Childhood Bereavement – The Club I Didn’t Want To Join

Today would have been my Dad’s 89th Birthday. However, on 28th September 1980 he died from a heart attack, aged just 48. It was a Harvest Sunday at the Sunday School where I used to go. Mum and I had been out to distribute the harvest gifts to the older people on the estate where the church was. When we arrived home the dogs didn’t appear at the door to welcome us home like they usually did. We soon discovered my Dad lying on the bed. Both dogs were sitting on the floor, one dog by his head and one by his feet. It was as though they were guarding him. Mum phoned for an ambulance, although we both knew in our hearts that he was dead. That day, at the age of 13, I joined a club that I had no wish to be a member of, namely that of children who lose a parent before the age of 16.

The statistics around childhood bereavement make pretty grim reading. Here are just two statistics that can be found on the Childhood Bereavement Network website:

  • It was estimated in 2015 that 23,600 parents died in the UK and left dependent children – that’s one parent every 22 minutes
  • The last time a national survey was done (in 2004) approximately 3.5% of children aged 5-16 had been bereaved of a parent or sibling (about 1 in 29 children) before they reached age 16 – that’s about one per class

Sadly, due to Covid-19, there may have been an even higher number of bereaved children over the last few months. Each child will react differently to the death. I know that initially I found it impossible to cry about it and many people assumed that either it hadn’t affected me that much or that I was very hard hearted. In reality it was because I was in so much shock about it! I went in to school the day after Dad’s death as I didn’t want Mum to have to phone the school to explain why I wasn’t there. However, she did phone the school and explained to them what had happened and asked that they kept an eye on me. Sadly not one member of staff came to see me to check how I was from that day until the day I left the school. Thankfully schools appear to have improved on how they care for bereaved children these days! I experienced a very different kind of teenage life. I would go to the church youth club and to the occasional school disco, but I didn’t really want to go out that often and leave Mum alone (my brother had just started studying to be a marine engineer at college in Plymouth). Things like shopping, fashion, make up & boys became far less important in my world and in lots of ways I had to grow up pretty quickly.

Although Dad died 40 years ago, I can still find dealing with it difficult at times. I never know how I will be feeling on the anniversary of his death. This year I was fine, other years I can be a crying mess – there seems to be no pattern to it. There are still times when I wish I could talk to him and ask for his advice. Then there are all those times that he hasn’t been there (wedding, children being born, new jobs, wedding anniversaries etc.) My first thought after telling my Mum that I’d got engaged was: “I can’t wait to get home and tell Dad!” before realising that he’d been dead for 5 years! Although my brother did a fantastic job, I really missed not having my Dad walk me down the aisle when I got married. It was also difficult knowing that your children will always have one grandparent that they never got to meet. One rather strange reaction to Dad dying is that I have virtually no childhood memories before the age of 13. It’s like a shutter has come down on them. I have a few ‘memories’ that I’ve managed to learn from what other family members have told me, but they’re very light on detail. I also find it difficult when I hear of other children who have been bereaved, especially if it’s of a parent. Although we live in completely different worlds, my heart went out to Princes William & Harry when I heard of Princess Diana’s death. I could understand a little of what they might be feeling losing a parent so young. I’ve also had to leave the room when a child whose parent has died is talking about it on Children in Need as it just reopens the wound a little. There are also many questions in my mind too – “Would he be proud of me?”, “Would he have got on with my husband and children?”, “What kind of grandfather would he have been?”…… The biggest question (and one that has caused me to feel guilty at times) is “If I’d stayed home that day, might he have lived?” I could have used CPR (having been taught it at junior school) and could also have called an ambulance, if only I’d not gone out with Mum. In reality the answer to the question is probably “No” as we were told that he had a massive heart attack, but sometimes it still makes me wonder whether I could have done something to help him.

So, what can you do to help a bereaved child? Here are some ideas:

Talk about the person

This is so important! After Dad died very few people would talk with me about him. It felt like he had never existed. I know people are worried that they make the bereaved person cry (don’t worry, you probably will!), but they really do want to talk about the person who has died. It honestly doesn’t matter if they cry – in fact, it may even help their grief.

Don’t assume the child isn’t grieving

Children don’t always grieve as adults expect. As I said earlier, I initially found it impossible to cry. Other children may go off to play with their favourite toy or go on the computer after hearing of a loved one’s death. They may go very quiet or be the exact opposite! My son has Aspergers and after his Nan died he didn’t really show any typical signs of grief, but meltdowns became far more common. Children do grieve, but not always the same way as adults.

