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Real Voices: An author on supporting emotional literacy in children

Sarah Surgey is an author who published The Heavy Bag, a book for children, in 2020. The book, which follows a young girl dealing with the death of her grandfather, uses the metaphor of a burdensome heavy bag to represent loss and grief. In this week’s Real Voices, Sarah describes the connection different cultures across the world have made with the book and why stories are so important to encourage children’s emotional growth.

I remember a friend saying during the early pandemic that “everything just felt so heavy”. Having four children and also being a teacher, I was aware that suddenly there was a lot of death and grief in children’s lives. Friends of mine who are parents were struggling to hide the television news from their kids, fearing having to explain the reality of what was happening in the world. I was a freelance writer and I’ve also worked for a mental health charity for families. When the pandemic began and my work shut down, I decided that the only thing I could do was write. The emotional and mental effects of the pandemic on children were already beginning to show, so I decided to write a little children’s book on grief. I’d written and self-published an adult crime novel a few years previously so knew a little about the process.

I started to think about how one would talk to children about grief, and came up with the idea of the metaphor of a heavy bag. So I wrote and published the book, initially just for an audience of friends and family. However, within a couple of months, several of my friends abroad had offered to translate the book into different languages. ‘The Heavy Bag’ was then picked up by an ELSA (Emotional Literacy Support Assistants) group in a UK school. ELSAs are in schools to help children to understand and process difficult emotions, and they started to use my book with the kids they were supporting. It then began to be picked up by ELSA groups across the country. Amazingly, someone at UNICEF then discovered the self-published German translation of the book and used it in official collaborations. I started to do live Zoom sessions in schools in Germany with UNICEF. Suddenly, publishers were interested, and the book started to be sold in stores. The book has been published in France, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey, Romania and elsewhere.

I also used the book to fundraise for the Disasters Emergency Committee’s (DEC) Ukraine Appeal. I reached out to an actress, Collette Cooper, who had just performed at DEC’s Night for Ukraine concert. She recorded the beautiful audiobook version of ‘The Heavy Bag’, which we released on Audible. All proceeds from the audiobook go towards DEC’s Ukraine Appeal.

One thing I have learned since first publishing ‘The Heavy Bag’ is that grief is experienced differently depending on the culture. Different countries have changed how grief is represented in the book to fit with how death is portrayed in their society. The same storyline runs through it, where the little girl learns that as she talks to people about how she’s feeling, her bag gets lighter and her load feels easier. I did a live event recently in a book shop in China as we’re shortly to release a Chinese translation. Jessie, the owner of the shop, approached me and said that grief (and emotion in general) is rarely discussed in Chinese culture, but felt that a live event might encourage her customers to open up about the topic. The workshop went really well, and it’s been so interesting to watch how different cultures have taken to this simple metaphor of the heavy bag.

I think the book connects so well with children because it’s very visual and easily explained. When we did the workshop in China, we had the children hold balloons with heavy rocks attached, so they can literally see how much lighter they feel when they offload. If they can feel or see it in real time, it makes it easier to understand. They see that the grief is still there, but it feels a little bit more bearable. The metaphor is very easily adapted into pretty much every culture.

I think there’s a misunderstanding in many cultures, including in the UK, around how to talk to children about grief. The parents vowing to keep their children from watching the news during the early days of the pandemic in order to protect them from a frightening reality only thought that the pandemic would last a few weeks or months. However, the longer that lockdown dragged on, the more we realised that this was going to affect all children and there needed to be open conversations around grief and dealing with trauma. Stories have always been the best way to connect with children’s emotions, and as emotional literacy in children becomes a more focused-on area, I think it’ll be great to see more kids’ books stimulating conversations about feelings. We can’t hide something as enormous as grief and loss away from children, especially during a time when death rates in the country were so high and almost every child knew someone who was seriously ill or dying from the virus. I think the last two years have made it clear that rather than sheltering children from difficult topics, it’s better to use stories at home and at school to engage with their emotions and encourage open conversation.