A story of resilience and optimism that life can be good again for bereaved families. We met with Debbie to find out about her bereavement journey and how it led her to becoming a Jigsaw (South East) Trustee.
It was just after Christmas 2005 when life took an unexpected and devastating turn for Debbie and her young family. Together with Debbie’s husband Chris, they had recently returned from a two year posting in Sydney with Chris’s job with Unilever and the family had just moved to The Netherlands for Chris’s next posting. They were excited to be back in the UK for a few weeks over Christmas and the new year to catch up with family and friends.
But on 30th December everything changed. Chris went to the gym that evening and never came home having suffered a fatal heart attack. Debbie was faced with the daunting and heartbreaking task of telling her two young children that their Daddy had died. Hannah was 7 years old and Harry was 5.
Debbie recounts how the following day the children had spent a few hours at their friends’ house and on picking them up, she recalls Hannah and Harry waving goodbye to their friends and shouting ‘Happy New Year’ out of the car window. ‘I was gripped by raw grief at that time, and I remember thinking how can the children be like that just 24 hours after their Daddy had died? Looking back, it was my first insight into how children deal with grief very differently to adults.’
Debbie explains how years later as a volunteer for Jigsaw she learnt about grief theories and was introduced to the theory of ‘puddling’ – a grief concept which explains how children jump in and jump out of grief. ‘That’s what I had first witnessed years ago with my own children and which I had seen in action with them many times over the years. You can be in the thick of your children’s grief one minute and next minute it’s ‘What’s for tea Mum?! Being aware of these differences is very empowering actually because it helps you better support your children’s grief journey. Jigsaw do a great job in introducing these theories to the adults who come to them for support and preparing them for what to expect when dealing with their children and young people.’
Amidst the devastating tragedy that had hit her family Debbie recalls contemplating her family’s future without Chris. ‘I knew instinctively in those first few days after Chris died, that I was going to have to deal with this, and that we were going to get through it …somehow. I found an inner strength I didn’t know I had. Family and friends were amazing and gave us wonderful support, but I knew that we would need professional input too to have the space and the guidance and the tools to help process our grief and move forwards.’
Friends recommended various bereavement charities which Debbie decided not to pursue. ‘At the time, at the height of my grief, I remember thinking that I didn’t want to sit in a room and listen to other peoples’ sad stories when we had our own.. and I didn’t want my children to be exposed to what I imagined would be further pain. I wanted to protect them from that.’ Debbie enlisted the help of a 1:1 counsellor for each of her children and for herself who went on to support her and her family brilliantly for several years. Whilst the outcomes for her and her children have been very strong, if Debbie has one regret about how she managed her family’s grief journey, it is that they didn’t attend a support group with other families. ‘Hindsight is a wonderful thing but having seen family groups in action as a volunteer for Jigsaw, I am convinced of the value of shared experience and support. I have witnessed first-hand the comfort and reassurance children feel when they are with other children who have lost loved ones.’ Debbie recalls one family group where a little boy in the group had a ‘light bulb moment’. Having listened to other children bravely speak about who they had come to remember this little boy realised he was not alone and that others had lost a Mummy too. ‘That is quite a defining moment for a bereaved child- knowing they are not alone. That sense of empowerment that comes from a group support situation and knowing you are not alone is what I feel my own children missed out on’.
Returning to work
In 2007 life changed again for Debbie and her children when she made the decision to return to work with Unilever. Initially she took on a low key role which fairly quickly escalated into something bigger involving some international travel. She recounts that childcare presented huge challenges, as it does for any single parent, and she had no family close by, but somehow the family managed! Debbie recalls some difficult times ‘I I could easily have packed the job in many times, when childcare got too difficult, or there were too many out of hours work to be done, or separation anxiety (on both sides ) hit hard when I was travelling, but I could see, as a family of three, we were building a new normality ,building our resilience and I felt that was so important’.
Debbie explains that although the children didn’t identify it as such, her returning to work afforded them a new ‘narrative’. For example, Hannah and Harry couldn’t talk about what their Daddy did for work anymore (the typical playground chat that schoolchildren engage in) but they could say ‘My Mummy is working in China this week’ and that made them feel they could be part of a conversation and they stood out less. ‘Even now, Harry and Hannah reflect on those school years and the challenges of those times, but both conclude that me returning to work to the job I did, signalled to them that I was getting stronger and that in turn made them feel strong and resilient and reassured them that life was returning to a new normal’.
Debbie recounts how she tried to be kind to herself and take a moment sometimes to reflect on her and her family’s journey. “As we progressed, I would give myself a little pat on the back for what we were achieving and tell myself and the children that Daddy would be very proud of us – that was a very comforting thought. I knew that one day I would want to use my experience to help others’.
In 2016, 11 years after Chris died, Debbie made the decision to stop working and be at home again to support her children through their GCSE and A levels. She told us that about this time, she saw the Rio Ferdinand documentary which told the story of his grief journey following the death of his wife Rebecca. Jigsaw featured in this documentary, and this was the trigger for her to pick up the phone the very next day to the charity to say ‘I want to be a volunteer!”
From Volunteer to Trustee
As a volunteer Debbie is confident with the support she brings ‘I have got some lived experience so I have an understanding of what families are going through, but more than anything my motivation to volunteer with Jigsaw is to try and impart hope and optimism to families who have lost a loved one that life is worth living and life can be good again.’
Debbie has nothing but praise for the families who Jigsaw support. ‘It takes a lot of courage to make that first contact with Jigsaw but picking up the phone is the first step to a journey of support, navigating their grief and laying the foundations for a calmer and more positive future’.
After volunteering at groups for a few years, Debbie was invited to become a Trustee – a role which she happily accepted. We have reminded her that we are lucky to have her incredible support!
‘As a trustee and a volunteer, being able to impact the strategy and direction of the charity whilst staying close to the service the charity delivers is a very privileged position for me. When I think about Jigsaw I am of course conscious of the sadness the charity deals with day to day but a part of my heart is filled with joy for the fantastic work it does and for the difference Jigsaw makes to those families who seek it’s support’.
We are here for you. For anyone struggling to cope, our helpline is open Monday – Friday, 9.30am – 12.30pm. Call 01342 313895 if you need support or advice. We help bereaved children and young people and those facing the death of a loved one in Surrey, Crawley, Mid Sussex and West Kent.