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
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
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
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
“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