“As a bereaved teenager, I needed someone to relate to me and I didn’t have that.”
Beth Gregan, our Family and Bereavement Practitioner (Children’s Lead), spent some of her teen years caring for her mam, Linda when she was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.
Linda sadly died at St Oswald’s Hospice on 11th February 2014, leaving Beth and her dad to support her younger sister through her grief.
As it’s Children’s Grief Awareness Week this week, Beth Kindly agreed to share her story and let us shine a light on the amazing work she does.
“My Mam was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and was told she was terminal after 14 months. One thing I noticed throughout her illness, was that there was limited support for children and young people when dealing with parents dying of cancer. Even when looking after her every day at home, no one checked in or asked how we were coping emotionally as a family.”
Linda had noticed this too and it was something she felt sad about:
“When I asked my mam what she wished she could change about her life, it wasn’t to cure her of her cancer – it was that we, her daughters, would have had more support during her illness and someone to turn to when she died. So, I promised her that I would do something to change that for other children.”
Following her mam’s death, Beth was determined to make good on that promise by being there for her little sister while grieving and by applying to University to study Guidance and Counselling.
“My mam always told me we have to make good out of a bad situation, and to me the good was helping other people in the same situation as me and my sister. By going to University, it put me on the path to do that.”
“As a bereaved teenager, I needed someone to relate to me and I didn’t have that. I wanted to be that person for someone else and although I can’t make it better, I can make it less lonely.”
Following her graduation, Beth came to work in face-to-face fundraising at St Oswald’s Hospice and also volunteered within the bereavement team before being offered a job. Now, as our Family and Bereavement Practitioner (Children’s Lead), she has been able to make things “better” for so many children.
Beth works as part of our Family Support Service team, supporting children and young people who have been bereaved, or who face the serious illness and likely death of someone they love - usually a parent, sibling or another relative who has been closely involved in the child's life.
During their loved one's illness, some of these children will take on a caring role at home, just like Beth did, and, inevitably, all the children who use our service will experience challenging changes in their family and social life.
“Children often tell us that their family has 'stopped having any fun’. Fun during illness can be complex. Sometimes it is too difficult, people feel guilty, have less time. It’s harder to get out and about. The children often tell us they feel sad that activities with friends or school are put on hold because caring for the person with the illness takes a lot of family's time and attention.
As a result the children describe many complex emotions: anxiety and fear; anger and resentment; loneliness and often feelings of abandonment; shame and a sense that they are 'bad' or selfish for feeling this way. After a bereavement emotions can become even more complex with children feeling isolated and unable to share feelings which they believe to be wrong.”
Beth feels that with her own experience, she is uniquely placed to help and support children to understand that all these emotions are a normal part of grief:
“My Mam died in St Oswald’s Hospice so the empathy I have comes from experiencing her death right here. I don’t see this as a negative, it’s special, not many people get to work where they said goodbye to their loved one. It helps children to feel that they can say anything to me, nothing is off limits and we talk death and dying without hiding away from the sad emotions.”
Beth has a tattoo of her and her mam on her forearm, which makes her feel connected. She remembers a time when a bereaved teenager she was supporting noticed the tattoo and asked Beth the significance:
“I explained that my mam too had died at the Hospice and that’s why I worked here and supported people like me at that time. This helped the teenager to see that the future would perhaps hold brighter times – and knowing that I had been able to use my experience to support others, helped them on their grieving journey too.”
Beth loves her role at St Oswald’s Hospice and is always learning more about ‘what helps’ the children and young adults she supports – which is the theme for this Children’s Grief Awareness Week.
Talking about the week, Beth said:
“Grief impacts every child differently – and while we don’t have a magic wand to make it all better, we do know ‘what helps’ support the children who are accessing our bereavement service. We hope that by sharing stories this week, including mine, it may help other families and children who are dealing with grief to reach out for support.”
Find out more about our Family Support Service here