Parenting: helping children come to terms with grief

From Nine To Noon, 11:29 am on 13 May 2021

Dr Maysoon Salama lost her son Atta Elayyan in the Al Noor mosque attack in Christchurch a little over two years ago. Her storybook Aya and the Butterfly was written for Atta's daughter, her granddaughter, and for other children dealing with loss and trauma.

As the manager and co-founder of the An-Nur childcare centre, Dr Salama has also helped many other families through their grief.

"In our centre it is not only Aya who lost her father but there is many other children who lost their fathers or some loved ones."

She says the children in the centre had been learning about the life cycle of the butterfly when she thought about writing the book.

"Life cycles, they can relate with children, especially the metamorphosis of the butterfly, you can see that the caterpillar disappears and something else comes and then from that emerges the beautiful butterfly. Something is lost but also something beautiful is gained after that.

"This is basically the life of all of us, it's a cycle full of challenges."

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Photo: Supplied

There are characters in the book with Muslim names, characters who wear the hijab - it was a great resource to discuss grief with the children, she says.

"This story was really a fantastic one because [the children at the centre] were familiar with the characters and they could relate also to the culture of the story itself.

"It was like a group healing...We discussed also with them feelings, the fluctuations of emotions, that you can have good days and bad days."

The children are encouraged to share their feelings and happy moments they had with loved ones.

"The concept of death was really the hardest thing but children need to know that it's permanent and a person who dies will not come back. For us, that was also something that we really had to deal with and we tailored also our discussion based on our Islamic faith."

Dr Maysoon Salama

Dr Maysoon Salama Photo: supplied

In the story, the death of Aya's father is implied, she says.

"The children need to know that we have to say goodbye to loved people or things in our lives and we must allow ourselves to remember and feel sad and we must learn to let go and keep going. There is hope."

The story is also written to reflect and celebrate the Muslim community, Dr Salama says.

"It stresses the family relations, that yes, that is granddad, grandma who will be looking after their grandchild and there is love and care. Love, it will never disappear, father's legacy will be still there."

Children go through a lot of emotions but don't know how to express themselves so we need to help them with words and feelings, she says. It's important to be around them and let them express themselves.

"It's really very important to talk to children and give them that time also, share also with them certain things, let them look at the photos of the loved ones that they have missed."