Alison Thompson
Bereavement Expert

I have been a bereavement practitioner working with children, young people, adults and families for over seven years. Upon graduating I worked with bereaved children and young people aged eleven to eighteen who had been excluded from school and mainstream education and were within the Criminal Justice System. Many of the children and young people that I worked with cited the death of someone close being the main reason why they became involved in anti social behaviour and crime. From there I took up the position of Resettlement Manager in an adult male prison working with offenders enabling them to examine their behaviour with particular focus on how childhood bereavement and unresolved / complicated grief had contributed to their offending. I returned to community work two and a half years later to co-manage a local programme working with children, families and communities infected and affected with HIV and AIDS. My role was to coordinate the programme and provide one to one counselling support to those people who had recently been diagnosed with HIV, people who were coming to the end of their lives and those children and families bereaved through AIDS. I have enjoyed a varied career working within custodial and community settings overseeing projects and working directly with people from all cross sections of society who have either been bereaved or are facing death.

I am currently employed by Cruse Bereavement Care, the leading national bereavement charity, as the Children and Young People’s Service and Development Manager for England. My role is to ensure that children and young people living in England have access to support when they have been bereaved through the death of someone close. I am also responsible for providing information to parents and carers of bereaved children and young people as well as school staff and other professionals, via our new website which will soon be launched.

I have seen first hand how bereavement can affect children and young people and I have witnessed the devastation it can cause to an individual’s life without access to support or understanding. I am passionate about supporting people, particularly children and young people, who have been bereaved through the death of someone close and I am keen to move childhood bereavement in to the public arena.

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Q. I am contacting you on behalf of a friend who's partner recently committed suicide. He's now looking after their two children, aged 5 and 9 - male and female. They did split up for 3 years and obviously he has now moved back into the 'family home' to care for the two children. Unfortunately he is struggling to deal with the terms of the death, mounting debts and cope with the children. Social Services attitude is to take the children into care for the duration, ie, until they are of age - if this happens it will break him! I have contacted Homestart on his
behalf but they have an age cut-off of under 5yr olds. Whilst I am are trying to help with the sorting out of debts by contacting various companies and explaining the situation, I cannot control the children - tried and failed. I don't know if you can help at all but he does need a break, even if it's for a few hours as he will not express his feelings in front of the children. The eldest child (jazmin 9yrs) knows!
A. Bereavement through suicide can be extremely painful and difficult for people to understand be they adults or children. Suicide can leave those mourning the person who ended their life feeling isolated, angry, helpless, guilty, abandoned and sometimes stigmatised by their community. Sometimes the surviving parent or carer chooses to mask how they are feeling in front of their children for fear of upsetting them or “making matters worse”. This in fact can have the opposite affect upon children as they may mirror their parent’s actions by withholding their feelings and internalising the misconception that grieving is wrong. I commend you for all that you have been doing to support your friend and his children; I understand that this must be very difficult for you too. I do understand what you say about dad needing respite but I think that dad and his two children would benefit from receiving one to one specialist bereavement support from Cruse Bereavement Care in the first instance. A break will simply be just that and will probably not enable your friend to address his grief and how he is coping emotionally. Likewise the children will probably need to speak with one of Cruse’s highly skilled children and young people’s bereavement volunteers as I suspect that the primary reason for them being uncontrollable is due to their grief and the inability to recognise and manage the strong emotions that typify grief. Please do take a look at our website www.cruse.org.uk for further details. We also have a large cache of information on how to support grieving children as well as adults on the site that may be useful to you and your friend. It is important to remember that everyone (adult and child) grieves differently and children experience different emotions and ideas relating to the death of someone close at different ages. I truly hope your friend and his children contact Cruse and receive the support that is right for them individually. You too need to be gentle on yourself as supporting a bereaved family can be exhausting and you may feel drained physically and emotionally. If you require any further information please don’t hesitate to contact me again.

Warmest wishes,

Alison.
Q. Hi Alison, I'm from brighton I lost 2 babys one due to a heart defect 9 days old 7 years ago and I have just had a abortion because I dont want to go through the ppain of having another baby please can u help me find someone who can help me as I have searched evry possible answer and no one wants to help me im also having trouble sleeping at nights as well and im still greiving thanks.
A. Dear C
Thank you for your e-mail I am sorry to hear that you feel no one wants to help you and I am sorry too for the loss of your babies. You have been through such a lot and I can understand why you are having difficulty sleeping. An abortion is a traumatic and painful experience and I am sure you must have spent a lot of time agonising over the decision. This in itself is a devastating loss and it appears to have been made worse by the death of your baby seven years ago. What seems to be happening is that you are grieving the loss of your second baby and this has stirred up unresolved grief and the painful emotions you experienced with the loss of your first baby. Grieving one loss is difficult enough but grieving two losses makes things seem harder to cope with.

