As long as we can break those barriers and have those conversations openly, that’s where the real encouragement and work happens.
Kasia - I am wondering whether you would like to share your loss experience with me. I am aware that your father’s death, which happened when you were a child, is probably the biggest motivation behind your book.
Shanice - It absolutely is. My dad passed away when I was eight years old suddenly in a car accident. We didn’t know that it was coming so we didn’t have time to prepare. Honestly Kasia, at eight years old I understood what was happening but at the same time I didn't understand it. My experience of that moment, when I learned that my dad died, was to shut down. The next day actually, I went to school and started my first day of fourth grade.
Kasia - I cannot even imagine how you must have felt on that day.
Shanice - It was not a good day for me though. I remember that my godfather, who was our neighbour, took me to school and spoke to my teacher. In the book you will see so many references to that day. While he was speaking to the teacher, I was sitting there in class and I just started crying because I didn’t want to be there.
My book is kind of a spin on what I wish my teachers had done for me when I was eight years old and it shows how important it is for educators to be comfortable with speaking about death to children. In the state I live in (Georgia), 1 in 13 children experience a death of someone close before the age of 18. If you have a class of 30-35 students - 2 or 3 of them have experienced it. So it is important to talk about it.
I didn’t learn to grieve because nobody spoke to me and talked to me about how I was feeling. I didn’t grieve until 10 years later, when I was 18 years old. It is when I noticed I was struggling with many things and I really could not figure out why. It took me a while to figure out that it was because I had not grieved the death of my father and hence I developed so many negative coping skills. When I made the decision to face my father’s death, I found a bereavement organization that eventually I volunteered with. Actually, this week, I am going to volunteer for the same organization and we are taking kids on a grief retreat.
Kasia - A grief retreat?
Shanice - We actually take them camping in Georgia and we spend the entire weekend having fun but at the same time processing grief, sharing memories and building relationships with one another. We also facilitate the space to cry and lean on us, adults.
Kasia - How old are the children?
Shanice - They start from 5 years old, and they go to 18. This year, I have a group of 10 and 11 year old girls.
Kasia - Have they all experienced a loss?
Shanice - Yes, all of them.
Kasia - I'm thinking now about all those kids who are going through a loss and who won't be given this kind of space and time to talk about their grief. Your time, attention and expertise during those camps, may really change the way children grieve.
Shanice - Thank you. To be honest we all cry a lot during those camps, but we smile even more.
Kasia - My last question is about your cultural background and your approach towards death and grief. I always bring this topic up in each conversation because I am trying to discover how people around the world experience grief. I would like to also find out whether people in your country, the United States of America, talk openly about dying, grieving and supporting others in this process. I am aware that your country is huge, so we should not generalise but maybe you noticed a trend or so?
Shanice - I was born and raised in Miami, Florida but raised on West Indian and Hispanic values. My family is from Jamaica and Cuba, and taught me the value of hard work, determination, kindness, and sharing love wherever you go. I am grateful for that because, in my opinion, my cultural experience and background has empowered me to be there for each child facing grief. To be one person offering support in many ways and to ensure that each child has a voice when dealing with their own grief.
In the United States, the conversations around dying and grieving are actually starting to flow. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed it a lot because death has been so in front of our faces. I am still very hopeful that people will have more conversations around this area but until then, it’s up to us to speak out and bring light to child grief awareness. Actually, August is grief awareness month. Before COVID, this initiative was not a huge thing as it wasn’t on the news or so. It has changed due to the pandemic which has taken so many lives. And on top of grief, the concept of mental health is really big now. I am very pleased to observe such a trend because grief has been intertwined with that mental health conversation and that has been a starting point for us.
To find out more about Shanice and her work, please visit her website, Instagram accounts and Amazon, where you can purchase her book.
- IG: @grievingit