New book helps families with grief after brain cancer

Victorian mum Tracey Newnham has drawn on the support of UNSW clinical psychologist Brittany McGill to create a book that empowers children to cope with the loss of a parent to cancer. 

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A new book to help children grieving the loss of a parent to cancer has been developed by an author and artist with first-hand experience, with the support of a clinical psychologist at the UNSW School of Women's and Children's Health.

Author-illustrator Tracey Newnham realised the need for In The Rainbow while she and her two young sons were grieving for her partner Wes Crooke, who had a recurrent brain cancer (anaplastic astrocytoma) and died in 2014, aged 37.

In hospital, shortly before he passed away, Newnham asked her partner to make his presence felt to the family in the form of rainbows.

Sure enough, in the months after the funeral she and their sons, then aged two and three, began to find rainbows appearing in the house where they had never noticed them before.

After advice from a counsellor, Newnham encouraged the boys to draw rainbows when they were feeling the emotions of grief – if they were sad at day care, or if they were overwhelmed with anger.

The book is about this experience and is intended to be read with an adult carer, counsellor or teacher supporting the child and allowing them to interpret the meanings. The book will remind children they are entitled to feel sad, but that they are also entitled to feel joy without feelings of guilt.

Around 1600 people are diagnosed with brain cancer in Australia annually, and around 1200 die from the disease each year. It kills more children in Australia than any other disease and more people under 40 than any other cancer.

Given those statistics, Newnham saw the need for a book that could help so many young families dealing with the loss of a parent or sibling.

“I personally found while reading some books on grief to my boys, that they left us with a dead end as to what to do, and how to feel once the family member has died,” she says.

“They did not necessarily relate to a real family or connect on the level of … the child’s perspective.”

Clinical psychologist Brittany McGill supported Newnham with the goal of delivering information about an enormous event in a child’s life, in a clear and empowering way.

“All parents feel the tension between wanting to be open and honest with their children, and to also protect them from life’s difficult realities,” McGill says.

“This balance can be especially difficult for parents to navigate when it comes to the death of a close family member.

“Delivering clear and age-appropriate facts about death can help children to process this information and develop their own narrative of what has happened.”

The book, which is vividly illustrated and liberally splashed with rainbows, is already helping other families, with one father of young children writing to Newnham:​ “Your illustrations blew me away and the kids loved them too, you should be so proud of yourself, this book is amazing. There will be a lot of people that will be able to relate to it and also get a lot of help talking about the story to their kids.”

In The Rainbow is available to purchase in soft cover at www.intherainbow.com.au for $24.95, with supporting worksheets for primary school teachers now in development.