How drama can help children express their grief

When bereaved children don’t have the words to express how they feel, dramatherapy can help, according to MA student Natalie Mihajlovic. Natalie, who has been working with a group of children at the Marie Curie Hospice, West Midlands, explains how it works.

Dramatherapy is a form of psychological therapy, which began in the 1970s. It provides a way of communicating through stories, music, pictures, fairy tales and metaphors. Theorists suggest it could be a useful way of helping children who are going through bereavement deal with their grief.

"The children made their own story"

At the hospice, I’ve done individual sessions with children over 12 weeks. I’ve also run group sessions with eight children aged six to 10, all of whom have lost parents. 

We decided at the beginning that we were going to ask the children to make their own story.  It’s based at a concert under the sea and they’ve all created their own characters. There’s a princess mermaid who gets kidnapped. Then a character called Sharky has to go and save the princess, with the help of an undersea witch. 

“Watching the performance made me burst with pride. To be able to get up there in front of people they don’t know, and just perform the way they did, was wonderful. And then when Jessica stood up at the end and spoke about her daddy, and the things that she misses, it was a very, very strong thing for her to do.”
Amanda Smith, whose daughters Molly and Jessica took part in the dramatherapy group

The children created this in their sessions over four weeks. As a group, they came up with the story together. The idea was that they would then embody the characters, which is another dramatherapy technique. 

Why dramatherapy works

All these children have experienced loss in their lives, and the story explores the idea of loss through someone being kidnapped. Because dramatherapy is non-directive, we didn’t sit there and talk death and how it made them feel – instead it came about naturally. 

So when one little girl said: “It’s my dad’s birthday today, but he’s died,” the other children started to talk about the fact that they had lost someone, too. In this way, they’ve spoken about it through choice. Now they talk about it quite openly with each other. 

Children grieve differently to adults because they have usually not had the experience of losing someone before and may not understand what death means. A child might wonder if the person they love is coming back. They might not know how they feel because they have never experienced those emotions before. An adult may be able to say “I feel scared” or “I feel anxious”, but child can’t necessarily do that. Through dramatherapy, children can express these feelings in a safer way, using metaphor. 

The best thing about this project has been seeing all the support that’s out there and how beneficial dramatherapy is for the children in order to help them deal with their grief.

You can find out more on supporting children on our Supporting a child when someone dies pages. 

If you want to talk to someone, you can call the Marie Curie Support Line, 0800 090 2309*, open 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday and 11am to 5pm Saturday, or use our Marie Curie Community  .  

*Calls are free from landlines and mobile phones. Your call may be recorded for quality and training purposes.