You may be experiencing very frightening and overwhelming emotions such as anger, despair, guilt and fear – as bad as these feelings are making you feel they are very normal responses to what you have been through. I can see the desperation to get help in your message and I think that having someone whom you can talk to face to face or over the phone would really help you at this sad time. If you feel this would help then please call our Brighton Branch of Cruse Bereavement Care on 01273 234 007 or you can e-mail them at brighton@cruse.org.uk. We also have a national helpline which you can contact on 0844 477 9400

Try to be gentle on yourself, allow yourself time to grieve for your babies and try not to feel guilty if you take time out of your day to think about you and what you need. Grieving is a tiring process and people can end up feeling drained. It can sometimes feel like you won’t ever be able to smile again or do the things you like doing without feeling guilty for not grieving – this will lessen in time. You will have bad days and you will have better days but remember to look after yourself as best you can, you have been through so much, your mind and body need to take breaks from grieving even if it is something little like watching television for half an hour or going for a walk.

Charlene, you won’t feel this way forever it just feels like it at the moment. Give Cruse Brighton a call / e-mail and don’t be too hard on yourself. You will be OK as long as you give yourself a break and find someone whom you trust to talk to and let out all of the feelings and thoughts that are keeping you awake at night.

I send you my very best wishes and hope that you make the call to us soon.

Kindest regards,

Alison.


Q. Hi Alison, This is the most difficult thing for me to write about. My wife has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. We know she hasn't been well for some time. I know that women are cured and the Doctors have not said openly that she has a terminal illness - but I am picking up from one or two things the Doctors are saying that she may not survive. We have one child - a boy who is 7 years old. I can't even begin to think how we will cope without Mum and am just asking how I prepare myself and our son should we find out in the next month or so that she will not survive. Thank you ever so much
A. Thank you for contacting me I understand how difficult it must have been to put your worries and pain in to words. I would firstly like to say how genuinely sorry I am that your wife has been diagnosed with breast cancer and I know that your world as a family must have been turned upside down with the diagnosis. I want to give you the soundest advice that I possibly can to help you, your wife and your son particularly as you do not know at this stage whether your wife’s condition is terminal.

Whatever happens it is important that you are open and honest with your son. As he is only seven he will probably not understand about cancer and the implications certain aggressive cancers can have. There is a strong chance that your son will know what the word “death” means but not understand that it is irreversible. It is not uncommon for young children to lose someone they are close to through death to expect that person to return again. If you explain that mum is poorly and might need lots of medicine to your little one this can help him to feel included within the family and he won’t hear incorrect versions from other family members or friends. Macmillan has produced a really good booklet entitled, “Talking to Children when an Adult has Cancer” which can be downloaded or ordered for free from www.macmillan.org.uk (look under Publications). This will help you to answer any questions your son might have about cancer in a way that he will be able to understand.

Please take some time to look at the information I have uploaded under the section “Children and Young People” on Cruse Bereavement Care’s website at www.cruse.org.uk there you will find a great deal of information on how to support your son should your wife’s illness become terminal. It is really important that you take care of yourself during this worrying time. The feelings that you might be encountering may be anger, deep sadness, frustration and disbelief – please be reassured that such responses are completely natural and talk with your wife about how you are feeling. Sometimes people try to mask how they are feeling for fear of upsetting the person who is ill. This can be problematic because the person who is ill can feel isolated and the person who is hiding how they really feel can feel embittered, frightened and alone. Likewise, if you are sad try not to hide this from your son, children are perceptive and he will know that something is wrong. Sometimes children will often replicate the behaviour of the adults around them and if he senses that you are bottling things up he might do the same and this can cause problems with his personal relationships in later life. If you feel sad and your son asks you why, explain in an age appropriate way, that you are sad because mummy is poorly.

If your son asks questions about mum’s illness or about dying, answer as honestly as you can, again, in a way that he will understand. Don’t be alarmed if your son asks lots of questions and then immerses himself in play. Children do not have the emotional reserves to worry and grieve as adults do and he will need respite from his worry / grief. Try not to use euphemisms such as “the angels might take mummy soon” or “mummy may be going away” as your little one will take this literally and this can cause problems later on.

If you feel it would help to talk to someone about how you are feeling then please contact Cruse’s helpline on 0844 477 9400. The helpline staff can talk with you or can put you in touch with your local Cruse branch if you would prefer to talk with someone face to face.

I hope my response has helped. I want you to know that whatever happens over the coming months there are people who are ready to support you, your wife and your little son. If you want to ask me anything further please don’t hesitate to contact me here. I really wish you and your family all the very best and I am here should you need support.

Kindest regards,

Alison.