Let them have a say on whether they go to the funeral

When Dad died, the school persuaded my Mum to send me on a school activity trip as planned instead of going to the funeral as a “funeral is no place for a child”. I suspect it had more to do with the school having to try and sort out a very last minute cancellation at the activity centre rather than my wellbeing! Whilst I enjoyed the climbing, abseiling & canoeing, I didn’t really feel like I got to say “Goodbye” to Dad until a year later when I saw his name in the memorial book at the crematorium. I avoid going to most funerals (basically I’ll only turn up at a funeral if you’re immediate family or a very good friend!) and I’m fairly sure not going to Dad’s funeral has helped cause this fear of funerals. It’s very important that children get the same chance to say “Goodbye” to someone who has been a big part of their lives as adults do. Not every child will want to go to the funeral, but at least include them in the decision on whether they go or not. Having taken my daughter to my Nan’s funeral when she was just coming up to age 3, I can say that it not only helped her to understand a bit about what happened to Nan Fry, but her acting like a typical 3 year old helped a lot of the adults too!

Listen

Listening to what the child has to say is so important. If you’re not their parent, they may feel more comfortable to tell you how they’re feeling. Children don’t always want to tell their parent how they’re feeling as the don’t want to add to the worry that the parent is already feeling.  There’s a saying that ‘God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason’, so make sure you listen twice as much as you speak! It will really help the child!

Be careful what you say

Sometimes things are said to a bereaved person which hurt them more than help them. Some of the ones I’ve experienced are:

  • “Only the good die young” – This implied that anyone that lived longer than my Dad was obviously not as good as him. Also did it mean that I had to aspire to being so good that I’d die young?
  • “God needed him more” – As a child of 13, I just wanted to scream when I heard this because as far as I was concerned no one, not even God, needed him more than me!
  • “They’ve done everything that God needed them to do” – Another one that wanted to make me scream. I saw it that Dad hadn’t finished bringing me up yet, so he hadn’t done everything God needed him to do.
  • “He’s gone to a better place” – As a Christian, I do believe that my Dad is in heaven and that heaven is a better place than Earth. However, I’d still much prefer him to be here.
  • “You still have a Heavenly Father” – Whilst I know this and it is comforting, there are still times when you want your earthly father too. One of the times this was said to me was when I was getting married and had mentioned how I wish my Dad could have been able to walk me down the aisle. I knew God would be with me that day, but still wanted Dad there too.

Pray

As a Christian I believe in praying for other people especially if they’re going through tough situations. Don’t just pray for the adults who are grieving, but pray for the children too. If you’re not local to the family, maybe contact a parent, aunt, uncle etc and find out how the children are doing and see what they’re finding difficult at the moment. They may not be talking much, but there will be lots of non verbal communication going on. Use the information you find out to shape your prayers. A word of warning though – sometimes God uses you to be the answer to your prayer, so be prepared for getting involved and helping!

Activities that can help

  • Drawing – Often when a child draws a picture they will either talk about it whilst they are drawing or once they’ve finished it. A bereaved child may draw pictures which include the person who has died. By talking about the picture it encourages them to talk about the person and it can help with the grieving process.
  • Memory Box – This can be just a small box which can be decorated by the child. Once decorated it can be filled with various items which help the child remember the person who has died. It can include anything that the child wants to put in it to remember the person and may include things like photos, favourite scarf or tie, a book that they liked, a card that was sent to the child.
  • Photo Album or Photo Book – Often there are more photos than can fit in a memory box, so you could make a photo album or photo book as a special item for the child. Allow the child to choose which photos go in. They may not be what you would choose, but they will be important to the child.
  • Sand Bottle – You can get different coloured sand these days, so you could let the child choose a different coloured sand for various memories of the person who died. Layer each colour of sand in an empty bottle or jar. Maybe the child would choose yellow because the person was always happy, green because they liked gardening, red for their favourite football team, blue because they liked swimming etc When the child looks at it, they will be able to remember the different things that made the person who they were.

If you were bereaved as a child it’s worth joining a Facebook group called Adults Bereaved as Children. It’s run by Winston’s Wish and is a place where other people have been through similar experiences and they can understand how you’re feeling. If you’re supporting a child through bereavement then maybe head over to Winston’s Wish website for ideas on how to get support.

I hope this post has helped you learn a little of how it can feel to be bereaved as a child and also how to help a child who is bereaved.

Lynnette

Image rights: © Authors own

Not Our Expected Sunday

Last Sunday started out pretty much like any other Sunday. My husband had got up and made me breakfast in bed – just one of many reasons I love him! Our son had also got up and made sure everything was ready for him to go to church to do sound for today’s service. After he had left, I got ready and then my husband and I also left for church.

As it is a lovely day we decided to walk the 3 miles to church. We were about halfway there when my phone rang. It was the church Worship Leader informing me that our son had had a seizure which had lasted about 3 minutes, that an ambulance had been called and asking if there was anything extra they could do to help. Another friend came to pick us up from where we were and we were soon at the church. Our son was lying on the floor with a paramedic by his side. Before we knew it , he was being put into the back of an ambulance. As he has Aspergers and is also needle phobic, I was given permission to go to hospital with him. On our way, I messaged a few friends to ask them to pray. Very soon, messages arrived assuring me that we were being prayed for.

We arrived at St Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey and were whisked into the A&E department, where several tests were taken including the much dreaded blood tests. After he’d had his blood taken, I was asked to leave and advised to sit in the waiting area. It was pretty empty and felt a lonely place to be. I decided to put a post on Facebook to let friends know what had happened. It seemed like I had sat there for hours, although I know it wasn’t, before someone came to give me an update. It wasn’t the best news – Kieran had had another seizure. It was a much shorter seizure than the first one. It had only lasted about 45 seconds this time, but would mean that he would probably be kept in overnight. I was advised to wait before going home as one of the medical team looking after him would be coming to talk to me. Almost immediately, the Worship Leader from church phoned me which was great as I could pass on the latest news to her. Normally I find phone calls difficult to cope with, but that phone call was just what I needed – it was so good to hear a friendly voice. God knew what I needed!! Messages started to come in thick and fast via Facebook, WhatsApp and text. In some ways it was so overwhelming and may have caused me to have something in my eye on several occasions, but it was so wonderful to know people cared and were sending love, virtual hugs and praying. Soon, a doctor came to talk to me and said that he needed an x-ray as he was complaining of back pain and that they would definitely be admitting him. I was advised to go home. I was asked if I could say “Goodbye” to him and was told “No”, which is understandable in the current circumstances, but as a Mum it was hard to hear.

I decided to walk back to the station, rather than get a bus, so I could clear my head a bit. My husband rang whilst I was on the way and I immediately broke down when I heard his voice. I’d really missed his support during the day! We chatted for a bit and when I felt a bit more compossed, he rang off and I continued on my way. I’d got to the station to find I’d just missed the train and the next one wasn’t for an hour. I bought a ticket home and waited on the platform for the train. After a few minutes, my phone rang – it was the hospital. My heart raced! Had he had another seizure, was there another problem….so many questions wnet through my head, all in a split second. Thankfully, it was just to say that he was having a CT scan and provided the results were clear, he’d be able to go home. I almost ran back to the hospital!

It was a long 2 hour wait, but finally a doctor came to see me. However, it wasn’t the news I’d been hoping for….he was being admitted after all. The hospital were waiting for our local hospital to send over his last CT scan results so they could compare them with the one done that day. They hadn’t been received, so they couldn’t discharge him. Needless to say it seemed a long, lonely walk back to the station. When I arrived back in Feltham, my husband was waiting for me and I collapsed into his arms and the tears flowed. Although I was utterly exhausted, we walked home so we could talk as we walked along. It was good to be home, but it somehow felt strange without Kieran there.

After a restless night, I woke hoping to hear from the hospital that Kieran could come home. By lunchtime I’d heard nothing, so decided to phone the hospital. As I said earlier I find phone calls difficult, but this was a case of ‘needs must’, so I took a deep breath & dialled the number. They tried to transfer me to the nurse in charge of looking after Kieran, but she was busy. As a result, I was passed on to have a chat with Kieran which was absolutely brilliant! We had a lovely chat whilst waiting for the nurse to be free. He mentioned that he was fine, but bored as his phone battery had now died. That chat really put my mind at rest that he was doing well and I felt more hopeful that he’d be home soon. When I spoke with the nurse she said that they were hoping he’d be home later that day or the following day. They were waiting on yet another call from our local hospital about Kieran’s medication. She then passed me back to Kieran so we could say “Goodbye”.

I posted an update on Facebook and happened to mention that Kieran was bored as his phone battery had died and he didn’t have his charger with him. Within minutes a friend messaged me to say if I wanted her to take a bag of things that he might need (including a battery charger!) to the hospital for him, she would. I hurriedly got a bag together and within half an hour or so it was on the way to the hospital to be passed onto Kieran. It was just a small act of kindness, but it meant the world to us. I sat at home waiting for my phone to ring to give me an update, when I noticed there was a WhatsApp message……from Kieran! It said to save us going to the hospital, they were booking transport for him – he was coming home! He arrived home and was given a gentle, but big hug. I then updated the good people on social media that he was home which seemed to trigger a massive outpouring of joy & love!

God has promised to always be with us (Immanuel) and he certainly was during all of this. He was there through the people who helped Kieran (those at the church and the NHS staff). He was also there through all the people who checked in with us, offered practical help and prayed for us. We have really seen God’s love in action over the last few days and for that we are so thankful.

