Bereavement is an inevitable reality for many, yet our intrinsic human nature hopes the death of a loved one is not something that occurs in life until we are much older. Unfortunately, losing a family member at a young age is a tragic reality that thousands of young people are faced with every day.
The effects of grief are highly impactful on children’s lives, often manifesting in unique ways for each individual depending on the circumstances of the death, the child’s relationship with the person who has died and how accessible their support network (if any) is. For example, a child who witnesses the deterioration of a parent’s health may have a different experience of grief to a child who loses a sibling unexpectedly.
Support during bereavement
Ensuring a child has access to support during a bereavement is necessary for their mental and physical health. However, often schools and families are not well equipped to deal with the effects of grief, negatively impacting a child’s life during their grieving process. This is where Winston’s Wish comes in, providing a wide range of practical support and emotional guidance for the children and families that need it most. Winston’s Wish is a national child bereavement charity with a base in Sussex. Their Sussex team are professionally trained to offer face to face support for bereaved children. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and the charity team recognise the many faces and stages of grief, tackling the physical and emotional challenges that accompany bereavement in a comforting and supportive nature. The charity’s mission is to ensure that every young person has access to the support they need to help understand, cope with and survive the bereavement of a loved one.
First started in 1992, Winston’s Wish was set up by Julie Stokes OBE, who began her career with the NHS in 1984 and was instrumental in establishing one of the first hospital-based teams focusing on palliative care. Her desire to involve children before and after a parent’s death and to support parents led her to apply to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. In 1992, she was awarded a Fellowship and travelled to America and Canada to better understand the services provided in these countries for bereaved children. Inspired by what she had experienced, Julie founded Winston’s
Wish in September of that year. After just 3 years the grief support programme was well established and Julie won the BT/Childline award ‘for providing outstanding services to children’.
Recognising expressions of grief
Sarah Egerton from Winston’s Wish explains how it is important to recognise that grief is a natural reaction to the death of a close person, and not all children need direct support. She says, “Sometimes children, young people and adults don’t react how we expect them to – for instance, they may not be overly sad or upset. There can be many reasons for this, including the shock and numbness that follows a death. If a child isn’t overtly expressing grief that’s okay, and it’s important not to rush them as this can be intrusive, and is counteractive to the natural psychological processes taking place. Part of our work at Winston’s Wish is helping families understand how they are managing, and reassuring parents and carers that there is no set way to grieve, it’s all normal.”
Sarah goes on to explain how the charity aims to help parents and carers to recognise the ways that their child is expressing their grief. She continues, “The age of a child dictates what they understand about the finality of death, and how they express feelings. Generally, children under the age of five experience the death of a close person as a separation. All parents will have experiences of their child having separation anxiety when they are not with them, and the distress this can cause. If a child is impacted by grief, then they will show this through their behaviours. Signs that a child is unsettled include disruption to sleep routines, changes in appetite, psychosomatic (body based) symptoms that include eczema and stress rashes, stomach aches, and headaches, a child may be more irritable and less easy to soothe when distressed, or they may have more frequent tantrums. They may also regress to an earlier stage of development, for instance they may want to be treated like a baby or want a dummy or bottle, when they may have stopped using these some time ago.”
Supporting the whole family
Sarah explained how whilst this list may seem scary or extreme, they are all normal signs that a child is struggling. In this instance, Winston’s Wish focus on supporting a child by also supporting their parent or carer; making sure a parent feels reassured and confident that the child is okay, and also exploring ways they themselves can offer reassurance and soothing. Sarah continued, “We also encourage families to talk about the person who has died and begin to help children make sense of what’s happened in age appropriate ways. For instance, it’s important families use the words ‘dead’ and ‘died’ when speaking about the loss as this avoids confusion. There are also times where we work directly with families and individual children using play, and therapeutic approaches, to help children manage their feelings.”
Even in the case where children have a strong support unit within the home, research conducted by the University of Cambridge suggests that schools around the country are ill equipped to offer bereaved children the support they need. Researchers have consistently found that childhood bereavement is associated with an increase in psychological distress and the majority of bereaved children and young people exhibit acute grief reactions, such as fear, helplessness, anxiety, anger, regression in developmental milestones, lower self-esteem, insomnia, intrusive thoughts, apathy and psychosomatic symptoms. These indicators of distress are to be expected as the death of a parent or sibling is extremely distressing. Often these reactions can be incredibly frightening and confusing for a young person and inevitably this is an even more overwhelming experience for a child who is still at school. Volunteers at Winston’s Wish are specially trained to deal with such symptoms, easing the pressure off families and schools that may not know how to support a bereaved child.
Helping over 17,000 children and young people
Fundraising is vital to the sustainability and longevity of Winston’s Wish. Each year they strive to help as many children, young people and families as possible in the UK, but require around £2.5million a year in order to do this.
Sarah said, “The wonderful generosity of our supporters is the only way we can continue to provide a variety of quality services and look to grow them. We helped over 17,000 children and young people last year. This is, however, no tall order – and with a 100 children newly bereaved of a parent every day in the UK, there is always more we can be doing. The ultimate goal is that no child goes without bereavement support, but we need financial stability and long term support to achieve this.”
People can support Winston’s Wish in a variety of ways including individual donations, community fundraising events, challenges, trusts and grants, in memoriam donations and corporate partnerships.
Sussex based charity helping grieving children by Georgia Brown