A child's world after the loss of a parent
"Disaster" is the only word I can think of when recalling the aftermath of my mum's death.
It was 1966 and my mother succumbed to an infection. I was five years old, my older brother was 12 and the baby was 13 months old. My relatives all blamed each other. My dad, then aged 29, couldn't cope and sought solace in the pub. My maternal grandparents vanished, swamped in a sea of their own grief. My paternal grandmother died of cancer just seven months after my mum died.
In those days grief was all hush hush. I knew not to ask questions because of the look of horror on the adults' faces. Just prior to her death, my paternal grandmother decided to farm us children out. I went to live with my dad's cousin, her husband and their seven children 40 miles from the home I had known. My baby brother was passed around various neighbours to keep the sniffing social workers away from the door, and my elder brother went to live with our maternal grandparents.
All the instability caused me to miss out on vital schooling, not that I had any concentration anyway. I retreated into a fantasy world, wishing my mum would magically reappear and make it all okay again. I was told she was now a star twinkling in the sky and I spent many hours wishing the sky would cave in and let her drop back to earth. I attached myself to my friends' mothers but always the empty feelings swamped me. I learnt to be very self-sufficient but always craved a sense of belonging and to this day I find it hard to trust.
What I needed as a child was stability, to be surrounded by stable adults, for my mum to be kept alive by stories, discussions, openness. Adults should be led by the child. If the child needs to talk, let them. Make memory boxes. Be sensitive to the deep feelings of loss that resurface. I remember coming out of school and being the only child aged five with no one to walk them home while other children ran to their mothers.
An orphaned child carries the weight of the world on their shoulders: everyday, simple fears become exaggerated, nightmares swamp you because of the insecurity. I will never talk about the details but a vulnerable child is a target for the local undesirables. Meeting other children like me would have helped, it would have made me feel less like an alien. Building up a bereaved child's broken self-esteem would help, and teachers should have an understanding of this. Other children can be quite cruel and schools should teach compassion. Most of all, government policy needs to stop bombarding the public with negative stories about the children of single parents.
We are not all failures: it is living in poverty after parental bereavement that causes some children to fail. All bereaved children need a network of support around them. They need to belong, not be cast aside and left to drown.