Wishing you a very Happy Christmas

Lynnette

Image rights: © Authors own

2020 – A Positive Year?

It’s almost the end of 2020 and if we’re honest it’s been a year like no other! This time last year I doubt anyone could have imagined Covid 19 arriving and all the changes it would bring to us. We’ve been wearing masks, many have been furloughed from work, have had two national lockdowns, Zoom has become a regular part of our lives and so much more. Sadly, there has also been many families who have loved ones become ill and in some cases they’ve died. On the day that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was approved for use in the UK, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said, “2020 has been just a terrible year, hasn’t it?” In some ways he’s correct, but has it been all bad? Has there been nothing positive in our lives?

As I look back over 2020, I’ve tried to see the positives rather than the negatives. This isn’t to say that I’ve not been affected by what’s happened this year. My mental health has been a bit of a rollercoaster at times and I’ve had anxiety about using buses, wearing masks, using Zoom etc. I’ve only spoken to a handful of people outside of my immediate family since March and there have been many friends that I’ve been unable to meet up with. However, I’ve found that looking out for the positive moments each day has had a positive impact on my mental health. So what have been some of those positive moments? Here are just five:

Weekend Walks

At the start of the first lockdown, we took the decision to go for a walk every Saturday as a family. We had talked about doing regular walks at the weekend for many years, but lockdown prompted us to actually start them! Initially, it was only walk on a Saturday, but quickly a post church walk for myself and my husband became a thing too! These walks have not only helped both our physical & mental health, but have also given us time to spend together as a family. Amazingly, there have only been a few walks that have had to be cancelled due to poor weather.

Nature

One benefit of lockdown is that I’ve noticed the world around me a lot more. I’ve spent more time at home, so have watched the birds visiting the bird table. I can now recognise the song of the robin and blackbird. The sparrows and starlings can be really bullies to one another and I’ve seen many an angry confrontation between them when it comes to who should be on the bird feeders. We’ve also had a sparrowhawk come into the garden (I didn’t even realise we had sparrowhawks in this area!). I’ve noticed the seasons change in more detail than I normally do, squirrels chasing along the back fence, butterflies and bees flitting from one flower to another. On our walks we’ve watched ducks with their ducklings, deer and swans in Bushy Park, ladybirds, leaves changing colour as Autumn approached and then them falling as Winter started to arrive and flowers blooming and then fading as they then went on to produce seed heads. Noticing the world around me has been a real blessing and has been a little bit of normal life in the midst of the strange times we’re all in.

Peckett Puppets

My husband & son have used puppets within church for many years, but in 2020 Peckett Puppets were born! I heard the theme song for Spring Harvest’s Big Start (the morning all age session) and thought it would be great for the puppets to perform. We contacted Spring Harvest who agreed that we could use it. We soon produced a video of “Glow” and uploaded on to YouTube. It has had just over 900 views to date. There have since been another 8 videos uploaded (with more planned) and the puppets now have a Facebook page, Twitter profile and Instagram account in addition to YouTube. Two of the videos were made initially for our church services and other videos have been used by different churches too. From having little to do with the puppets previously, I have now become the stage manager and social media manager for them. At times it has been hard work, but it has also been a lot of fun.

Writing

Having said that I wasn’t a writer and would never write anything, 2020 has been the year when I’ve started writing! I was never good at English at school, so never thought I’d write anything that could be published. I much preferred Science and Maths and it took me until the 6th form for me to get my English O Level. However, this is my 2nd blog post of the year. My first blog post was written for a friend’s blog a few weeks ago (you can find it here). Since then a few more ideas for blog posts have surfaced in my brain, so I thought it might be time to dip my toe in the world of blogging. I’ll be honest that I don’t know how good I’ll be, but I’m going to give it a go.

Church Services

Going to church has always been an important part of my life, but back in March the way we went to church changed. Church buildings were closed and services (and other church meetings) went online. Going to church for a large part of 2020 has meant walking downstairs about 9.30am, sitting in my chair with a cup of tea and accessing the service via YouTube. I’ll be honest, initially it felt really strange worshipping as a group of 3. However, we soon got used to it and God was able to use those online services to teach us and speak to us. We are very grateful to all those who worked behind the scenes for approximately 7 months to bring the services to us. We went back into the church building for the first time on 1st November (ironically the day before the 2nd lockdown!). Due to restricted numbers the church livestreamed the service and I’m hopeful that this will continue in the future. Services resumed in the building again on 6th December and we will continue with a mix of ‘in building’ and ‘online’ services

Yes, 2020 hasn’t been the year we had hoped for, but there are positives. These are just five of mine. What could you include as your top five?

Lynnette

Image rights: © Authors own