Children: The loss adjusters

What do you say to a five-year-old child who asks why his daddy killed himself? At the Winston's Wish project they deal with questions like this all the time. Hester Lacey visited
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"Dealing with the death of someone close to you is hard enough. Trying to cope with death when you have barely had time to understand life is a difficult challenge."

Winston's Wish project brochure

In a country house in Gloucestershire, 30 children are sitting in a circle in the twilight. Each lights a candle in the gloom, then says a few words. One little boy of five says, "I'm lighting this candle to remember my mum. The thing about my mum is that I really loved her." There are tears; the children comfort each other with hugs and cuddles.

All these children, aged between five and their mid-teens, are here to remember a parent or brother or sister who has died. This is the Winston's Wish project, set up to help families deal with bereavement. The children are here on a weekend-long camp. They have all brought photos and mementoes with them, to pin up on the wall; they also draw pictures of the relative that has died, and talk about them. Younger children are encouraged by Rocky Racoon puppets and the like. A friendly doctor is on hand to explain questions ranging from "Shouldn't we have put food in Daddy's coffin?" from younger children, to "Does a heart attack hurt?" from older ones. Others have even more difficult questions. "If my dad loved me, why did he kill himself?"

The weekend is not all tears, though. The children are visited by Winston, the eponymous furry-bear host of the weekend, who doles out teddies and cud-dles. They also play games and make friends. This, says Julie Stokes, consultant clinical psychologist and the programme's director, is a vital part of the healing process. "It shows the children that there are others who have been through the same experience. Often they feel very isolated. They need to meet other children and realise that their feelings are normal."

Even within close-knit families, she explains, children may feel they cannot show their grief. "There is what we call `mutual protection' going on. Parents try to be strong for their children, and the children in turn don't want to upset the adults." As well as suppressing their feelings, many children have to cope with bullying. "The children may be teased at school; children and teenagers hate to feel `different', and other children pick up on that," says Julie.

One of the course's main aims is to help the family carry on coping in the future. "We try to enable the families to communicate more openly. We insist that parents come on their own separate course while the children are at camp, so that they can share the experience. When they get home, they can begin conversations that they were finding difficult or awkward before because they were protecting each other. The most significant factor in how the child is coping is how the parents are coping."

Winston's Wish was founded in 1992 by Julie Stokes, working with colleagues. She was on the palliative care team at a hospital - a hospice-type scheme for those suffering from diseases such as cancer. "I realised how many relatively young people have cancer, and have children," she says. "I started working with the children and realised they needed special help of their own." Children whose parents die suddenly are even more vulnerable. "There is sometimes support for families in cases of cancer, but if there is an unexpected death, then children tend to fall through the support net," says Julie. "Suicides are especially difficult because everyone feels awkward and often it is not discussed at all."

The scheme has grown over the past five years and now runs five weekends a year, catering for 200 children. Many of the activities are based on an American model, but the Winston's Wish team has evolved its own programme based on feedback from children and parents. There is a large ratio of helpers to children - all volunteers. "Many were bereaved themselves as children, and they vary in background enormously," says Julie. "They are all different ages, and we've got firemen, postmen, nurses, secretaries, computer operators - the diversity is a great strength because it takes away that `therapy' label."

Parents whose children have been on the course are keen to praise the results. When Elizabeth was only three-and-a-half, her father died suddenly. Elizabeth's behaviour reflected the shock his death caused in the family. She became aggressive and destructive, and her mother Pamela found it hard to get help. "The health authorities were unable to accept that she had been so badly affected - they all said she was too young to remember," she says. It was three years before a child psychologist diagnosed Elizabeth as clinically depressed. Last year, Pamela and her daughter went on a Winston's Wish weekend. "I was grasping at straws," admits Pamela. "I was hopeful, but I didn't know what to expect; I felt anything would be an improvement."

Elizabeth found it helpful to meet other children who had been through the experience of losing a parent. "When she started school, six months after her father died, and she had to write in her story book about him, she always drew daddy as an angel," explains Pamela. "The school told her to stop it, that it was unacceptable. I had to change her school."

"Elizabeth didn't believe it had happened to anyone else. When she came back from the course, she knew a lot about the other children, and would say things like `His mummy's dead' or `His daddy killed himself; I'm glad mine didn't'. It was a great comfort [to her] knowing the other children were out there."

Children can react very differently to the course. Pamela says Elizabeth's behaviour was "awful" for a month. Then there was a breakthrough. "She started crying, which was something she hadn't done before, and now she can express her feelings, there's a definite change for the better."

The father of Sue Hill's four children (Sebastian, 14, Kate, 11, Bethany, six, and Daisy, three) recently died of cancer. "I wanted them to feel there was some-one they could talk to. They were trying so desperately hard not to upset me," says Sue. "It was as if the course gave them permission to talk to me, laugh, cry, share memories. And I wanted them to meet other children who'd been through the same thing.

"It was useful for them to be able to talk to the doctor about what cancer is exactly - often children aren't included in all the talk that goes on among the adults. Winston's stepped in before the funeral, and were very helpful, talking to the children about the funeral when I didn't know how to explain it. They each made a poster telling the story of how they felt about their father, and we used them as banners at the funeral. It was just what we needed."

She was initially reluctant to go on the parents' course. "I didn't want to go, I must admit, but once I got there, it was amazing. We all gelled together and there was a real feeling of having all shared something. We could get angry with no hang-ups, and we cried for each other." She has kept in touch with Winston's, which runs regular social events.

Mark Bennett was a volunteer helper on the very first camp and hasn't missed one since. "My mother died when I was 11 and I remember feeling so isolated from all my friends. You feel odd. You feel that you can't talk to anybody, but that people are talking about you. I can't remember ever talking about my mum with my dad; it was only after he died that my sister and I have been able to talk about her. All those years of silence! I was only too pleased to come along and help at Winston's." He drives from work in Manchester on a Friday, and is often back at work on Monday morning. "You're knackered, men-tally and physically, but it's a good sort of tiredness."

The group has volunteer fund raisers, many of whom are parents whose children have benefited. Winston's Wish, a registered charity, is free to the families who attend (health authorities outside Gloucestershire must pay to send their children to the project), but the scheme costs pounds 200,000 a year to run, of which pounds 50,000 is provided by Gloucestershire Health Authority. The rest comes from donations. BT is joining Winston's Wish to help develop other bereavement services all over the country. "Our philosophy is that similar help should be routinely available to all children," says Julie Stokes. "Com-pare our attitudes to birth and death. When you are pregnant, you are routinely offered classes and midwives and a range of helpful services. But when it comes to a family death - which can be the most important event in a child's life - there is often no help."

For more details about the project, please write to Winston's Wish, Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, Great Western Road, Gloucester GL1 3NN