Jane Miller OBE works for the UK Government’s Department for International Development working on health issues across Africa. Her 14 year old daughter, Zoe, died in an accident in April 2012. She has been chosen to receive a Child Bereavement UK 21 Champions Award in recognition of her commitment to helping professionals learn first-hand about the experiences of a bereaved parent.
With something so awful, devastating and catastrophic as the death of our daughter Zoe, I just knew we would need help. I got on the internet and searched – but nothing seemed quite right until I came across Child Bereavement UK. I was struck by their values as well as the range of work they did. I believed they could help us, so I called their Support and Information line.
My husband Rob and I had direct support and our daughter, Sam, who was 11 at the time that Zoe died, had monthly support sessions with CBUK’s Youth Worker for almost a year. Sam then joined the Young People’s Advisory Group (YPAG) and absolutely loves it. She was a bit sceptical to begin – the whole idea just didn’t appeal to her – but by the second session everyone there was her best friend! It was just wonderful! It is very hard and lonely being a bereaved child when none of your peers have experienced anything so terrible. But at YPAG, she met other young people who were in the same situation. You don’t even have to talk about what’s happened to you, you just know that the others have been through a most awful experience too.
Rob and I have really benefited from joining the Parents’ Support Group and talking things through with other parents. Like Sam, it is wonderful being able to share how you are feeling with others who really understand what you are going through. We talk about everything and anything – from practical things like clearing out our child’s things – or surviving birthdays and Christmas – or what we did with Zoe’s ashes – or what people say to you and what you say to others. The support we’ve had from CBUK as a family has been incredibly valuable and we have all benefited.
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ with grief. Child Bereavement UK has a wealth of experience, and they didn’t try to give us answers, but options, ideas and strategies we could work with to move forward. Nothing is going to bring Zoe back. Nothing is going to reverse what happened. It’s not going to go away. We’re not going to wake up one morning and find everything is OK again. But support has given us ways to move through the journey of grief. It’s a long, long journey – not one I’d recommend – but what Child Bereavement UK has done has been to help us rebuild our lives, by walking alongside us through the most awful time of our life.
In my International Development work, the people who can really help me to design the most appropriate work are those with first-hand experience, for example, people living with HIV or survivors female genital mutilation. You can talk to the most wonderful academics, but it’s all superficial in comparison with those who have experienced something themselves. It’s the same when talking to professionals about bereavement – hearing from someone who has survived the death of their child and what they’ve gone through. I was very keen to contribute to the work of CBUK, and so that is why I volunteered to tell our story. I am usually a confident public speaker and I’m used to standing in front of hundreds of people. But when I talk through Zoe’s story, I find it much, much harder – it’s really emotional. I have spoken to audiences including health professionals, schools, and the British Transport Police and have had some wonderful feedback, which is very heartening. The fact that I can contribute to others’ understanding of what it feels like to lose a child, has contributed to my moving forward. It has been something positive for me to focus on. I’ve had some really insightful questions, about how to interact with bereaved families. I can tell them things that they won’t find in a text book; things like the impact of their body language, or the importance of support needed to help a family get through an inquest, or about dealing with the media.
I don’t think anyone should have to manage bereavement alone. I hear of people who have had devastating losses without the kind of support we had. I don’t know how we could have kept going without it. We are so fortunate that Child Bereavement UK’s offices are only 45 minutes away from our home, but not everyone can reach support so easily. I’m really pleased that the charity is finding other ways to support people, through Skype and phone and other means.
The fact that Rob and I have both gone back to demanding work schedules, and Sam is doing well at school, is testament to the support we’ve had. Sam is growing up to be a beautiful and responsible young adult. She’s been through such an awful time – no child should have to go through what she’s been through.
I would like to see change in the way that bereavement is approached. If you look at the statistics, having a child in your school who has had a major bereavement is not a rare event. I think that dealing with loss and bereavement should be taught as part of the national curriculum and PSHE. It should also be mainstreamed as training for teachers, police and other front line workers. It’s absolutely critical, as doing it well makes such a difference. We had good support from the British Transport Police, not counselling, but practical support and help with the media, and keeping them away from us as much as possible. Employers too should be trained. Your human resource is your most precious one, and if you don’t look after your employees properly, they’re not going to deliver. People need time after a bereavement, and the right support at the right time. I was very fortunate to have excellent bosses and colleagues who have been respectful and supportive, but not all employers are like that. There needs to be greater awareness. Getting good support shouldn’t be a postcode lottery. I shouldn’t be surprised that we did have good support – we shouldn’t be the exception. Thank goodness Child Bereavement UK was on the web and I was able to find them as quickly as I did.
There still seems to be a stigma associated with seeking help, but nobody should be expected to do this alone. You don’t have to have a stiff upper lip and ‘just get on with it.’ That’s so unhelpful. Mechanisms need to be in place and support made available, and people need to recognise that it’s not a sign of weakness to seek support, but a sign of strength. A sign that you want to be a functional person again in the future. Fundamentally, the support we’ve had from Child Bereavement UK has been the foundation of the future for us.