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!
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.
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.
Image rights: © Authors own