Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors has been serving communities in Sussex and Surrey for 165 years and prides itself on its professional but sympathetic approach to grief. Our teams in Billingshurst, Crawley, Horsham and Hurstpierpoint have a wide range of experience in supporting people with all types of funerals – including, sadly, those where a child has died. A recent change in the law has enshrined the right of parents to have leave if they experience the death of their child and he or she is under 18 – paid if they have a certain length of service. Here Freeman Brothers’ manager, Abi Pattenden, discusses her response to this important announcement, which makes the UK unique internationally.
The Parental Bereavement (Pay and Leave) Bill 2018 follows a commitment made in the Conservative manifesto of 2017. It received Royal Assent in 2018 and will come into force from April of this year. In simple terms, it means that all employees, regardless of length of service, have a right to take time off if a ‘dependant’ dies. This will be known as ‘Jack’s Law’ as it has come into being following a campaign by Lucy Herd, whose son Jack tragically drowned, aged 23 months, in 2010.
At Freeman Brothers, we very much welcome the introduction of this law. It not only recognises that bereavement is an incredibly difficult time, but that the loss of a child often has a deep and profound impact. Also, the announcement around the law has received a lot of publicity which has prompted conversation about death and bereavement generally and the death of children specifically. While these are undoubtedly difficult conversations to have, we would say that talking about loss, whether it be in theory or sharing our own experiences, is important.
Therefore, Jack’s Law is an important step, and it’s great to be in a country which is at the forefront of legislation like this. However, its introduction also brings up a lot of additional issues which we would like to explore.
1: Everyone is different
While it’s great that this Law recognises that a parent needs time off to grieve after the death of a child, no two peoples’ grief is the same and so the amount of time they will need will vary. For some people, the effects of grief are long term. This BBC page, which includes information about Jack’s Law and has a video of an interview with Lucy Herd, features one such sad story. It would be worrying if people thought that two weeks was the ‘right’ time for their grief and if they interpreted this law as a suggestion that after that time, everything might be better.
Also, there will inevitably be some people for whom the best thing for their bereavement is to return to a daily routine. While we might wonder about the wisdom of this, we have to accept that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach and it would be terrible if people, again, feeling two weeks was somehow the ‘proscribed’ period for grieving, delayed a return to work and suffered as a result.
2: What about others affected?
Depending on the individual dynamics, it may well be that many others in addition to the parents are directly and dramatically affected by the loss of a child, as can be the case when anyone dies. Jack’s Law mentions ‘dependants’, and so is presumably referring to parents (albeit not necessarily) biological and possibly their partners. However, family dynamics are very different these days. Many grandparents are closely involved in the care of their grandchildren and may still be working themselves around this. A child under 18 could easily have siblings over 18 in full-time work who might also need time and space to grieve. It is a hard truth that, if a family has become estranged, a parent may not see a child often or at all, and while this doesn’t mean they may not grieve their loss, the law is assuming that parents are both the primary caregivers and most likely to be affected by the death of a child, when the reality may be far more complex.
3: What about other losses?
There is no doubting that most people feel the death of a child is especially cruel and the loss most deeply felt. It is often felt to be against the natural order of things for children to predecease their parents, and deaths of young people are often thought to be especially tragic because of the potential which will never be fulfilled and the hopes and dreams had for that young person which will not be seen to come to fruition.
However, other losses can be significant too, for many and varied reasons. I have known parents of children who have died in the saddest of circumstances to seem to bear their loss with stoicism while seeing people completely floored by the death of a terminally-ill adult sibling. There is no right or wrong, no hierarchy and no explanation to grief as it is often bound up with many other emotions.
There is a risk that Jack’s Law sends a message that these losses are not are significant as the loss of a child, and that these perfectly natural feelings about other types of bereavement are not as valid. Additionally, there is no provision within Jack’s Law for stillbirth or miscarriage. Considering recent news that women are significantly affected by miscarriage, this seems an omission. A woman who suffers a stillbirth will still be entitled to her maternity pay or allowance, but this is only for cases where the pregnancy has passed 24 weeks, while miscarriages which happen earlier are not covered by this.
Provision for bereavement leave is patchy and largely down to the goodwill of the employer. This can lead to variation even inside a company. Some companies have bereavement policies which is helpful in theory but, if the consequence is the types of issues mentioned above, may cause problems in practice. Jack’s Law is an important first step in providing a standard and, importantly, starting conversations about this issue.
At Freeman Brothers we would like to see guidance for companies in developing flexible, sensitive bereavement policies and possibly more legislation on minimum allowances, just to ensure that, if nothing else, bereaved people are able to arrange and attend funerals without implications for their work.
We would also like to see the government encouraging people to talk more about death, dying and bereavement. There is no guarantee that this type of communication will help when someone dies, but there is clear evidence to show that knowing someone’s wishes helps people arrange appropriate funerals. This therefore means their grief journeys are less likely to be adversely affected by complicating factors such as guilt at not knowing what the right thing to do is, or worry at getting things wrong. Grief is always difficult, and anything which helps in any way is always to be welcomed.
For advice and support, including what to do when someone dies, you can contact us. Child Bereavement UK is an excellent source of information and assistance to help when a child dies or grieves.