Heather Butler is a teacher at Manor Farm Community Junior School in Hazlemere near High Wycombe. She writes children’s fiction and also teachers’ resources, including two books about bereavement: Us Minus Mum and Helping Children Think about Bereavement. She has been nominated for her brilliant work in raising awareness of the needs of bereaved children in schools.
Fifteen years ago, when I was still teaching full time, one of my Year 5s was seriously ill. I discovered just how ill on a Friday and thought hard about how to prepare my class for what might happen. On Monday, with the boy still alive, we made a pop-up story book for him about a turtle on a beach. The story covered many of the feelings associated with bereavement before the turtle found happiness. We sent the pop-up book to the boy in hospital. That evening, I wrote an alternative ending to the story where the turtle died. If need be I would remind children of the things we had talked about by revisiting the turtle story. Thankfully, I never needed my second version.
Ten years later I spoke to Ann Rowland, Director of Bereavement Services at Child Bereavement UK, and wondered if the story could be used to help teachers and children talk about bereavement. Two years later, the result of that conversation began to take form as Helping Children Think about Bereavement was drafted. The turtle story was now four lessons, differentiated five ways; for 5-7, 7-9, 9-11 year olds and also for those with learning difficulties. I had just finished being writer-in-residence at a school in Tower Hamlets, so we also included a version for children whose first language was not English. Jill Adams, Schools Co-ordinator at Child Bereavement UK, contributed excellent wrap-round material to support adults using the book and also supported me as I trialled the resource with the class I was teaching.
Soon after we trialled the book, the father of one of the children in my class died unexpectedly. What we’d learned was put to the test. My class showed resilience, were able to express their feelings and led the discussion we had about how we, as a class, would respond to the death. They told me how we could support the bereaved boy. A little gang was formed to look after him and children who weren’t his best friends were sensitive and didn’t over support him.
Ann Rowland at Child Bereavement UK also supported me throughout and also helped me prepare when I spoke on BBC4’s Woman’s Hour.
I began drafting Us Minus Mum at the same time as Helping Children Think about Bereavement was being edited. My own mum had died and it was my way of making sense of what had happened. The narrative is about a mum who is dying and how the family copes. It’s sad but also very funny and is a practical illustration of all the theory I gleaned while working on Helping Children Think About Bereavement. Critics say Us Minus Mum handles bereavement deftly, without being mawkish, and that a family facing bereavement is ‘wonderfully observed’. It has been long listed for the Carnegie Medal Award and shortlisted for the UK Literacy Association Award, voted for by teachers (which I am very excited about!)
Many teachers bury their heads in the sand and hope they’ll never have to deal with death. I think every school should have two or three people who have undertaken some form of training about bereavement. Better still would be that every adult working in a school spent a few hours working through the issues of dealing with a bereavement; children face all kinds of bereavements, from family members and pets to divorcing parents, moving house and friends moving to new schools.
Child Bereavement UK is on the end of a phone and when something happens and you phone up and say ‘Help! What do we do?’ Child Bereavement UK covers the unpreparedness and provides a wonderful safety net.
‘Thank you’ to Child Bereavement UK for all you are doing to help so many people.
To find out more about Heather go to www.heatherbutler.info