Date of Submission

4-2017

Abstract

Loss – the experience of having lost something, as well as the subjective experience of missing out on something desired or expected – is a common experience in children’s lives. Many Australian children will experience the loss of a parent through divorce, separation, or death. The consequences of such losses can be severe and long lasting, affecting children’s health and wellbeing throughout their lives. Children from families facing complex challenges and change – such as family violence, abuse, neglect, mental illness, disability, substance abuse, homelessness, poverty, and social isolation – appear to be particularly at risk. These children commonly experience multiple losses of significant relationships and possessions and are at an increased risk of negative outcomes as a result of these losses. Despite the significant impact of loss in these children’s lives, understandings of childhood loss remain limited and contested. In addition, loss is afforded little attention in the Australian child and family service system. Current understandings primarily draw on adult perspectives of children’s responses to parental death, and we are yet to fully understand how children perceive and experience loss.

This thesis aims to fill this gap by drawing on theory and techniques from childhood studies to explore how children, from families facing complex challenges and change, perceive and experience loss. A participatory qualitative approach was adopted to better understand children’s experiences. A children’s reference group provided advice and guidance throughout the study and 22 children, aged 6-12, participated in in-depth interviews. All children were recruited from the child and family service system in Canberra, Australia. Data was analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). This method ensured the findings remained grounded in, and reflective of, children’s perspectives and experiences.

Many common themes emerged across the diverse range of losses discussed by children. The children understood loss to be an inevitable part of life, often characterised by negative feelings associated with missing, or missing out on, valued family (including pets), friends and fun. The absence of these important people or things invoked a great depth and breadth of emotions, which were ever present and sometimes overwhelming for children. Sadness was evident in all the children’s experiences of loss, and many spoke of feeling left out and lonely. Children’s interactions with others were also inextricably linked to their experiences of loss. Silence, isolation, powerlessness, and an overriding complexity often governed children’s interactions with others and caused, complicated and compounded their loss experiences. Children used many strategies to cope with their losses, including: fun, play and laughter; focusing on the positives; and, remembering and maintaining connections with lost people. Children also identified the need for adults to: just listen; include them and give them a say; provide information; and offer comfort, care, and support for them and their families.

In exploring children’s own understandings and experiences of loss, this study extends and challenges dominant understandings of childhood grief and builds knowledge of the supports required for children to cope and thrive in the wake of loss. This thesis makes an essential contribution to the development of explicit, appropriate, and sensitive practice within child and family welfare that can better respond to the diverse losses experienced by children. Further, this thesis provides a platform to strengthen the links between the currently distinct fields of childhood studies, grief and loss, and trauma.

School/Institute

School of Allied Health

Document Type

Thesis

Access Rights

Open Access

Extent

406 pages

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Faculty

Faculty of Health Sciences

Included in

Social Work Commons

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