Playing with death – how the ‘Goodbye-box’ helps children grieve

By Rosalie Kuyvenhoven

Funeral 1__Copyright (c) Rosalie Kuyvenhoven.jpg
Funeral – Rosalie Kuyvenhoven ©

A couple of weeks ago, I met Bonnie Jansen, a primary school teacher and trained play therapist. She has developed the DAG-box (Goodbye-box), a beautiful box filled with 44 wooden miniature figures. She created this box after the death of her mother to help her daughter grieve.

This is her story:

“After the death of my mother my seven-year-old daughter was very upset about her grandmother’s death. The funeral was a very overwhelming experience for her and she did not understand everything that happened. I wanted to help her. We read children’s books about death and tried to talk about her feelings and fears, but nothing really helped. It felt like these books, despite their beautiful stories and illustrations, were not about us. They were someone else’s story.

I decided to make something myself. I hand painted a set of wooden human figures and miniature objects for my daughter to play out her grandmother’s funeral. I wanted to create something in soft, friendly colours. Not the usual black that is often associated with funerals. I deliberately chose neutral human figures, with no face and skin colour so my daughter could project her own ideas onto them.

The box helped my daughter to play out her grandmother’s funeral, and to add her own story to the experience. It helped her share her feelings thoughts and questions. After having played a few times with the box, her fears reduced and she became much calmer.”

I was very impressed by Bonnie’s story, and after having seen the Goodbye-box and touched the figures, stunned by its beauty and potential.

DAG-Box Coyright (c) Bonnie Jansen.png
DAG Box – Bonnie Jansen ©

I bought one of the Goodbye-boxes and since then, a few children have played with it. It has been fascinating to see how each child immediately started exploring the box, taking out the figures and started playing.

A few examples of the stories they shared:

Carrying coffin_Copyright (c) Rosalie Kuyvenhoven
“People are carrying grandad to the flames”  – Rosalie Kuyvenhoven ©
Funeral 2__Copyright (c) Rosalie Kuyvenhoven
“I have decorated the coffin and people are standing around it. They are sad. There is music” – Rosalie Kuyvenhoven ©
Carrying coffin_Copyright (c) Rosalie Kuyvenhoven
“People are carrying grandad to the flames” Rosalie Kuyvenhoven ©

How play helps children grieve

It was an eye-opening experience for me to observe the children play with the box and to listen to the conversations that followed by asking them open questions based on what they were doing. It confirmed to me that play is a very powerful tool to communicate with children.

I was keen to learn more about play therapy, the method of which the Goodbye-box is based upon. I stumbled upon the work of Dr. Nancy Boyd Webb, scholar in the areas of child therapy, trauma, and bereavement, wrote several books and articles about play therapy.

Unlike adults, young children don’t have the emotional or cognitive ability to fully understand and process their responses to death or other upsetting experiences. Most of them have a hard time in expressing their feelings in words. The premise on which play therapy rests is that when the child trusts the person who is helping them and the this person successfully engages the child, either verbally or symbolically through play, the child will ‘play out’ his or her anxieties and confusions (Webb, 135). Play therapy will ultimately help the child towards a calmer adjustment, improved understanding and emotional healing (Webb, 145).

The Goodbye-box is inspired by a non-directive approach to play therapy, in which children take the lead. They select any wooden figure, they choose their own activities and they decide when the play is finished. This is different to the direct approach to play therapy where the supervising adult will ask the children to play with specific materials and will show how a story around the death or funeral of a person (Webb, 136).

Play as healing ritual

Playing with the Goodbye-box can be seen as a form of ritual. I prefer to approach ritual as an activity that helps people give meaning to their lives’ experiences. A ritual creates a temporary world: it provides a time, a place and a structure for people to express and share thoughts and feelings, often through the use of symbolic objects. If done well, a transformation can take place.

All of this applies to the Goodbye-box. The start and the end of playing with the Goodbye-box can be marked by using the candle and the emotion dice. At the start of the play, the child and observing adult light the candle and the child shares how they feel by choosing the face on the dice that best reflect their feelings at that point in time. When the child choses to end the play, it choses again the face that reflect their feelings at that point in time and blows out the candle.

More information

More information about the Goodbye-box can be found on the (Dutch) website of the box.

Rosalie lends her Goodbye-box to London-based families who would like to work with the box.

For more information please contact her at: rosalie@ritualstoday.co.uk

Quoted sources

Webb, Nancy B. (2011). Play therapy for bereaved children: Adapting strategies to community, school, and home settings. School Psychology International, 32(2):132-143.

Kuyvenhoven, Rosalie (2018). The Goodbye-box. A playful way to help children grieve. Published 22/03/2018 at www.ritualstoday.co.uk. Last accessed 28/03/2018.


Bonnie Jansen
is a primary school teacher and trained play therapist based in the Netherlands. She is the creator and developer of de DAG-box (‘Goodbye-box’), a set of wooden miniature figures that help children express their feelings and stories after an upsetting experience.

Rosalie Kuyvenhoven is an independent celebrant, She creates and conducts inclusive ceremonies and rituals for people of all beliefs, ages, gender identities and sexualities. She holds an MA in theology, was trained as a minister and worked for two years as a researcher and teacher with a special interest in Christian liturgy and rituals. She also has had careers in change management and learning & development, supporting individuals, teams and organisations in transition programmes for more than 12 years. She is an experienced facilitator, coach and Death Cafes host. In 2016 she was runner up Celebrant of the Year for the Good Funeral Awards and in 2017 she was a Finalist in the same category. Rosalie blogs about meaningful and relevant ceremonies at ritualstoday.co.uk and is active on Twitter and Instagram.

Guest Post

2 Comments Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: