Today is the beginning of Children’s Grief Awareness Week UK (16th-22nd November 2017) with the focus on acknowledging the painful impact the death of a loved one has on a child and giving an opportunity to make sure the children receive the support they need. #YoureNotAlone.
Bereaved Children Support York was created nearly exactly 18 months ago, for that reason. So that bereaved children could come together and realise they are not alone and that other children have experienced a similar loss. Our aim is to support children and their families living in the York area, so they are better able to cope with the impact of bereavement on their lives. We do this in 3 ways.
1. Monthly Peer support Drop-in sessions
This is how it all started, with toys, crafts and resources and an opportunity for bereaved children and families to come together in a relaxed and friendly environment knowing that everyone there has experienced something similar, because losing a significant person in your life, especially as a child, can be incredibly isolating.
This year we have moved to a bigger venue, with better facilities and more space for the children to play. Oh and it has an Xbox! This has definitely meant that the children are interacting much more and have been able to be more creative in their play.
2. Therapeutic Support
We are delighted that we are now able to offer one to one therapeutic support provided by experienced Bereavement Practitioners for those children who need it. Not every child who has been bereaved needs additional help outside their existing support network, but some do and we want to be able to offer this service. This is running as a pilot project initially to gauge demand, but we anticipate this will be high and the service will expand according. Anyone can refer a child, but we do ask that parental consent be obtained. (Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information).
We also wanted to be able to offer training for schools on how to best support the bereaved children in their care. We know from the families we have met that some schools do a fantastic job in supporting their bereaved children, but others not so much. We hosted our first training day in October led by a great facilitator from Child Bereavement UK. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive so we are putting the finishing touches to a second training day to be held early next year. Children spend so much time at school and the normality and routine can really help those who are grieving, especially in the early days, but it is so important that schools realise the impact of grief and that it is an ongoing process. Not time limited. In fact often as a child reaches a new level of maturity they will experience their grief in a new way. It’s not all done and dusted after the funeral or once the first anniversary has passed.
It is all made possible because of some wonderful people and fundraisers
We are now an officially registered charity (no: 1171422) with Lisa and Yvonne joining the team as trustees and we have received some fantastic grants and donations from various organisations and individuals. Our initial grant was from the Ed de Nunzio Trust, which enabled us to establish the Bereavement Practitioner pilot project and host the first training day. Since then we have received generous donations from Ambiente, The Phil Curtis Annual Fun Day, Bel’s 10K, Sally and Wayne’s wedding gift and Kathryn’s dad as well as other individuals and the ’round pound’ collection! We have been overwhelmed by the generosity of people and we are so very grateful. Thank you!
So what’s next?
We are planning to keep doing what we’re doing…but try and reach more bereaved children, young people and their families. We are starting to arrange get togethers for the adults and in the process of writing a new leaflet to distribute to schools, GP surgeries and other organisations outlining the support we offer. We will be running another training day for schools and also looking at ways to develop support more specifically aimed at teenagers and young people. We are also delighted to be the official charity partner for the mini and junior runs at the York 10K in August 2018.
These children and young people have all experienced the most devastating losses in their young lives. We can’t take the pain away, but if we can help them and their families find a way to feel better able to cope with their grief then we will have achieved our goal.
So, you might be wondering why I started writing these blogs that occasionally appear on your Facebook newsfeed or maybe you’ve never given it a second thought, but I’m going to tell you anyway! (So if you don’t want to know the reasons…look away now!)
To help others
The main reason I write my blog is to (hopefully!) help others in similar situations to those I find myself in. It’s certainly not a pity party. I try not to moan and I do aim to inject some humour if I can. Personally I find it reassuring to read about someone who has had a similar experience to me, so I hope others find it helpful too. I have written about the reality of living with MS, bereavement, single parenthood and setting up a charity along with others on anxiety, anger and changes to the benefit system. My hope is that others will find reassurance in reading my experiences, even if it’s to make them feel that they’re making a much better job of it than me!
Raise awareness and challenge preconceptions
I love to write to raise awareness about different topics that the general public may be unaware of. Fortunately most people don’t know what it’s like to live with a chronic condition, especially when many of the symptoms are invisible. So I try to explain what that’s like so that people have more of an insight, because there are actually many people living with all sorts of ‘hidden’ illnesses and it would be great if there was more of a wider understanding.
I like to try and challenge preconceptions too. Following my experience of bereavement, both personally and through the charity I run, I realise that the general understanding of grief and more specifically how children grieve is often misunderstood. I hope that some of the blogs raise awareness about the needs of these children and families and how we are seeking ways to meet them.
It’s also a good way of talking about issues that are often more difficult to discuss face to face, like mental health issues. It’s a whole lot easier to write it down and share than it is to drop it into a conversation, but it means that people who are experiencing similar difficulties know they’re not alone and might even feel able to ask for help or at least talk about how they are feeling with someone else.
It is also a good platform to raise awareness about political issues like changes to the benefits system, the NHS and education. I get to vent my spleen about injustices!
I’ll be honest, I do find writing therapeutic. I have developed a love of writing that I’ve never had before. Iwrite privately for my eyes only too, I don’t share everything publicly, but there are occasions that I think it’s worth sharing a version of my thoughts more widely.
However, these blogs are not me spilling all of my innermost thoughts onto the screen, they are the edited, relevant highlights. It is therapeutic as in positive and helpful, but not therapy as in treatment. I firmly believe that the internet is not the place the bare your soul, but I think a little self disclosure can be helpful.
Because I have been encouraged to!
It’s all your fault! I wrote my first blog to mark World MS Day and was overwhelmed by the positive feedback I received from people…not just my friends (who have to be nice…it’s in the job description), but even some people I didn’t know!! So I thought I’d give it another go and that was well received too! So, it grew from there. I don’t publish blogs regularly, but more as topics arise and whilst the feedback remains positive I’ll keep doing it 🙂
I never felt I was very good at writing at school. I got a respectable B in my GCSE (and we won’t mention the A level result) but I was never confident in my ability. I got an ok degree, but again the writing didn’t come easily. It was always a challenge to reach the word count required for essays, but now I often have to cut down what I write because it’s too long! I think I found it difficult because it felt like it was all opinions about stuff that didn’t really matter. Whereas this stuff does matter. It matters that people going through tough times don’t feel alone. It matters that people have a better understanding of disability and grief and lone parenting. And if sharing a little of my experience provides an insight into those areas or helps to reassure someone in a similar situation then I think it’s worth it.
So what’s next? More of the same I think. I will continue to write about topics, causes and ideas as and when they arise. Regular readers will know I have been asked to write guest blogs for the national charity MS-UK, so that’s an exciting opportunity too. They say everyone has a book in them, I’m not sure about that, but a few hundred words in a blog? That I can do.
As this quote that circulates on social media suggests, people often don’t know what to say to the bereaved. They don’t want to mention the person who has died in case it causes upset and reminds them that their loved one has gone. Whereas the reality is, of course, that they never forget. They are reminded every day by the empty chair at the table, when they climb into bed alone at the end of the day or when their dad isn’t there to watch the match.
It is one of the last taboos. We don’t like to talk about death or we speak about it in hushed tones. This is particularly the case with children. We don’t like to mention death even though it is the most inevitable part of life. And for the children who are in the devastating situation of having experienced the loss of someone close to them at a young age, we often don’t know what to do for the best. We don’t like to mention it. There is often talk about the resilience of children in the face of tragedy, which implies that they should bounce back and move on. That if we fill their lives with busyness and positivity that they won’t notice that the significant person is missing. That they won’t remember the trauma of watching someone they love fade away or the shock of finding out that someone integral to their life has disappeared forever, with no warning. But this is obviously not the case. You can stuff their days full of dance classes and football matches, play dates and trips to the park, trying to fill every minute with activity, but the loss will still be there to deal with.
There is also the added complication for children because they often experience and revisit their grief when they reach eachnew level of understanding as they get older. It might be several years since a child lost their special person, but they are going to process it very differently at 13 to how they did when it happened aged 7.
There is no time limit on grief for adults or children and actually what is the ultimate goal? To deal with it, close that chapter and move on? I would suggest not. The person who has died was an important part of your life when they were alive so cannot and should not be forgotten now that they are not. Time definitely does help as the feelings and emotions aren’t so raw and the grief is not so all consuming as it is in the beginning. I guess maybe it’s to find a way forward that acknowledges the past and deals with the consequences of what has happened as and when they arise. This is certainly a challenge as an adult, so it must be even harder through they eyes of a child.
That’s partly why I started BCSY and the monthly drop-in sessions for the children. It is not so that they are reminded of their loss once a month on a Saturday afternoon, because as I explained earlier,they haven’t forgotten. It is with them all day, every day. However, it does give them space to actively ‘remember’ their special person by making and creating things in their memory, but equally they might just play and have fun with other children who understand. They don’t have to explain themselves, because for some children they have never met others in a similar situation to them and they can feel very isolated and alone. However, the children often do want to talk about their special person, sometimes about the loss but often about happy things they remember about them.
As we recently reached and passed the fourth anniversary of losing my husband it was lovely that a couple of people shared their memories of him with me. It was great
I don’t need to circle the date on a calendar or write it in my diary. I don’t need to set a reminder on my phone or pop it on a post it note. I can feel it in the air. I can see it in the heavy morning dew, in the leaves as they begin to turn to copper and russet and in the mellowing of the sun. I am reminded as the Bake off gets underway and the Strictly contestants are announced. There’s a sadness that descends. A melancholy that reflects the changing seasons.
I’m sure it’s similar for others whatever the time of year. For some it will be the sight of daffodils and lambs, for others Christmas lights and frosty mornings or pumpkins and fireworks. Whatever the reminder it will be there. The cue to remember what happened whether you want to or not. Of course you never forget. You think about the person who is missing every day, but there is something so very poignant about the run up to the anniversary of the loss. In fact I find the run up is often worse than the actual day itself. The day approaches with a sense of dread, but usually passes in a haze of painful memories, but with rituals to help mark it. A visit to the cemetery, a trip to a special place or a meal at a favourite restaurant.
As the anniversary of losing Neil fast approaches again marking another year since his passing. (How is that even possible? How can it be 4 whole years?) So much has changed, but the facts remain the same. He is gone. Leaving a wife without a husband, a son without a dad and the world without a Neil. And that still makes me sad. A life cut short, when it was just getting started again.
And it’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to remember and it is also ok to look forward too. It might not be the future I had envisaged, but out of the heartache hopefully something positive is emerging. An opportunity to support other children and families who find themselves in a similar situation.
So, I will look forward to the mellow sunshine and the changing colours on the trees. I will go hunting for conkers and enjoy watching the new contestants dancing and baking. I will embrace the melancholy of the season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ with remembering, reflection…and hopefully some of that autumn fruit in a crumble. With custard.
Twenty years ago today, at the tender age of 22, I married a very tall, 36 year old Yorkshireman. And this is the fourth year I have spent my wedding anniversary alone since my husband died. It is an odd feeling to have a date that has been so special for the two of us for so many years and to now spend it on my own. So how do I or should I even mark it now that he’s gone? The vows we exchanged said ‘Til death do us part’, so should I stop counting now?
I find it a really strange one. On the one hand I want to remember the happy day we celebrated with friends and family, in the pretty dress, dodging the rain, but on the other hand it is hard to look back on those happy times alone, without my other half to share it with.
So what to do? Ignore it? Mark it in some way? Stay in bed, pull the curtains and shut the world out sobbing into my duvet? All completely valid options I reckon. Well, for me, the first year I just wanted to be busy. I didn’t want to think. I went away to visit family and we had a packed day visiting the James Bond exhibition in London (which hubby would’ve completely approved of!) The second year I was recovering from a relapse so couldn’t do anything much. Last year I was calming my son for day 2 of Sats and then had my hair done. Every year has been different, but I always take him flowers.
Don’t get me wrong, my husband wasn’t overly into romantic gestures when it came to our anniversary. It’s not like I’m missing the candlelit dinners and surprise presents, but he did always get me a card and flowers (and maybe a croissant for breakfast) and we did always reminisce. About how he was forced to tie his waistcoat up with butchers string from the hotel kitchen and that one of our guests arrived at the church at the same time as me! How a bridesmaid stood on the train of my dress as we were leaving the church and I thought it had ripped right off and how all the guests from the South wondered why on earth you would want the option of eating cheese with the apple pie at the reception! (Still no clue…it’s a Northern thing…like chips and gravy!) but it’s not the same reminiscing on my own.
This year I don’t have any plans really. I will buy my own yellow roses and take some to the cemetery for him. I might look through the wedding photos and marvel at how young we look…how my young bridesmaids are all grown up now (some with families of their own) and as the traditional gift for a 20th wedding anniversary is china, maybe I’ll treat myself to some new pots for the kitchen or a new vase for the flowers.
