Though childhood grief varies from person to person, there are some consistent patterns, Julie Stokes tells me. A clinical psychologist with a specialism in childhood bereavement, Stokes saw her own mother struggle with losing her sister and mother as a child, which inspired Stokes to found Winston’s Wish, now the UK’s largest childhood bereavement charity, in 1992.
“What I see in many bereaved children is a sort of unconventionality,” Stokes says. “It’s almost like they’ll say, ‘The worst thing’s happened.’”
“The factors [child psychologists] look for is a parent who’s good on warmth, who can put themselves in the child’s shoes…the other thing is boundaries and discipline,” Stokes says.
Surviving parents often struggle at both ends of the spectrum—some afraid to instill boundaries; others smothered by their own grief and unable to exhibit warmth or love. My mum read to me most evenings, hugged and kissed me daily, but didn’t let me stay up to watch Ray Houghton score as Ireland beat Italy in the 1994 World Cup. Boundaries.
Many bereaved children are less fortunate.
“Children bereaved in childhood are overrepresented in our prisons,” says Stokes, who adds that childhood bereavement in youth offenders is up to 41 percent higher than the national average. “We need to support the surviving parent and children and give them the right kind of ways of belonging and all the different types of interventions you see in childhood bereavement services.”
Stokes argues for a more inclusive approach to childhood bereavement, involving the child in discussions about what is happening when a parent dies. Charities like Winston’s Wish and the Dougy Center provide opportunities for children and surviving parents to understand and air their grief.
Zoe is a 21-year-old woman whose father died in a midair collision when she was just two years old. At a recent event organized by Adults Bereaved as Children in London, she describes the comfort she found in meeting others with similar experiences, of feeling normal, of not having to negotiate the difficulty of discussing childhood grief with people who can’t understand it.
“A girl came up to me and asked how my father died,” Zoe says. “I told her how. She told me her story, and then she said, ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ It normalizes it.”
Death and breakfast feel like a good way to sum up what it’s like to lose a parent young. Facing the unfaceable, then getting up each day and eating breakfast like everyone else. A different life, but also the same.