When the pain of loss grows up with you

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Indy Lifestyle Online
EVERY year some 18,000 children under the age of 16 lose a parent, while many others experience the death of a sibling, friend, grandparent or family member. It may happen when you are very young, but the loss lasts a lifetime. The princes William and Harry were the most high-profile youngsters to be included in this statistic last year.

But while helplines abound for the bereaved, there has been no specialist line for children, until today. Cruse, the organisation for the bereaved, has set up such a line for anyone who suffered bereavement in childhood. They expect callers of all ages, including elderly people who have never come to terms with deaths in childhood. Unresolved grief can last much, much longer than we think.

The pattern of loss in early life can be quite distinctive. Children often continue grieving for a lost mother or brother throughout their childhood and into middle age, continually experiencing a new form of loss. The bereavement grows up alongside them, as it were.

"When I'm with my own daughter, who's a teenager and can be rather cruel, I often say she's lucky to have a mother," says Janet Dean, 52, whose mother died when she was six. "It's only as I've got older that I can see how nice it would have been to have had someone there to talk with. Everyone tells me she was a lovely lady."

Since her mother was only in her thirties when she died giving birth to Janet's sister, Janet felt very peculiar when she reached an age older than her mother. She also worries about her son because he is 18, the age her brother died. Once he's 19 she'll feel happier.

Children bereaved of parents can lose their childhood as well. "I'd just started school and I became very inward-looking," says Janet Dean. "I used to stand in the playground with my head towards the wall and I felt very isolated."

Sometimes bereaved children get bullied and teased by other children at school, who are frightened by death, and taunt them. Sometimes they believe, at some unconscious level, that the parent died and left them because they were naughty. Then they feel incredibly guilty, and behave badly precisely to bring on the punishment they feel they deserve. And sometimes they become exceptionally good and a "little mother" to the rest of the family for the rest of their lives.

"Things got even worse when my brother died when I was 12," says Janet Dean. "I'd just started secondary school and I was very close to him. He was very good and nice, and he died of a brain tumour. That was much, much worse than my mother. I can remember crying an awful lot on my own in bed because I couldn't bear to worry my father or anyone else in the family. My father had never got over my mother dying and this was more than he could bear. I'd taken on the role of the mother of the family, not practically but psychologically. I would do the worrying; I would never go to sleep until all my brothers and sisters were in."

If a sibling dies, the remaining children may feel guilty they didn't die instead, or they may become jealous, believing the grieving parent felt the dead child was more special.

Dwaine Steffes, a children's counsellor and training officer for Cruse, and author of When Someone Dies, a book for use in schools, says: "On the whole the attention is given to the spouse, not the child," he says. "The children can feel they are on the sidelines.

"I would certainly recommend they go to the funeral, as long as it's all explained to them in advance - that certain people may cry, that the coffin may be there, that the vicar will say some nice things - and then they are left to make up their own minds whether they want to go. It can be a healing experience because without seeing the coffin they often imagine the person is still alive, in some magical way."

Janet Dean wasn't allowed to go to the funeral of either her mother or her brother, and it affected her enormously. Indeed, until her father died and she went to his funeral she dreamt about her brother's return every night for nearly 20 years.

"One problem with children is that they often find it difficult to know what death actually means, unless they live on a farm, in which case they have a better idea," says Dwaine Steffes. "They often get very confused feelings without knowing why and start becoming depressed and sad. It's very important that their form teacher knows and understands, and that the child is asked whether it wants the fact mentioned and how he or she would like the announcement made. And they must know that at any time at school they can have a private word with their teacher if they feel suddenly unhappy."

Cruse Bereavement Care Youth Line: 0181-940 3131.

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