For some children the fall-out from an acrimonious divorce can mean no longer having regular contact with the non-custodial parent. Others are separated from a loved parent for a long period because of serious illness, or even forever when one parent dies. So what can be done to help children in traumatic situations?
Petrea King is founder of the Quest for Life Centre in Bundanoon in NSW's southern highlands. Having herself recovered from leukaemia over 20 years ago Ms King has counselled more than 50,000 people, including many children who are facing life-threatening illnesses and other challenges, such as grief and loss. She is author of several books including Quest for Life and Your Life Matters, and a recently published children's book, You, Me and the Rainbow (Jane Curry Publishing, $14.95), which is based on a healing ritual using a rainbow.
The concept was developed when Ms King's son started having nightmares. She had recently moved to America with her husband and their two children, Kate, aged seven, and, Simon, aged three, when her husband disappeared. It transpired that he had returned to Australia, but Simon reacted very badly to his father's absence. Ms King describes being woken up by ‘blood-curdling screams’, and found that even when she held Simon he was inconsolable.
She took him to a counsellor who suggested wrapping him up in a rainbow at night. So that evening when Simon was curled up in bed she ran her hand from the top of his head to the tip of his toes, and told him to imagine that she was wrapping him up in a cloud of red, the colour of fire trucks, tomatoes and strawberries. She asked him if he could see the colour and he said ‘yes’. Then she said she was wrapping him up in a cloud of orange, the colour of nasturtiums, oranges and mandarins. She asked again if he could see the colour. ‘Yes, yes, ’ he said. She went through the seven colours of the rainbow, and then put her hand on his heart and got him to imagine a rainbow that started in his heart, and connected with her heart. She told him that this rainbow bridge would keep them connected all night. “He only had two nightmares that night, ” she recounts, “instead of more than a dozen. The next night he had none“.
Soon after this Ms King was diagnosed with leukaemia and, because she was too sick to look after them, Kate and Simon went to live with their father. He continued the ritual, wrapping both Simon and Kate up in a rainbow every night and connecting their hearts to his. The children also sent a rainbow from their hearts to their mother's.
“It was the rainbow that really kept me alive for them because they were separated from me for up to three months at a time, “ Ms King adds.
Ms King has since shared this rainbow ritual with the thousands of people who have come to her for counselling and support. She believes that children need to feel that they can continue loving someone who is not physically present. If, for example, a grandparent dies and no one talks about that person anymore, the child is left feeling very severed from that relationship.
Ms King tells the story of Peter, a four-year-old boy whose father was diagnosed with cancer. The cancer affected his brain, so he was unable to recognise his son. To be wrapped in a rainbow and to send a rainbow from his heart to his father's gave Peter a great deal of comfort.
When his father died Peter wanted to know why everyone was so sad, because, he said, “We're still connected by the rainbow”.
It wasn't that he didn't know his father had died, Ms King explains. “It wasn't about denial. It was about the power of love, which is indestructible, and children can often be far more connected than adults to that knowledge and understanding”.
One couple used the rainbow ritual when they had their second child and their three-year-old son was unhappy about sleeping in his own bed.
In Ms King's experience, parents also use the rainbow if children are going to pre-school for the first time. “The parent visualises with the child a rainbow that connects to both their hearts and says, ‘any time you think of me today I'll be at the other end of the rainbow’. As far as kids are concerned that's rock solid“.
If a couple are divorced or separated it is a way for children to maintain a loving connection with whichever parent is not currently present in their life. It is also very comforting for sick children because it involves touch, parental focus and attention. In addition, a child in hospital can send a rainbow to siblings at home, who may not be able to visit.
Children can benefit from the ritual once they are old enough to visualise the colours. From about the age of four they are able to imagine sending a rainbow to a loved one unassisted. At what age is a child too old for rainbows? Well, 20 years on Petrea King and her children are still sending them to each other.
Glen Saunders, father of twins Lachlan and Matthew, was diagnosed with kidney cancer in November 2002. Glen started doing the rainbow ritual with his sons after he completed a course at the Quest for Life Centre in 2003. Because he was going into hospital for a major operation, he wanted to maintain a connection with the boys while he was away.
Glen does the rainbow ritual with Lachlan and Matthew, now aged five, every night. If they're tired he does an abbreviated version, but often they ask him ‘Can we do big rainbow tonight? ‘
“They know it's something special,” he says. “And they appreciate it”.
Glen modified the ritual to suit the boys, allowing them to choose the objects for each colour. It started off as just three objects for red, he says, but now it is six – tomatoes, mailboxes, jelly, apples, fire trucks and lollipops. “When we come up with a new one, I think I'll drop one off next time and they won't remember, but they do, ” he says.
A special poem has been added to the ritual:
Whenever you see a rainbow, think of me and I’ll be there. Sometimes I will be at your end with you, but one day I’ll be at the other end where you can’t see me. Wherever I am we will always be connected by our love across our rainbow.
The twins’ perpetual response is: “Wherever you are we will come and find you”.
For more information the rainbow ritual visit www.questforlife.com.au or telephone (02) 4883 6599.