Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
While I drive round Sussex visiting our four branches, I often find myself catching up on Radio 4 programmes. I don’t listen to every episode of everything but I enjoy Book of the Week, and usually find Rebecca Front amusing and engaging so her ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’ seemed an obvious choice. Imagine my surprise when my Funeral Director’s ear was piqued during the second episode (the traffic was bad between Horsham and Hurstpierpoint that day!) as she recounted her response to the death of her grandfather and how the bereavement affected her, aged eleven.
Bereavement in Childhood is a particular interest of mine, for reasons which I will explore in a future blog post. It’s interesting how many colleagues within the funeral industry have experienced the death of someone close to them at a young age. Losing someone as a young person is obviously going to have a significant impact. This impact can be long-lasting, though, and in some cases it can affect people forever. Despite this, there are no official statistics about the numbers of people experiencing this. Research carried out by Winston’s Wish, a child bereavement charity, shows the extent of the numbers, though, and can be seen here.
The piece, which was the second of five episodes in the ‘Curious: True Stories and Loose Connections series’ is sadly no longer on the BBC website (listen out in case it comes up again as the whole series is very entertaining), so I’ll briefly explain the context. Rebecca Front describes how, just before starting secondary school, her father almost drowns in front of her and then her granddad dies unexpectedly. The rest of the anecdote is about her response to this, how it prompts her to try to stop going to school and how the matter is finally resolved by a teacher who sounds like the type we would all have dreamed of having in our schooldays.
One of the interesting things about children dealing with bereavement is that it’s hard to remember what it was like to be a child. We forget that a lack of experience gives children a different viewpoint on all aspects of life. Children might not understand what death means and may not appreciate never seeing someone again. They also may have different focuses to adults. Parents and relatives are often concerned about taking children to funerals in case they are upset by seeing adults close to them being sad. This is understandable because, as adults in British culture, we tend to find extreme shows of emotion uncomfortable and we probably think that a quantity of people all sad comes under that ‘extreme’ category. However, I would counter this by asking- what message do you send a child if you aren’t showing them that it’s normal and, probably, expected, to be upset when someone you love dies.
Therefore the part of the piece that was really interesting to me, was when Front explained the logic behind her school refusal: ‘It seemed to me that a pattern was emerging. Death had it in for my family. He’d tried to take Dad, but Dad had got away. He’d taken Grandpa out of revenge. And now, with the score at one-all, Death was out to win. He was obviously coming after Mum. I can’t state too strongly how clear this was to me. I knew, just knew, that Mum was in danger. But nobody else seemed to be aware of it. As a result, Mum was wantonly engaging in all kinds of reckless activities: going in cars, crossing roads, climbing stairs, eating pieces of fruit small enough to choke her; as if no harm could come from them. She couldn’t be trusted to look after herself, and Dad- a man who’d almost perished in a paddling accident, for God’s sake- clearly couldn’t be trusted to look after her, either. Teenage brothers are teenage brothers, there was no point trying to get him on my side, so it had to be me. I had to protect her myself. I didn’t know how I was going to do that, but I did know one thing: I couldn’t do it if I was at school.’
The narrative continues with Front’s refusal to attend first manifesting itself through feigned illness, followed by misbehaviour. After sessions with a (very poor) Educational Psychologist, a decision is made to change schools. This is punctuated by a miserable period of home schooling. Everyone wants Front to go back to school, including the eleven-year-old Front herself, but the matter is only resolved at the new school by the intervention of the Deputy Head, Miss Dyson, who emerges as a true heroine for her support of the whole Front family.
What’s really intriguing about this is how much sense Front’s thought process makes, but how far removed it is from, I would think, most adults’. If I was faced with a bereavement soon after a near-tragedy I would certainly feel unlucky and if the world was out to get me in some unfathomable way, but I don’t think I would identify other people as likely targets and I certainly wouldn’t believe I could prevent the inevitable from happening (to be fair, Front does say that a part of her knew her behaviours were irrational). This shows why children’s needs are different to adults when someone dies.
As I mentioned above, Miss Dyson comes out of the piece as something of a hero. A quick piece of maths (using Front’s Wikipedia entry, which you can find here if you aren’t familiar with her) indicates this event took place in the mid 1970s. In these relatively unenlightened times (don’t forget, to this day less than 10% of schools have a bereavement policy*, so what would it have been like over 40 years ago?), she followed- whether by coincidence or design, exactly the advice given to support children who are bereaved today. She listened to Front, acted sensitively and with compassion and didn’t dismiss her fears, but worked round them. Importantly, she kept channels of communication open, continuing to mentor Front, who at the end of the piece credits her place as Head Girl and acceptance to Oxford as being results of promises she made to Miss Dyson.
I took several things from this piece. Miss Dyson is portrayed as a common-sense, straightforward type of person, reinforcing the approach we need to take when dealing with this issue. Front remembers her feelings and actions at this time so vividly, which shows that even if bereavement does not have a negative impact on a child, it is still remembered years later. Lastly, the unspoken potential consequences. We have seen that Front was Head Girl and went to Oxford and obviously she has gone on to lead a successful life as a well-known entertainer. This started at Oxford. She mentions, almost in passing in this piece, that if her new school hadn’t worked out, she would have been placed in a behavioural unit. How different could her life have been? This is the real moral of this story. The impact of being bereaved as a child is real, and the way it is dealt with can affect the rest of that child’s life.
*statistic from TES, https://www.tes.com/news/not-enough-teachers-are-trained-support-grieving-child