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Play Therapy with Death, Loss, and Grief
In this inquiry I will be discussing play therapy with death, loss, and grief. One out of twenty children will have a parent die by the time they finish high school. This does not include siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparent, and friends (Children’s Grief Awareness Day, 2008). Children sometimes only have their play as a way to cope with the situation due to not having resources provided to them to get through the closure they may need. I have experienced death since I was in elementary school. I lost my uncle and aunt due to a motorcycle accident. During this time their two children were spending the night with my family and I. Their parents were supposed to come back to get them and they never showed up so my parents called the cops. My parents, cousins, and I spent all night up trying to find them and when we did we found out about the accident. A few weeks later their two children moved into our home. We did try therapy, but it was decided to pull us out. When we were pulled out of therapy I started to develop a lot of anxiety and was always anxious. I only felt comfortable when I was in my room and hated being in cars or anywhere on the roads. My brother developed a lot of anxiety as well and had to be put on medication. My two cousins acted out a lot and blamed others for their parents passing. I strongly believe if my cousins, brother, and I were in play therapy the results would have been different or helped us with some closure. My brother and I did not have a chance to grieve, because at that young of an age my we had to grow up fast. We both acted as mini adults and lost our childhood.
Furthermore, we had to take care of our two cousins, because my mom was dealing with the loss of her brother and sister in law and other arrangements. My father was busy at work more, because now he had to provide for two more people. Instead of playing and being kids I did chores, helped my brother cook meals, and take care of my two cousin. One of my cousins was two years older than me, but she could not take care of herself most days due to being depressed. In my family we all were not able to process what happened in a healthy way. We did not talk about it and I did not want to hurt my mom talking to her about how I felt. As a child if I had play therapy as a therapeutic way to heal from what happened I believe it would have been beneficial to me and to my cousins as well.
Examine the Issue
The issue is that children most of the time do not know how to accept and cope with the grief that is upon them. A lot of people and parents say that they will get over it eventually and they will be fine. The problem with this though is that many children do not get over it and may develop issues later on. For example, a child who is in the process of grieving the loss of a parent or sibling may develop anxiety and or depression. Many adults may see this as a child acting out, but the issue is that the child does not know how to cope with that loss. While examining this issue, the question surrounding this issue is how does play therapy help children who have experienced death, loss and grief? Children speak how the feel and what they want through play. When a child has lost someone who they care for they may not be able to express how they feel. Grieving children can feel loss, not understood, and feel different from others. Play therapy may be the solution that a child needs to find some type of closure or understanding to what they are experiencing. A lot of people do not know this, but it does take most children much longer to deal with their grief then we expect (Children’s Grief Awareness Day, 2008).
Answering the Question
Most children have a hard time expressing their feelings in words, and in situations that involve death. In play therapy the child will play out their anxieties and confusions. Children use play as their method of communication. Play therapy allows to show the therapists through play metaphors so they can understand the child. Play therapists will have a variety of play materials available in their offices such as puppets, blocks, art supplies, sandbox’s, and many other materials. Children may use these materials in the play room to play out their own versions of the death scene. Directive play therapists will ask children to play with specific play materials and to show them how the person died. Therapists who are non-directive will tell the child to choose any toy and to choose their activities. Both types of therapists believe that children will use play to act out their anxieties and fears (Boyd, 2011). Play therapy also has hospice bereavement groups, conjoin parent-child play therapy, or individual therapy to help these children with emotional healing and coping. Children who are from the ages of 2 to 10 years old are still in the cognitive developmental stage and they do not have the cognitive ability to fully communicate their grief through words alone. Play therapy helps children process their thoughts and feelings concerning death (Baggerly & Abugideiri, 2010).
Furthermore, in a case study of a girl with Autism who was dealing with the death of her father, the therapists used play therapy to help her. There was eleven sessions held and they all were twenty minutes long. Through play using dolls and toys the child was made to understand cognitively about death. The child before the therapy sessions was depressed and angry. She also believed that her father was still alive. In the first session rapport building and knowing what type of toy the child preferred to be used as a reinforcer was mainly focused on. The child preferred a toy that would make sound. In the first session the child was asked about her father, but in the following sessions she was recollecting the good days with her father and enjoyed those moments. The mother in the first session told her daughter that her father was dead. When this happened the child got angry and threw the doll she was holding at her mother. The child then told her mom that her father just has gone to the office. She would then hug the toy doll and call it by her father’s name. It was not till the eighth session where the girl was corrected for saying her father was at the office. She would then after each session ask where her father was. When she asked the reply would be that he has gone up to god. In the tenth session she said the father has gone to the office but corrected herself admittedly. The child then accepted cognitively that her father will not return. After the treatment the child then understood the concept of death and this helped her with the healing process of her deceased father. Initially she refused, but she accepted it in the tenth session. Flute was also played in the background to make her feel relaxed during the sessions (Prabha, 2013).
Discussing the Answer
Play empowers children to have power and control to help solve problems. It also helps children master new experiences, ideas, and concerns. Play therapy has many beneficial influences that help encourage children to communicate verbal, nonverbally, or in a symbolic way. This type of therapy can also be used with a social worker who wants to interact with a child by using play therapy (Wong, 2013). In my findings I found that play therapy is helpful for children who are dealing with the death of someone. One type of play therapy I found that worked effectively with children who have problems with grief and loss is Gestalt play therapy. What it does is assist the child in gaining better self-awareness of internal and external events in the child’s life. It also helps the child in getting needs met with available resources in their environment (Timmerman, 2013). This information was interesting to me, because it makes the patient more aware of their feelings and or behaviors from the present and not the past. Both therapist and child form a team and work together to have the child gain a better understand of themselves.
Helping as a Counselor
Studying this issue has made me gain more insight on the matter. For me personally it was very informational and helpful. I learned a lot of things and how play therapy can help children who are struggling with their own grief. I also learned a lot of new types of play therapy. I knew about art therapy, but I learned about Sandtray therapy and thought it was interesting on how it helps with grief. As a future counselor I plan on working with elementary children in a school setting. I was wanting to use play therapy in my sessions regardless. After learning about how it can help children with death, loss, and grief I definitely want to do play therapy.
My understanding of this issue has changed a lot, because I got to see more insight of the issue. I also can relate to the children in my own way due to feeling grief as a child. As a professional what has changed for me would have to be the materials I will have in my play kit. After reading and finding information on children who are going through grief I want to make sure I have materials suited for those children. From what I learned some of the best materials that will help would be art supplies, Sandtray’s, and dolls. There is many more, but these three came up a lot during my research. What also helped a lot was reading how play therapists worked with children on their grief. Why I wanted to become a counselor is so I can help children who are going through grief, because I did not have someone when I went through it. Overall, my knowledge of using play therapy with death, grief, and loss has widen.
- Baggerly, J., & Abugideiri, S. E. (2010). Grief Counseling for Muslim Preschool and Elementary School Children. Retrieved February 5, 2019, from https://eds-a-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.net.ucf.edu/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=0&[email protected]
- Boyd, N. W. (2011). Play Therapy for Bereaved Children: Adapting Strategies to Community, School, and Home Setting. Retrieved February 5, 2019, from https://resolver-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.net.ucf.edu/openurl?sid=EBSCO:eue:60094382&ISSN=01430343&EISSN=&ISBN=&volume=32&issue=2&date=20110401&spage=132&pages=132-143&title=School Psychology International&atitle=Play therapy for bereaved children: Adapting strategies to community, school, and home settings.&aulast=Boyd Webb, Nancy&ID=pmid:,DOI:10.1177/0143034311400832&site=ftf-live.
- Children’s Grief Awareness Day™. (n.d.). Retrieved February 5, 2019, from https://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/cgad2/about/index.shtml
- Prabha S. (2013). Play Therapy in Dealing with Bereavement and Grief in Autistic Child: A Case Study. Retrieved February 5, 2019, from https://www.ijsr.net/archive/v2i5/IJSRON2013989.pdf.
- Timmerman, B. J. (2013). Exploring Grief As a Result of Parental Substance Abuse and Parental Death. Retrieved February 5, 2019, from https://www.winona.edu/counseloreducation/Images/Exploring_Grief_as_a_Result_of_Parental_Substance_Abuse.pdf.
Wong, F. C. (2013). Helping a Child Cope with Loss by Using Grief Therapy. Retrieved February 5, 2019, from http://ssweb.cityu.edu.hk/download/RS/E-Journal/Vol2/journal10.pdf
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