So I will still keep counting, keep remembering, keep marking the day, but it will be forever 16…
There is a campaign currently underway against changes proposed by the government, by people who it won’t affect for people who mostly don’t know it will affectthem.
The government are proposing to ‘modernise’ bereavement support to make it a ‘fairer’ system and to target support to when it is needed ‘most’.
Currently, if a married parent dies and they have paid enough national insurance contributions, the surviving parent is entitled to Widowed Parents Allowance (WPA) until their youngest child leaves full time education or until they remarry or move in with a partner (the irony, as cohabiting couples aren’t entitled to claim WPA!) This is not a welfare benefit. It is the pension that the person who died paid into, but will never get to claim. It is administered by the pensions department. It rises in line with the old age pension, because it is a pension.
But this is about to change. The system is being ‘modernised’. Excellent! Are they going to extend the provision to unmarried couples? No. As of 6th April 2017 if a parent dies the surviving spouse will be entitled to financial support for only 18 months. It will be tax free, and won’t impact any other benefits or stop if the person remarries. Well that’s ok then, becausegrieving and the impact of losing a parent on a child only lasts 18 months!? I don’t think so.
Part of the justification of this suggestion by Richard Harrington, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Pensions in the debate in the Work and Pension Committee on Thursday 2nd March was,
” the old system could be unfair and complex, and could act as a trap preventing people from readjusting. Reform is essential to simplify and modernise the system. The history of bereavement benefits is rooted in the Widows’, Orphans’ and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act 1925. The way that people thought in those days was that most women were wholly dependent on their husband’s income. If a woman was widowed, her sole source of income would disappear completely, so it was considered necessary to provide a replacement income for her to survive.
Today, women as well as men actively participate in the workforce, and many households now benefit from dual careers and dual incomes. That is why we are modernising bereavement support into a simple, uniform and easy-to-understand benefit that better reflects society. We listened to the recommendation of the Work and Pensions Committee that there was merit in considering the length of the new bereavement support payment. For that reason, the bereavement support payment is now payable over 18 months.”
The idea that this system ‘could act as a trap preventing people from readjusting’ is ludicrous! Because after the death of a spouse it’s just a case of ‘readjusting’? Nothing to do with grieving, coping, getting through each day and helping your children do the same? This isn’t a lifestyle choice to get used to, it is a situation that has been thrust upon us.
Women may not be wholly dependant on their husbands income as often these days, but sometimes they are, or sometimes the man has given up his job to care for his terminally ill wife. Or, as Mr Harrington points out, often families have ‘dual careers and dual incomes’ but they also probably have mortgages and outgoing so to match. So if that income is slashed in half overnight, then what? Add a house move to downsize in with all the other upheaveal?
There is no time limit on grief and if there was it certainly wouldn’t be 18 months. As I’ve written about before, I certainly found the second year after losing my husband even harder than the first. Bereaved children need stability. Their world has been turned upside down in the most horrific way possible. They often become fearful of change and are scared that something will happen to their surviving parent. They can experience all sorts of emotions such as anxiety, anger, sadness and the person they want to be there is their parent. This doesn’t stop after 18 months. In fact for many children it doesn’t start until many months have passed.
Another consideration is the job that the surviving parent did before their spouse died is not always compatible with single parenthood. They might’ve been working long hours or in a job involving a lot of travel. So they have to take less well paid jobs that don’t match their experience or qualifications for something with more child friendly hours.The amount currently payable in WPA is not a huge amount and it is taxable, but it does offer some financial stability at a very unstable time.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. The transcript from the parliamentary committee can be read here if you’re interested in reading more
The main point is that Widowed Parents Allowance is money that was paid into the national insurance system by the deceased person. If they hadn’t died prematurely they would be claiming at as a pension.
This doesn’t affect current claimants, so I’m one of the ‘lucky’ ones, but it will affect those parents who are widowed on or after 6th April 2017. Many bereavement charities are lobbying parliament and there are some MPs who are opposing the proposals. A final decision is due in the next 2 weeks, so if you feel moved to take a stand for these people who don’t know they will need this help, then you can write to your MP here (you can amend the template letter and I personally removed the suggestion that extended the time from 18 months to 3 years).
Thank you on behalf of those who sadly don’t know they should be thanking you themselves.