The focus for Children’s Grief Awareness Week, 17th – 23rd November 2016, is #maketime2listen. As the mum of two young boys who are grieving for their daddy, I want to share my experience of supporting them myself, and why they also need experts to #maketime2listen to them too.
It is over three and a half years since my husband, Dunc, aged 39, went to play football and never came home. He collapsed on the pitch and died a short time later. At 5:40p.m, Dunc had kissed us all goodbye and told us that he loved us. By 6:40p.m, the world for Sam, Tom and I had changed forever. That night, our two boys became part of a shocking statistic: 1 in 29 children in our schools have been bereaved of a parent or sibling. Sam was just five and Tom was just three.
The morning after Dunc died, Sam immediately understood that my carefully chosen words meant his lovely daddy would not be coming back. He cried. He asked a lot of questions, both then, and in the weeks and months that followed: why did it have to be his daddy? Why couldn’t the doctors have made his daddy better? What if I died too? About six months after Dunc’s death, Sam became very angry and lost control on several occasions. It was difficult to see how much he was hurting, and upsetting because I could not take his pain away. I did my best to support Sam through this difficult stage and was reassured by other members of the charity, Widowed and Young (WAY), that this was very normal for a grieving child and that he would come through it. We read books about feelings, and especially anger; we had teddies and cushions to hug or hit; we made Sam a den to sit in and he saw the school counsellor for a long while. Sam drew pictures of me falling off mountains and wrote me letters about how horrible I was. I reassured him that, while some of his behaviour was unacceptable, feeling angry was all part of grieving for his daddy, and that I loved him just as much, and more, than I had ever done before. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, he began to work through his anger, and our home became more peaceful.
At the time, I remember also worrying about Tom. He did not cry when I told him that Dunc had died. In fact, Tom skipped off merrily when he realised that his uncle was asleep in the room next door because he was too young to understand the permanence and significance of what I had said. During Dunc’s funeral, Tom even whispered quizzically to me, “Are we going to get Daddy out of his special box in a minute?”
During the next two years, Tom’s understanding did not appear to be changing much. There were still no tears, no anger, and only occasional expressions of missing Daddy. When Sam accessed support for his grief, I asked about support for Tom too, but initially I was told he was too young and then, eventually, he was too far into the process to ‘tick the right boxes’. Tom saw the school counsellor when he started school, but avoided talking about Dunc much at all. On the surface, he seemed to be coping, but over time, he appeared increasingly sad and would be found sitting silently on his bed, looking at the photo of him with his daddy. When I asked what he was thinking, Tom just raised his eyes and looked up to the ceiling. At one point, my deep little boy replied, with a mournful expression, “I raise my eyes, and then I let them fall.” It was heart-breaking. Tom also told me that he was feeling lost and hopeless; he was struggling to sleep, and also struggling to get up in the mornings.
On Tom’s sixth birthday, in February this year, he told me that he did not want to go and spend his birthday money, “Because I think Daddy might come back today.” My heart sank. When I listened to that single comment, I knew that he had not yet accepted Dunc’s death, despite his evident on-going sadness. I scooped Tom up, brought him gently back to reality, and distracted him from becoming too sad to enjoy his special day. Once we had negotiated our way through it, I began looking for further support for him.
I have always made a conscious effort to try to really listen to the boys, and they still talk about Dunc almost daily: in the bath; after bedtime; in the dark at 3a.m. and, often, when I am driving and they have a little quiet time to think, and where they can tell me things without having to look me in the eye while they do so. Sometimes, though, they need someone else to listen: someone who is less caught up in our family; someone who will listen without becoming visibly upset; and someone who has the specialist skills to lead them forward. Sam and Tom do not usually want to talk about Dunc at school, at least not at any great length. They feel different to their peers and are already reaching an age where they desperately want to fit in. That is why local children’s bereavement support services are so crucial.
This summer, Sam and Tom began seeing trained practitioners at Echoes Children’s Bereavement Support Service, based at The Shakespeare Hospice in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The boys are gently being supported to explore and talk about their feelings, through structured games and activities. When they leave, they seem a little lighter and brighter, as if a weight has shifted slightly. Following the sessions, Tom often becomes very angry and this has been equally difficult to witness and manage, as it was when Sam was experiencing similar emotions three years ago. This time though, I know that Tom will come through it; and that it appears to be a common part of the process for young children accepting the loss of someone so precious. I feel that he is finally dealing with his bereavement.
I can’t change the fact that Dunc’s untimely death will affect our boys throughout their lives. However, I hope that by making time to listen to them myself, for as long as they want to talk to me, I am building their strength and resilience for the future. The support that Sam and Tom are receiving now from Echoes can only be helping to build it further (and they will be able to access it whenever needed, until they are eighteen). We are very fortunate to live in an area where such skilled support is available. Like with many things though, it is a postcode lottery. Every bereaved child needs easy and continued access to specialist support in their own locality. Such services can successfully support families in helping children to become the adults that we dreamed of them becoming before bereavement got in the way. With 1 in 29 children affected, we need to consider and plan for the future of our bereaved children, and work towards making these specialist bereavement support services available to them all, where trained practitioners can #maketime2listen.