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My bereavement journey: Jigsaw Trustee, Emma Smith

My Bereavement Journey: Jigsaw Trustee, Emma Smith

Emma Smith was just 12-years-old when her father died suddenly. Now, almost 20 years on she joined Jigsaw South East as their youngest trustee with a mission to make a real difference for local families facing bereavement.  

Here’s Emma’s bereavement journey: 

A day that should have dawned like any other began in heart-breaking tragedy when Emma’s dad, Robert died suddenly. Emma recalls ‘It all happened overnight, he had an accident in our house where he fell down the stairs, knocked his head and died. I woke up the next day and he was gone; it was incredibly traumatic.’ 

Emma described feeling overwhelmed by the spectrum of emotions she felt in the weeks that followed ‘That initial period of grief was filled with every kind of emotion under the sun; sadness, fear, shock, numbness, and I also felt pressure, judgement, and shame. I felt all these emotions over different periods of time and, to some extent, still do to this day.’ 

Support from close family, growing up within a nurturing environment and an unwavering desire to make her dad proud kept Emma going through the toughest times. ‘My family were crucial in supporting me, particularly my mum and older brother, I felt fortunate that I could trust in them entirely during a period of such vulnerability. We were supportive of each other throughout that time and ever since. I feel very lucky that I have them as role models, and witness their courage. We have an incredibly strong connection due to what we went through as a family.’  

Actions taken by her school and an understanding friendship group eased her return to education, when she felt ready. ‘The head of our year came round to our house and wanted to make sure I was happy with how it was being explained to others. When I was ready to go back I felt like everyone just wanted the best for me, but it was a horrible situation.’  

Making dad proud 

Suffering an adverse childhood experience, such as the death of a parent, can often lead to a higher risk of loneliness, mental health issues and disengagement from education without the right support. However, for Emma, a desire to make her father proud became a driving force behind her academic achievements. After completing school, she went on to gain a First-Class Honours degree in Contemporary Fine Art , she then embarked on a career working for large national charities. These included Cats Protection and currently The British Red Cross where she holds the role as their Voice of the Supporter Manager. 

Thinking back on the time around her dad’s death, she said ‘I remember writing in the card for his funeral to go with all the flowers on his coffin. I wrote something like: this week at school I learned how to play a little tune on the piano, you would have really liked it because it was your favourite show, Eastenders. There was a feeling from day one; I just wanted to be a good girl, ace everything, work really hard and make my dad proud. I guess there are positives and negatives depending on which way you look at it. Putting other people’s needs first isn’t always the best thing, but that probably kept me on the straight and narrow.’ 

Keeping her dad’s memory alive

Fostering an ongoing connection to her father is important to Emma, which she acknowledges can vary from treasured memories to painful reminders of his absence.  

She fondly recalled ‘He used to call me curly, and the penny has only just dropped as to why! I’ve been confused about that for a long time because I’ve got straight hair, but the other day I was talking about him and how I used to curl up and sit in his lap. And I was like, oh my goodness, that’s it, it’s because I curled up.’  

‘There are places and occasions that really highlight losing someone. My family home is where I grew up with my dad, so every time I go there, there is a little memory of him and every time I see a Toblerone bar, I think – that’s my dad’s favourite! There are constant reminders.’   

‘There are things that aren’t really about the past, instead they’re about the future. I wonder what it would be like at Christmas or on his birthday or Father’s Day if he was here. But also, other people’s weddings, when their dad’s walking them down the aisle – it’s constant and surrounding.’  

‘But there are good things too. I’ve now got a nephew and niece, and that’s a really joyful experience, I find a real happiness in seeing my brother being a dad. It just goes to show there are lots of positive new memories as well. It’s not all doom and gloom, there’s a full spectrum.’  

Grief is not linear

Emma reflected on her experience of grief ‘Just writing down a couple of notes about my bereavement experience has really highlighted that it isn’t linear at all and that’s how I see the grieving process; you don’t just go from A to B.’ 

Two decades later, Emma feels that she is still learning to process her emotions associated with her father’s death ‘At the time I felt that I needed to move on and just lock it away. I never really associated it with trauma until very recently, when I got more curious about the way my mind works. I uncovered lots of information about inner child work which is helping me. That’s been quite an interesting journey and only in the last year.’  

‘I also only just discovered that the brain isn’t fully developed until you’re twenty-five and I suddenly had this revelation. I realised that it’s not too late for me to still be thinking about this and it’s ok if twenty years later I’m starting to unpack and process what happened. This helped me a lot because it took the pressure off me, and I could forgive myself for thinking that I should have dealt with everything already.’ 

It’s never too late to seek support

Emma did not receive any professional help to support with her grief, although it was offered. She explained ‘I rejected it at the time, which was a strange decision looking back. But at the time I remember feeling like I didn’t want anyone at school to know, I didn’t want anyone to talk about it and I didn’t want to be treated differently, which I think is typical for a teenager. You just want to fit in.’  

‘I felt like I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone – my mum, people at school or whoever, I wanted to make sure everyone else was OK ahead of thinking about myself. Everything got quite serious quite quickly in a way and I felt a sense that I had to grow up, even though I had people around me that cared about me and supported me. I was of the mentality that we’ve got each other, let’s just get on with life.’   

Emma agreed that seeking professional support like Jigsaw South East offer, may have helped her to process her emotions sooner ‘I feel like potentially it would have made a big difference to how I felt at the time. Maybe it would have given me a bit of relief from some of those emotions I felt, like fearing judgement, just knowing that other people have experienced something similar or understanding my feelings more.’ 

Considering her own experience, Emma believes ‘It’s never too late to talk to someone about your grief, there’s no shame in what your journey looks like and how everything evolves. I feel quite strongly that there’s a role for support from others and that is very key. But I think the thing that has been prominent recently is the importance of self-belief as well. Believing that you are enough, you are strong, and you have the capability to face challenges in life.’  

She shared with us this poignant quote from Edith Eger;

You can’t change what happened, you can’t change what you did or what was done to you. But you can choose how you live now… you can choose to be free.

‘Sharing has a place in this too, so hopefully if someone reads this article it might help them to feel less alone or they might find a bit of peace, that would be a huge success in my eyes.’ 

Becoming a Jigsaw South East Trustee 

Emma’s desire to help others who are coping with bereavement aligned with her professional aspirations of becoming a Charity Trustee when a friend advised her of an opportunity at Jigsaw South East. The role felt like a natural fit for Emma ‘My lived experience of bereavement as a child was a key component of why I was drawn to apply. I’ve worked in the charity sector for several years and that’s been the focus of my career – I want to give back and help others. Becoming a Jigsaw Trustee gives me the opportunity to give back in a different way and I feel it will also support my own personal development journey.’  

We are truly delighted that Emma has joined our board of trustees, she radiates warmth, empathy and humour in equal measures. She’s a wonderful asset to the team with a wealth of charity experience and such positivity. She’s brimming with ideas on how to help the charity move forward and we are thrilled to have her onboard.  

Our helpline  

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, parts of East and West Sussex and West Kent.  

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