A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
As human beings, we’re not really programmed to think clearly about death – especially not our own. Our brains can’t really deal with it. At almost the same moment our subconscious minds begin to consider death, our conscious minds push the thoughts away. This makes empathy for those who have lost someone they love really quite difficult to muster.
Take the recent attacks in Paris, for example. We may grieve collectively for a short time (unless of course we have been directly affected by the terror) but we are quite quickly able to see the light and seize the day once again. A ‘carpe diem’ spirit often kicks in, telling us how important it is to make the most of the time we still have.
This, of course, is entirely natural and healthy. I often think about how excruciating life would be if we were able to feel true empathy every time we encountered another person’s pain. In the Sue Monk Kidd novel The Secret Life of Bees, the character May Boatwright is indeed supersensitive to the agony of others and eventually this kills her. And how many of us could have carry on in this world if our emotions weren’t designed to allow us to put distance between ourselves and the suffering of others?
Sometimes, however, we really must take a moment to consider what it would be like to walk in another person’s shoes. Treading blindly in ours alone makes it impossible for society to come together and address issues that may one day impact us all.
When my wife was killed my son had just turned two. For the three years that followed I often worried about how he would fit in at school. What would the other children say when they found out his mum had died? How would the teachers handle his loss? What would it be like to be the ‘odd one out’? How would anyone know how to handle him? Would I ever have to have that awkward conversation with a parent about how my child had upset theirs by talking about the most inevitable part of life: death?
I was fortunate enough to be able to begin to find answers to these questions through a number of child bereavement services that I found (and those that found me) soon after my wife’s death. When no one else had the answers – often because no one I knew had ever even considered the questions before – these all-too-invisible charities did.
Organisations including Grief Encounter, Winston’s Wish and Child Bereavement UK are often hushed by the taboo of death and their lack of government funding. Surely we don’t have to engage in conversation about child bereavement because kids so rarely lose a parent, right?
Wrong. One in 29 children the in the UK under 16 years old will in fact suffer the death of a parent. To put that into context, that’s one child in every average-sized classroom in the country.
Bereavement is devastating at any age, but for a child it is beyond tragic and truly unimaginable. The emotions experienced by a child are deeply confusing and the affects can be life-altering and long-lasting. In fact, a Scandinavian study of seven million people revealed that people who lose a parent during childhood are 50 per cent more likely to die young.
Today marks the beginning of the UK’s first annual Children’s Grief Awareness Week. Leading bereavement charity, Grief Encounter, in association with Childhood Bereavement Network and Highmark Caring Place, has launched the initiative, which runs from 19th – 25th November 2015.
The awareness week has been designed to highlight the vulnerability of bereaved children and young people in our society, and to engage more people in difficult but vital conversation.
From my own experience, free, professional support makes the world of difference to bereaved children. In a society that is often too afraid to talk to children about death, bereaved kids need to have somewhere safe and non-judgmental to turn.
As a patron of Grief Encounter, I support a charity that continues to support my son and me in this way. Together our emphasis is on supporting parents and carers, supporting grieving children. My hope is that the days of shying away from bereavement and brushing a child’s grief under an imaginary and overly convenient ‘carpet of resilience’ are gradually slipping away from us.
By increasing awareness of the issues bereaved children and their carers face, we can demonstrate that family, friends, schools and the Government all have a part to play in supporting them as they grow. Crucially, we must also highlight that specialist services should be available for all grieving children and their families regardless of location and circumstance.
To find out more about how you can get involved with Children’s Grief Awareness Week visit: