Here’s what it’s like to be bereaved in school (and how your friends can help)

Let’s just say the ‘D’ word that no one wants to talk about. No, not discharge, or diarrhoea, or double denim.

It’s death. Not a fun subject, but a significant one that no doubt a handful of pupils at your school – and maybe even you, lovely reader – have been affected by.

I was nine when my Mum died (breast cancer, in case you want to know – which of course you do, we all always want to know) and being the bereaved kid in school was really hard. Actually, it wasn’t hard. Hard was the death part. It was just super, super annoying.

I remember feeling like a celebrity whose nude photos had been leaked; a mix of embarrassment and strange popularity, the day I went back to school. Everyone stared and whispered. Teachers kept squeezing my shoulder, the kids in my class – including one who’d previously founded the Helena Hater Club (an annoyingly fabulous use of alliteration) – suddenly wanted to be on my team in rounders. A friend’s mother pulled me to one side to tell me that apparently my Mum was dancing in a meadow – a meadow – with my dead grandparents now.

But there was something that helped, and it wasn’t strangers telling me I was ‘brave’ or ‘strong’ because something happened to me that I had absolutely no control over – I was just getting up every day and putting one foot in front of the other, despite the fact that it felt like I was walking through sticky black treacle. That thing was my mates.

Here are the sad statistics; according to children’s charity Winston’s Wish, over 41,000 children in the UK are bereaved of a parent each year. That’s 100 every day. So, if that’s you, know this: you are not alone.

Death is the worst kind of goodbye, but it is inevitable, and if my experience taught me anything, it’s that there are some really great ways that friends can help. Grief feels like you’re stuck in one of those goody grabber claw machines, but instead of goodies you’re buried deep in the dark beneath bad thoughts and someone is playing a sad song on repeat. Friends are the claw that help get you the hell out – it might take a couple of goes, but eventually you will end up escaping.

How? For starters, friends can listen. Chances are, if someone is bereaved of a family member, they’ll be bearing the weight of enormous emotional support back at home. Friends can help relieve it – everyone needs to have a go at being the crying one. It’s healthy.

Patience is important too. The fact of the matter is death changes you. It just does. It might be a temporary change – your bereaved friend may not care about school for a while, or previously chilled friends might become anxious. They might even want to shut you out and be inside their own head for some time. Be patient while your friend works through that and let them know you’re ready to help if and when they want to ask for it.

Sensitivity – have it. Not too much, don’t treat your bereaved friend like a baby chick with a broken wing. Small things can sting though. I remember, a couple years later in secondary school, faking illness because we were learning family vocab in french and I just couldn’t deal with Madame Bernard asking us to repeat after her the french for “I live with my Mum”. Try to find out the date of their parent’s birthday, and remember the date that they died; it’s likely your friend will be having a bad time when it comes around each year.

Finally, bereavement will make a person crave normality like a packet of chocolate Hob Nobs on a bad period day. Make them laugh, distract them, remind them of the person that they were before this happened.

I won’t tell you that losing someone you love gets easier. Time can’t heal that, but you will get used to it. You’ll replace tears at the thought of them to laughter and a sense of comfort when retelling memories. It’s been 17 years since my Mum died and, cards on the table, I miss her just as much as I did when I was nine. But the shock has gone, which helps prevent the sense of loneliness, which helps you realise that you are not in this alone.

The dead parent club has many members. It’s a subscription none of us asked for, but we’ve got the badge and we wear it anyway. We’re puffy-eyed, determined and worth every second our mates spend standing at that claw machine.

Image: Hailey Hamilton

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