The Shadow Elephant

By Nadine Robert

This picture book feels like a wonderful hug. It provides a moving exploration of the power of acceptance & empathy. The illustrations are full of full of shadows & light, contrasting the grief & sadness of a big, blue elephant & his caring, colourful friends. We discover how none of them is able to distract elephant from his mood with fun & games, because distraction isn’t what he needs. Then a tiny mouse, with the simplest gesture of sitting & talking, quietly connects with him & helps to lift the weight of the burden he is carrying.

Many children who come into attachment focused family therapy carry a great burden of sorrow, related to their past experiences of abuse, neglect & loss. Their sadness can sit heavy upon them & make them feel very lonely. It gets in the way of connection with the people who love them & is a great silencer. Adoptive parents & carers often feel worried that if they talk to their child about their grief & the difficult things that have happened in their lives, they will make the situation worse. Children can worry that if they share their grief, they will upset others & push them away.

The temptation then, is for kind & caring adults, to offer reassurance & distraction & to try to fix the problem. We do not want our children to hurt. Unfortunately, these attempts to make things better can just confirm in the child’s mind that their pain is just too much for their parent or carer to bear, or that their true feelings are not valid. They may start to doubt their authentic selves or conceal their feelings even more.

How liberating then, for families to learn that it is unconditional acceptance of the child’s inner world that is at the heart of their sense of safety & self-value. & that empathy enables our children to feel our compassion for them. Connection is forged when we are able to say, ‘I don’t know what to do, but I’m glad you told me & I’m here with you’. With empathy, we are journeying with our child into the distress that they are experiencing and then feeling it with them.  Communicating that they will not have to deal with the distress alone. It necessitates us allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, as we need to be able to connect with something inside that knows the feeling that our child is experiencing.

Reading books together like The Shadow Elephant, can speak to both parent & child of how sometimes all you need is someone who accepts you just as you are. Little mouse asks simply whether she can sit next to elephant & rest for a while. She is non-judgemental, she shares some of her own sorrow & they shed tears together. The very act of communicating to elephant that he is not alone, allows him to truly acknowledge his sad feelings & lightens his load. Only then can he become more open to experiencing the full range of his emotional experiences. By sitting comfortably in the dark, little mouse is able to ride with elephant into the light.

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