Personal journey

PoppyThey shall not grow old as we
that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun,
and in the morning,
We will remember them.

From 'For the Fallen' written in September 1914 by Lawurence Binyon (1869-1943)


I am often asked why I became involved in working with bereaved families. Perhaps people imagine that I have experienced the loss of a child myself. However, it was only when I trained as a counsellor in 1980 that I began to understand that my childhood experience of loss and grief had profoundly influenced me and my choice of work.

Our family was in mourning during my childhood. I do not remember my father, who died when I was two years old, but growing up in a family where my mother had lost her husband soon after the death of her only brother a few months earlier, ensured that grief pervaded our lives. Two important family members had died and the space they left was enormous. I don’t remember talking about feelings of grief as a child but I will never forget the overwhelming sadness I felt for my mother.  I wanted to make it better for her. I think that's where the nurse and carer in me began.

The other relation from my counselling training was that I had never thought of myself as having a personal knowledge of loss, despite being a bereaved child myself. I, like every other healthcare professional in those days, had no training in understanding loss and grief; nursing staff, doctors and managers, were simply expected to know how to deal with death and distress. Although we had our caring and our humanity, it was not considered professional to show emotion and staff who did so were considered unprofessional. There was then, and sadly still can be today, very limited support for staff. 

Nurse comforting siblingChildren’s Ward, Wycombe General Hospital 1990

I noticed that families responded to staff who were able to show feelings and say how sorry they were when a baby or child had died. The staff that distanced themselves made it harder for families by appearing not to care.  These professionals had themselves often had experiences of loss in their own lives and they were unaware of how unhelpful their distant attitude was for distressed families. Counselling training helped me to understand people but most of all it taught me about myself and why I was drawn to bereavement work. This lead me to question the whole bereavement culture within our healthcare system, in particular the separation of medical care and emotional care. I believed that death and dying had to be acknowledged as important areas for all healthcare professionals. My quest to change the system began its long journey.

Jenni supporting a bereaved couple, SCBU 1984Jenni supporting a bereaved couple 

I negotiated with senior management to provide bereavement counselling for families. I devised training that would educate professionals in loss and grief as well as provide emotional support for them while they developed their self awareness. A significant and daunting aspect of my work was changing the NHS culture to realise that healthcare professionals asking for support, was seen to be a strength and not a weakness.

In 1984, I began counselling parents whose infants had died at or soon after birth on the maternity or neonatal units. I saw first hand how important it was for grieving families to know that the grief they experienced was a normal reaction to an abnormal event. Parents told me that what they needed was not to be made to feel abnormal with too much emphasis on counselling and that human caring support was invaluable. It was this work that led me to found The Child Bereavement Trust (now Child Bereavement UK) and establish training and support for professionals across the UK whose work involves loss and bereavement. This includes professionals in the NHS, the voluntary sector, the police and education.

AnnabelleSome years later, despite all my experience, nothing could have prepared me for the call that came from my youngest son Darren telling me that he and his wife Lucie were on their way to hospital – the hospital I was based in. Lucie was in premature labour at 23 weeks into her pregnancy. Walking into that hospital, where I had so many times before been part of the team supporting bereaved families, felt so different when it was my own little grandchild who was being born just too early. All the things I’d learnt that were important to other families suddenly became hugely significant in this, our family crisis. Annabelle lived for less than an hour. She will never be forgotten and will always be my sixth grandchild. I feel immensely privileged to have been there at her birth.

NHSRosie's Rainbow Angus Lawson Memorial Trust Bucks New University