Navigating grief together: A mother and daughter’s journey

November 2023

To mark the full circle partnership between WAY and the child bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, we talk to WAY’s National Volunteer Manager Veronica, whose husband Wullie died unexpectedly from a heart attack seven years ago, and her daughter Becca, now 18, who is a Youth Ambassador for Winston’s Wish. They unpick their different experiences as a bereaved parent and child – and offer their advice to others navigating the same challenging path…

Veronica's Story

“Wullie’s death was so sudden. I guess I was completely bewildered and shocked initially. My brain went into overdrive, and I felt overwhelmed by what the future might hold for us. I desperately wanted a manual to guide both me and my daughters (aged 10 and 12 at the time) through this and I desperately wanted to know that my girls were going to be OK.

In the early days, I was just living in fear, had no idea how I was going to cope, and was just in a state of constant overwhelm. Over time, the overwhelm would ease for a while, then hit hard again – these are what I think are described as waves."

"When it came to supporting my daughters, I was just terrified of getting ‘it’ wrong!"

"I wanted somebody to tell me ‘don’t do that, do this’, but I quickly learned that it doesn’t work like that. We are all so unique, and we all deal with grief in our ways, that it’s more trial and error than having answers. I read others’ experiences and talked to others with similar lived experiences – we shared what worked well and what didn’t. It was a case for me of cherry picking the ways I thought would help my daughters the most. Sometimes I got that wrong. I learned to say sorry – a lot.”

What helped you through the early days of bereavement?

“I talked to anyone who would listen! It helped me to process what had happened. I learned that I stopped feeling comfortable talking repeatedly to friends and family. The peer support network WAY Widowed and Young became my safe space to share my griefy thoughts and feelings. I joined WAY four weeks after my husband died. There was always somebody who would respond to my posts and/or messages online – it always felt that there was somebody who understood.

WAY gave me a community of people I would otherwise never have found. The incredible power of peer support means that members can support each other in the moment. WAY was my safe space online where I could say how I was feeling without fear of being judged or getting the ‘head tilt’ of pity.

I ended up changing career, 3.5 years into my bereavement. I saw a job advertised for WAY as its Volunteer Manager and thought, ‘change isn’t going to happen itself, I need to do something to make change happen,’ and what better way to do that than to go from one place I was passionate about to another?

Now, most days are good – my life isn’t where I imagined it would be, but I have made a good life, and the future no longer scares me.”

What advice do you have for other bereaved parents?

“You’ll be OK! Seek advice and support from people who understand child bereavement as it can look so different at different ages. Accept too, that grief isn’t linear – it isn’t a case of finding a cure or a fix for grief, but about finding ways to live alongside it, which doesn’t feel possible at the start, but starts to make sense as you process your grief. 

For those who are widowed young with dependent children, there is a lot of emotion to deal with – not just your own but that of the children. To know that the parent can seek support and advice from both WAY and Winston’s Wish is a powerful thing. WAY and its members understand the challenges of being widowed young, while Winston’s Wish has the specialised knowledge of grieving children – what a power of support that is.”

Becca’s story

“After my dad died when I was 10, I didn’t really understand what had happened. It’s all a bit of a blank. I remember pacing up and down when my mum told me and asking if he would come back and thinking about how much life might change.

At the start, it took me a while to realise just what my dad being dead really meant and it hit really hard. It’s true what people say that grief comes in waves and can be very unexpected. You can have lots of good days then something happens, and it all comes back.

But you develop coping strategies to help you – for example, I use music to calm my thoughts. School was a good outlet and support for me. My primary school allowed me to just be how I needed to be, and I always had a place to go to if I needed some space. I always used sport and music as escapism during my grief too. Sports allowed me to take control and release any built-up emotions.

My grief felt quite angry as I was angry at the world that this had happened to me. It wouldn’t take much for me to get cross or upset. My mum was quite similar so we clashed quite a bit. I was also very scared that something might happen to my mum if she was out for any length of time without me.”

What helped you to process your grief?

“I had counselling at a local children’s bereavement charity in Scotland, which helped me to understand what had happened and how to take care of myself when I had a wave of emotions. They really focused on my separation anxiety and gave me strategies to help with that.

My mum has always made it clear that my sister and I can talk about our feelings and about my dad. She always brings up happy memories and reminds us that he is always with us."

"But sometimes I didn’t want to let my mum know I was struggling because she was dealing with so much sadness and I didn’t want to add to that."

"I could see that WAY helped my mum because she had people to talk to and support her. It helped when I met other people my age who were experiencing the same as it made me feel less isolated. We went to family WAY events like bowling, Big Picnics, and residential weekends, as well as travelling to meet up with other families mum had met via the online forums.

I thought it was a great idea that Winston’s Wish had Youth Ambassadors because they are the ones living with the grief and I thought I might be able to help. I want to give hope to other children dealing with the death of a parent that they will be OK.”

What thoughts do you have for other bereaved young people?

“I would say to other bereaved children to allow yourself to feel what you feel, don’t bottle things up. Know who you can speak to – someone you feel safe speaking to. For me that was sometimes my mum, sometimes my teacher and sometimes a close friend.”

We are pleased to announce a partnership between WAY Widowed and Young and the child bereavement charity Winston’s Wish.

Together, WAY and Winston’s Wish are partnering to provide full circle support for the whole family following a bereavement. As well as referring bereaved families to each other’s services, the two charities will be joining forces to provide tips and advice for the parents they support and their children.

The charities will also partner on campaign and policy work, advocating for improved services and experiences of bereaved families both now and in the future. Read more about the full circle partnership announcement.