ELMO, the red Sesame Street puppet, has been cast in a new role: grief counsellor to young Australian children.
In a free bereavement kit recently released here, Elmo talks about the death of his Uncle Jack with other Sesame Street characters and American TV host Katie Couric.
The partnerships manager of Funeral Alliance Solutions, Matt McLean, obtained the rights to distribute the kit in Australia because of a void in counselling services for parents of young and primary-age children.
''There are counselling services available for teenagers and adults but, quite often, the children were left clinging on to mum or dad's leg or were left with toys to play with in the corner,'' he said.
Mr McLean said the Sesame Street kit completed the ''full suite of bereavement support that families may require when dealing with a very emotional time of their lives''.
To find out if a puppet with an orange nose and a squeaky US accent can help Australian children, a grief counsellor, Di McKissock, the co-director of the Bereavement Care Centre, asked 20 children who had lost a parent for feedback. The children, who ranged from seven to 14, found the Elmo DVD ''moving but well done, truthful and they believed it could help families talk about death''.
Mrs McKissock, who was awarded an Order of Australia medal for her work with grieving children, said 250,000 Australian children were grieving at any time. As many as 6 per cent of children will have a parent die by the age of 16.
Because children's biggest fear was that they would forget the one who died, children at the centre often made memory quilts with messages to the person who died.
''Almost everything we do is to honour the person who has died and the second thing is to retrieve and fatten memories,'' Mrs McKissock said. ''We want to bring memory into foreground, so the feeling is stronger and the kid feels they can hang on to it.''
Mrs McKissock said parents should not wait for a bereavement to talk to children about death.
''Ideally parents should start talking to their children about death when they begin talking to them about anything and build the subject into conversations about life,'' she said.
Parents of very young children could start by pointing out dead and live trees in a garden.
''When families are grieving, and parents are feeling vulnerable, it is often difficult for them to begin talking about something painful,'' Mrs McKissock said.