March 24 2017 began as any other final day in a busy school term — slowly and with Coco Pops. Mum had endured a busy week entertaining clients at work so I snuck out of the house to avoid waking her.
The school day was filled with teachers exchanging bottles of wine and enough spare time for me to semi-ruin my jeans playing football. Mum had washed them the day before so I was preparing for some of her more colourful language when I got home. Eventually, the Easter holidays could begin and I headed home in the sunshine.
Going inside, nothing immediately struck me as catastrophic. I didn’t shout hello as I opened the door in case Mum was on a conference call, but instead went to make myself some orange squash (oddly, I couldn’t find any — Mum should have received some in our weekly food delivery earlier). I then headed upstairs.
As I reached the top of the stairs I could see into Mum and Dad’s room. Mum was lying on her back in a kind of star shape on the floor. Her eyes were shut. Her body was still. Her soul was gone. Although I knew she was dead, I raced over to her, my heart pounding, and tried to find signs of life while frantically dialling 999. Desperate. Her skin was cold.
The lady on the phone instructed me to perform CPR: “Hands in the middle of the chest, one on top of the other, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.” I knew it was too late; I carried on. The cruellest moment of all was when she exhaled — just maybe? No, the air was being forced from her lungs by my hands pushing into her chest.
Seconds later, a paramedic knocked hard on the front door. I sprinted downstairs, hauled the door open and screamed: “Mum is dead!”
Now our next-door neighbour, who had heard the commotion, escorted me outside. I don’t remember much, except that I had no shoes on and the gravel kept poking my feet. Inside my neighbour’s house, I stared into a large mirror in their lounge and confirmed to myself: “I don’t have a mum anymore.”
I became one of the 41,000 children in the UK who lose a parent every year. Despite this number, however, schools are ill-prepared to support bereaved children with the short- and long-term emotional, physical and academic consequences.
Although 84 per cent of English secondary schools offer counselling to students, Liz Dempsey, director of clinical services at child bereavement support charity Grief Encounter, believes that the current support is “short-term and sporadic”, which does not chime with how young people experience loss. “Grief is not a quick fix,” she says. “Staff need to be trained in how to have honest conversations with grieving students and also how to prepare the class for the return to school of a grieving friend.”
Shirley Potts of charity Child Bereavement UK says a loss of concentration and general fatigue are common symptoms following childhood bereavement, adding that these feelings can last two years or longer in young children who reprocess their grief multiple times as they age and mature.
I remember well this never-ending exhaustion in the following months, as if I was constantly carrying an invisible 20kg weight on my shoulders, and I found it weighed on my attainment too. Potts reminds me that tiredness is not at all unusual and says that greater awareness of grief in schools would normalise these feelings for the child and prepare the school in case their academic output falls.
This is not unlikely. A study in Sweden showed that the loss of a parent before the age of 15 resulted in a drop in academic performance for 15- to 16-year-olds, while a study analysing data from the British National Childhood Development Survey found that parental disruption (defined in this case as divorce or the death of a father) had a “strong impact on educational attainment”, leading in the longer term to men having less employment and women lower wages.
Although I had been experiencing a long spell of exhaustion, my school told me that because my mum’s death was more than six months before my first A-level exam, I could have no special consideration when it came to marking. Meanwhile, a friend with hay fever received additional marks.
Dr Prathiba Chitsabesan, associate national clinical director for children and young people’s mental health in NHS England, is keen to highlight initiatives to support young people through these “heartbreaking and traumatic” experiences. The NHS’s 2019 Long Term Plan, covering the next 10 years, will “expand mental health provisions by an additional 345,000 children by 2023-24”, she says. Chitsabesan adds that the growth in funding for children is increasing as a proportion of mental health services and “faster than for the NHS overall”.
Coronavirus has of course brought bereavement to the front of public consciousness as more than 50,000 people have died from the disease. The Department of Education says it has launched an £8m training programme “run by experts to tackle the impact of coronavirus on pupils, parents and staff”, which would include bereavement.
This new focus is a cause for “huge optimism”, says Dempsey. “Schools are ill-equipped to deal with a bereaved student because there hasn’t been the resource, there hasn’t been the funding and staff need more support.”
Suzannah Phillips, of children’s bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, says the subject has gained public attention because of celebrities such as Princes William and Harry and former England footballer Rio Ferdinand talking about grief: “It raises awareness, shows that bereavement can happen to anyone and shows it’s OK to talk about it and ask for help.”
The day after my mother’s death was spent breaking the news to family, possibly even worse than the day before. Telling my grandparents, Mum’s parents, was the hardest. Dad, the bravest man I know, shielded me from the worst of it. When I came into the lounge though, Grandad was tearful. I had never seen him show any sign of sadness before — his generation just didn’t do that. I felt sick. In times of trauma like these, you normally latch on to any source of stability available, but there wasn’t any.
After a few torrid hours, we made our way back to my uncle’s house, where the rest of the family had gathered. It’s a home I associate with the irrepressible energy of my two young, boisterous cousins. Expecting them to pounce on me, I put on a happy face. The door opened but they were nowhere to be seen. Solemnly greeting everyone inside, I turned round to find Dad, weak at the knees, hugging his own father in the same way as I had done with him hours earlier.
Eventually I saw six-year-old Xander standing in the corner, sapped of any energy. The tension was unbearable so I hoisted him up in the air and told him that we were going to play football. A cheeky smile emerged on his lips. An even bigger one appeared on mine. We played until the sun set and, although tired, I had achieved something aside from beating my little cousin at football:
I had survived the first full day without Mum.
Later, I came to appreciate this as the key to how I’ve tried to deal with grief: floating on those small but priceless islands of joy in the sea of despair. There have been many moments like playing football with my cousin and it’s helped me to embrace them.
People say grief is much like the weather — an unintelligible mixture of miserable days and sunny days. In my view, this is only part of the story because it implies a lack of control. The feeling of helplessness is, of course, very real, but I think it’s about actively learning to enjoy those special moments of sunshine again, creating new memories and using them to puncture the gloom of the dark days.
“Grief is a beast which traumatises many times over,” says Dempsey. My relationship with grief has changed in the three years since Mum died. Those emotions lurk like a shadow; you don’t always think about your shadow and I don’t always think about grief. Sometimes you do glance at it and the pain is as bone-shattering as ever. But these moments become less regular and a new normal is born.
Andy Langford, clinical director at Cruse Bereavement Care, the UK’s largest bereavement charity, and Sue Gill, a volunteer at Cruse, talk about those occasions when grief pierces consciousness once again. “There are thresholds like graduations and weddings where you’re reminded of the person not being there,” says Langford. “It’s normal to have an emotional reaction but important to carry a package of memories through those moments and keep that connection.” Certainly events in my life such as moving to university have been difficult because they can’t be shared, but as Gill says: “Survival gives you confidence.”
My relationship with my dad is different too. It has taken a long time for me to feel comfortable seeing him date other women. Gill empathises, recognising that “children can find it hard to understand that their survived parent can love somebody else”. Initially, fierce loyalty to Mum meant that I compared any of my dad’s new partners to her, which was never productive, but time offers perspective and I am now more understanding of my dad’s needs. Now I find his dating life a source of amusing conversation as I explain what terms such as “ghosting” (to ignore a message) and “peng” (attractive) mean.
Talking regularly about my changing feelings has been extremely important and Shirley Potts of Child Bereavement UK notes that bereaved young people often seek comfort in those who have been through a similar thing. I take heart confiding in a friend who lost both of her parents. My experience has helped me to see the world differently and become more sensitive and empathetic. I can more readily recognise pain and offer support to those in need.
The most searing moments have been times of great triumph, tinged by the knowledge that I can’t share any of them with Mum. Working at the Financial Times, I helped to make FT.com free for secondary schools worldwide at 17; I had my first FT Money cover story at 18; and I launched the FT’s first board game at 19. These are all feats that I am proud of. Yet it is a dagger to the heart that Mum can never say how proud she is, or give me an enormous cuddle, or make my favourite sausage pasta.
I have been lucky to have Dad, a loving family and brilliant friends. The journey of grief never ends but it gets better, as a friend’s mother once told me, by collecting the jewels in the ashes of tragedy.
Email Krishan at firstname.lastname@example.org
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