By Rowan Salim

The week before term started in Autumn 2019 I visited Dacres Wood to deliver some materials, and as I cycled up to the gate I spotted a poster with a picture of a cat on it. LOST it read, REWARD if found. I recognised the cat, it was Ginger, the friendly mottled cat who had been a regular at Dacres Wood in our first year. Ginger was a little like the fox in the Little Prince to each child at Dacres Wood.  There are even areas of the woods which are named after her use of them.

That evening as I mentioned this to a friend, I found myself crying. I don’t know if I was sad about the potential loss of ginger, or about the loss I anticipated the children would feel.

Later that week when the children saw the poster they were sad, and they were also curious. They asked lots of questions. Her name wasn’t actually ginger, the name they’d given her, it was Tiger Lilly. That was interesting. Where could she have gone? Did something happen to her? What was her family like?

We contacted the owners and eventually found out that after missing for two weeks, she’d been found in someone’s shed and returned home. The family now lets her out less frequently, so we rarely see her, but they were pleased to hear that we’d been looking out for her and assured us that she’s well.

When I first found out about ginger I was sad. I also worried about the children’s feelings. Each of us has our own reactions to good byes. Sometimes we project our feelings onto others and it’s important to let each person have their own train of emotions.  Holding space for the children, they did what they know how to do best to process what had happened. They asked questions, inquired, told stories and played the parts of the story in their games. This helped them to process what was happening.

In Ginger’s absence since that episode, the children have gotten to know other neighbourhood cats better. Shushi is now a regular, as is the white and orange cat, and occasionally the black Tom. The other cats are more shy than ginger, but each has its encounters and fairytales that accompany them. When the children do see Ginger, there’s a special rekindling of their connection, highlighted with a deeper understanding of her story. Alongside sadness, good byes can also make room for new opportunities, transitions and intellectual growth as children find meaning in life’s events.

We have had harder goodbyes than our brief parting with Ginger. We have had three children join us for trials and then move on. Last year we had Finn and Sally leave at the end of the year, two precious friends who had been with us from the start. Carlotta, our bright eyed intern who sang songs with us and shared our joy moved back to Germany last spring. Last week Marita, who connected with every one of the children and shared her love of life and vitality with us also left. At the end of last term we saidgood bye to two more dear friends, children whose presence has shaped who we are as a group, our culture and identities. Some of the children have also lost loved ones, friends and grandparents who have passed away.

Cultures around the world have formed parting rituals to help mark a well rounded ending to ease transition to a new phase. When I was little, whenever someone travelled, prompted by my grandmother and mother, my sister and I would fill a bowl of water, and splash it in the wake of the departing car, wishing them a safe journey.

When Carlotta left, she and some of the children built a den, we made food to share and we gathered in the decorated den at the corner of the woods where she sang the songs she composed for us, and we sang her our song in return.

When Sally and Finn left they also built a tent den by the dipping platform and shared food, poems, and home made presents.

At the end of term some of the children made a time capsule to capture some of our favourite memories with their friends who were leaving and this year we are planning on hosting Marita for a visit where she will invite us to walk around a meditation spiral in the woods which she has designed during her time with us at Dacres Wood.

Beyond good byes, finding ways to maintain connections, celebrate memories and share new experiences also help us not to get stuck in some of the more difficult feelings, and to grow into new ways of being with change. The children sometimes organise video chats with Finn at Dacres Wood or meet him online to play Minecraft at home. Corlotta visited us and spent a week with us last term and joined us at our Extinction Rebellion trip. Sally will be with us this week and has exchanged video messages with the children during the last term. Marita will be joining our library of friends, and we always make room for children who leave Free We Grow to visit us or join us on trips in the future.  We have an address book which Sally and Finn gifted us to keep pictures and contact details of Free We Grow friends.

I think back to Ginger, and what the children naturally did when they saw her posters. They asked questions, they enquired, and they played. They even celebrated, by sharing stories about Ginger and reminiscing. This curious enquiry seems to be a natural instinct in every case of good bye. Sometimes it is the adults who find it difficult to talk, and I am learning every day from the children’s openness and curiosity.  We have had many good byes at Dacres Wood, and we will have more to come. I’ve learnt that it’s part of community. Some are easier than others. We are learning to hold space for conversation and ritual and taking the lead from the children’s own questions and curiosities. Parents also support this process by understanding what’s happening, celebrating friendships, talking to their children and making room for growth.