Q. I think it must be the time of year, but I keep getting upset when I think of my wife who died 7 years ago now. She always loved christmas, and she would love to be hear now with our daughter (who is 13 this year). I thought I had done all the greiving - but it seems to be getting worse just now. Is this normal?
A. Thank you for your message. Firstly I would like to offer you my sincerest condolences on the loss of your wife. People tend to grieve in very different ways and it is quite natural for you to feel that you had completed your grieving only for it to return seven years later. Christmas can be a difficult and upsetting time when you have lost someone as the loss can appear more acute and your loved one’s absence is greater felt. There is no right or wrong way to grieve and no time limit. Many of the bereaved people I have worked with say that although they have accepted their loss they never fully stop grieving for their loved one and certain dates such as anniversaries, birthdays and Christmas can make them feel as raw and upset as they felt in the immediate aftermath of the death. I think your concern that your grief “seems to be getting worse” is a completely normal response as we move in to the lead up to Christmas. Just be gentle on yourself and try not to deny how you are feeling. Your daughter will be feeling her mum’s loss too and I would encourage you both to share how you are feeling with each other and support each other at this sad time. Your daughter will probably review the loss of her mum as she matures and moves towards adulthood. It is really important for you both to be able to communicate how you are feeling and to understand that you both may revisit your grief as time goes by. Your strong feelings of loss should ease as Christmas passes. If you are still worried then please do not hesitate to contact me again and I can put you in touch with a specially trained Cruse bereavement volunteer in your area who can offer you one to one support.

Take a look at our website www.cruse.org.uk for further advice. Your daughter might like to take a look at our children and young people’s website www.rd4u.org.uk

I hope my reply has helped.

Warmest wishes,

Alison.
Q. My brother Jack died three months ago in a car crash and he was very close to my five year old daughter Milly. Since his death Milly has been looking for her Uncle Jack and asking so many questions about the body and the burial. Milly is refusing to go to school and has started wetting the bed. What can I do?
A. My brother Jack died three months ago in a car crash and he was very close to my five year old daughter Milly. Since his death Milly has been looking for her Uncle Jack and asking so many questions about the body and the burial. Milly is refusing to go to school and has started wetting the bed. What can I do?

Answer: Milly is at a stage in her development where she probably does not understand that death is irreversible and will search for Uncle Jack as she thinks he will be coming back. At the age of five children who have lost someone close often think that death is temporary and can be found looking for the person who has died in toy boxes, under beds and the like. The fact that Milly is asking so many questions about her uncle’s body and the burial would indicate that she thinks he will come back. I know these questions must be painful for you but try to explain to Milly as truthfully as you can that Uncle Jack has died which means that he doesn’t breathe or need food any more and that he won’t be able to come back. Try not to be tempted to tell Milly that Uncle Jack is sleeping as she could develop problems with sleeping and may constantly ask when Uncle Jack will wake up. It is helpful to reassure Milly that Uncle Jack won’t be coming back but that he is OK where he is and that there are still lots of people including yourself who will be there to love and care for her. Explaining to Milly in a way she will understand, that people die and that it is painful for those left behind, will let her know she can ask questions when she needs to and that how she is feeling is OK. Have a word with Milly’s school to let them know about your bereavement and ask them to keep an eye on Milly whilst she is at school. Explain that Milly is anxious at being separated from you and probably feels different to her classmates because of the loss. It is not uncommon for children who have lost someone close not to want to leave the house in case anything bad happens whilst they are away. Therefore reassure Milly that you will be OK whilst she is away and will be there when she returns from school. Bedwetting can be a sign of regression and can be common amongst many bereaved children. Milly is probably exhibiting other such behaviours that you might have thought she had grown out of as well such as thumb sucking or baby talk. This is likely to be because Milly is subconsciously re-enacting behaviours from a time in her development prior to the bereavement when she felt safe. It is important to reassure Milly that this is OK and is a normal reaction to the loss of someone close. As Milly comes to accept Uncle Jack’s death these behaviours including the bedwetting should disappear. The most important things you can do to help Milly are to let her know that she can talk to you about the death and ask questions. Tell Milly the truth about what has happened in a way that she will be able to understand. Try not to hide your own tears as Milly will try and hide hers too and neither of you will be able to grieve. Try not to be surprised if Milly appears sad one minute and then engrossed in play the next. This is natural for young children as they do not have the emotional reserves to grieve continuously. Milly will probably revisit her grief as she grows older and discovers more about life and death but if you can be there to talk to her and remember Uncle Jack together, Milly will be in a better position to develop emotionally and socially. It is also important that you look after yourself as well. If things are getting on top of you or you need to talk about the loss of your brother contact Cruse Bereavement Care who will be able to put you in touch with a specially trained bereavement volunteer in your area. Cruse Bereavement Care also provides similar support to children if you feel this might help Milly.