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On a painful journey

ON AVERAGE, 54 children under the age of 18 lose a parent each day in the UK — nearly 20,000 a year.

The belief that more can be done to help bereaved children is the driving force behind the Grief Encounter project consisting of both the charity and workbook launched last year by Shelley Gilbert. Kevin Wells, whose daughter Holly was murdered in Soham in 2002 along with her friend Jessica Chapman, is the patron of the project.

Mrs Gilbert, who is now married, with four children, lost both of her parents by the age of nine, and was brought up by an aunt and uncle in what she describes as a loving environment. But there were some problems: “Just because I happened to have caring relatives, I was always being told that I was so lucky. It was only as I grew up that I began to think: ‘I have been bereaved twice, I am not lucky, and it has not been dealt with.’ My aunt and uncle were lovely, but I was brought up in a conspiracy of silence.”

The aim of the project is to address problems faced by bereaved children by suggesting a way in which adult carers can help them through the emotional maze that comes with the loss of a parent.

The workbook does this in practical ways, but the charity itself also provides a national helpline.

Mrs Gilbert, who is a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, believes that the workbook could become an essential tool for clergy and churches working in bereavement counselling, and has been canvassing for feedback in her local area of north London.

She is helped in her work by Judy Barker, whom she first met when working in private counselling. Mrs Barker’s husband had died of cancer, and she was left alone to bring up three small boys.

“I was aware that my sons had a growing sense of loss,” Mrs Barker says. “Even my youngest, who was under two when his dad died, felt this. We were put in touch with Mrs Gilbert through the school. I then became so inspired by the Grief Encounter project and Mrs Gilbert’s work that I wanted to be involved. There is such an obvious need.”

That the number of children who lose parents is only an estimate suggests that the issue is not properly addressed, says Mrs Gilbert. “There are official figures to show how many children have divorced parents, but not how many lose one.”

WHEN the project was launched at Camden Arts Centre last summer, there was a lot of support from the community, including undertakers, says Mrs Gilbert.

“I did not intend just to set up another charity: I have simply responded to requests, and am aware that others are working hard in this area. Sixty per cent of bereavement services are, in fact, run through hospices.”

The charity does not yet offer counselling, but sees itself as a resource to put people in touch with the right services.

On the day of our interview, the charity had received a call from a school in Liverpool desperate for some advice about what local help there was on offer for a bereaved pupil. “They had been in contact with the National Children’s Bureau and came across information about us. We have made suggestions about what they could do locally,” says Mrs Gilbert.

Grief Encounter is currently looking for funding to offer counselling services in north London. “We are a few people working mainly from my front room, but we don’t want to expand if we can’t sustain that growth,” she says.

WHEN putting the workbook together, Mrs Gilbert sent a draft copy to the Wells family. “I knew they had been very concerned about the effects of Holly’s death on her 12-year-old brother. The well-being of surviving children after a close family death has become a major concern in his [Mr Wells’s] life and he jumped at our project.”

At the launch of the workbook, Mr Wells described his tears of joy and relief for “the black-and-white guidance” now on hand to help grieving children move forward.

The workbook itself is clearly laid out with detailed instructions on how it should be used, as well as helpful background explanations on why children may be reacting as they are. It also has comments from bereaved children themselves: “Since Mum died, I don’t always have to eat food that is good for me. That’s good, but there is no one to brush my hair.” There are also encouraging mantras from related books and publications.

But the essential theme is helping a child adjust to loss rather than just pushing for the traditional route of acceptance. In its introduction, it uses an excerpt from a pamphlet published by The Compassionate Friends — Seasons of Grief: “Grief is like a jagged stone. The edges wear away but the stone remains.”

The workbook encourages active participation as it works through bereavement stages that may be experienced by the child, ranging from the initial reaction to death to longer-term adjustment.

The activities include drawing pictures, and ecourage the expression of feelings through colouring in empty houses and faces. Pages also cover worry, guilt and anger. There are also other detailed suggestions for making scrapbooks, questionnaires, and a DIY newspaper article , and postcards for the child to give to a friend explaining how he or she are feeling. Even if just some of the activities are adopted, Mrs Gilbert believes it is opening the channels of communication.

The workbook does not mention religion per se, but does deal with the many obvious questions that will come from children who are wondering about where a parent or relative has gone.

The “Body Talk” section stresses the need to be honest about what has happened to the body. It talks about illnesses, what death means, and explains burial or cremation. But any discussion about heaven or any afterlife would depend on the child’s culture and, of course, religion, says Mrs Barker. She also says that many children and adults are looking for something spiritual at such a time, but that any explanation should be appropriate to family circumstances.

“From my own experience, to say ‘Daddy or Mummy is in the ground’ is really unhelpful. You have only to look at the quote in the book from a child who said: ‘If the body is at the cemetery, where is the head?’” says Mrs Barker.

Mrs Gilbert said she could remember being told after her mother died that “The good are always taken first.” That, she says, was not what she needed to hear, and, was not true. “Honesty is vital: deal with every question. Children are very resilient.”

Grief Encounter helpline or book orders, Phone: 0208 446 7452.
National Children’s Bureau

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