Content Warning: This post covers the topic of grief and loss and may be distressing for some readers.
Nine-year old Aaliyah* attends Year 4 at one of our partner schools in Sydney’s south-west. She is very bright and does well at school. She’s engaged in her learning and always very well-behaved. The school however was concerned about the impact her sister’s death was having on her. Born after the loss of her eldest sister, Aaliyah’s parents were extraordinarily protective of her. Moreover, the school was also worried that her physical disability was negatively impacting her confidence and sense of self-identity. Aaliyah was born with an incurable condition that has affected the use of her right leg and so she requires support when walking and running. She also requires extensive treatment, medication and frequent hospital visits.
Aaliyah attended 13 weeks of the KidsXpress group therapy program at school. The group consisted of four other students with referral reasons similar to Aaliyahs, such as grief, loss, poor social skills and physical health issues.
The therapeutic goals for the group included developing positive coping mechanisms through the use of the creative arts, building capacity in identifying and expressing emotions and increasing self-confidence.
Aaliyah happily participated in all of the program’s activities, although she presented as incredibly shy, preferring to instead express herself non-verbally through music and art. By the fourth session, Aaliyah confided in the therapist that she wishes she could be more outgoing. She said her dream is to become the Prime Minister of England (which is where she was born) but shared that her lack of self-confidence potentially posed a problem in achieving her dream.
At her sixth session, Aaliyah opened up to the group for the first time. She talked about the frustration she feels whenever she has to go to hospital for her regular infusions as they cause her to feel unwell. She also admitted that she wished her parents gave her more freedom and didn’t obsess over her health so much. Two other members of the group shared that they felt the same way about their parents and the three students bonded over this mutual frustration.
Our therapist explained to the students that we shouldn’t feel like we need to be constantly brave and positive. She told them that expressing negative emotions is just as important as expressing the positive ones. When Aaliyah heard this she asked “so all emotions matter, even the bad ones?”
“They sure do” came the therapist’s response. This was a pivotal moment in the program because when children learn how to identify and express their emotions, they’re able to better cope with them.
During the last session, the therapist asked Aaliyah what helped her. She said that she enjoyed being creative each week. “KidsXpress is a space where you can be creative safely. There are no bad ideas, you can let your creativity fly”. Aaliyah felt that she could now talk more freely – both at school and at home. She went on to say that she’s more comfortable sharing her feelings and her ideas, no matter what they were.
One month after completing the group therapy program, we checked in with Aaliyah’s teacher to see how she was going. The teacher reported noticing increased confidence in the classroom but also amongst her peers on the playground which was something she traditionally struggled with.
The death of a child is known as one of the most painful losses to endure and may result in lifelong mourning for the family. When a subsequent child is born with a chronic health condition, we can begin to imagine the internal struggle of the bereaved parents but also the complexity of the subsequent child’s experience. Aaliyah is being raised in an intense atmosphere but following her positive experience on the KidsXpress group therapy program she feels like she has been given a new set of tools with which to cope. Importantly, by being a school-based intervention program, Aaliyah is able to come back and seek support from our therapists at any time. In the meantime, she’s going to start working on her maiden speech as Prime Minister.
*At KidsXpress we respect the privacy of the children and families we support. So while their stories are true, stock images of children have been used and client names have been changed.