Insights from former trustee -Shirley Potts
I first encountered Andrea and John a little later in 2013 – a few months after Elliot had so suddenly and tragically died. I was working for Child Bereavement UK – a national charity that supports families when a child dies, or a child grieves. Typical of them, Andrea and John hadn’t initially contacted the charity for their own support, rather, they wanted to discuss setting up a support charity in Elliot’s name. By late 2013 they had realised what little support was available to suddenly bereaved parents and their surviving children, and, with grief still raw in their own lives, thought of helping others who might experience a similar tragedy to theirs. No doubt I am one of many people that Andrea and John would prefer never to have met, given the circumstances that caused our paths to cross, but I am extremely glad to have known them and witness all they have achieved in Elliot’s name. I know only too well the painful journey they have traversed and the emotional scars they carry – but I also know of their fierce love for Emily and Oliver (Elliot’s big sister and brother) and their determination that their surviving, but grieving, children would be supported and understood. Oliver had transitioned to Senior school that same year and the pastoral care of a local Primary school often outshines that of a huge Senior school. John and Andrea soon developed a passion for raising awareness among teachers for how best to support bereaved children in their schools.
I was Director of Regional Development for CBUK at the time, and my work, along with my colleague Rich Stafford, involved developing networks of relevant professionals and practitioners to improve bereavement support – particularly in areas of multiple deprivation across England. A later area we focused on was Bradford, which is, of course, a hop and a skip from Leeds, so as time went on and the work of Elliot’s Footprint progressed, we were able to collaborate on offering training to hundreds of Leeds school teachers. Running those awareness-raising sessions was also a passion of mine and I was repeatedly and increasingly impressed with how Andrea and John could re-tell their own experience in such an informative and edifying way; despite the emotional cost it must have brought. Participants in these sessions regularly commented on how helpful it had been to hear a family’s lived experience and unique perspective.
I commenced my career in a children’s hospice – where “sudden and unexpected” would be a rare descriptor of a sad death. Having worked across a range of bereavement experiences, I feel I am qualified to say, “no comparisons”. For the outsider, it may seem that a sudden, unexpected death (like Elliot’s), or even a road accident must bring such shock and horror to families, alongside their grief, that surely such trauma puts it at the top end of a ‘scale of grief’?
There is no scale.
I have found that even where families have known for years that their child has a terminal prognosis, the child’s death still comes with deep pain and shock.
I would even suggest that the death of a 92-year-old (who we will say, in our inimitably British way, “had a good innings”) may still leave a 71-year-old daughter who has lived all those years with her mother in her life – and is bereft.
Death is a great leveller, and we can never assume we completely understand the grief of another for we can only really feel our own grief. Yet there are those select people who can be experiencing the agonising sorrow of their own grief but still have compassion for others. Andrea and John are amongst those, and Elliot’s Footprint comes out of their determination that parents who lose a child suddenly should never be left not knowing where to turn.
From my children’s hospice role, I was enticed into education and lectured at Liverpool Hope University for ten years. I had been very happy in my hospice role (though that might sound odd) but the Early Childhood Studies department of the University had asked for a module on Loss and Grief in Children’s Lives, and I realised my mission to improve bereavement support might be better served teaching the practitioners of tomorrow. I also headed up the Disability Studies degree and loved my time in the world of students. However, after a decade, the politics of Higher Education irked me – particularly the introduction of student fees – so I opted to return to the charity sector.
The development role at CBUK was a challenge close to my heart and I and my team delighted in setting up Bereavement Advisory Groups in various cities and regions of the country, where we brought representatives from health, education, social care, bereaved people and voluntary services together round a table to thrash out the needs of their community. It was remarkably simple, yet gratifyingly productive, to bring together people whose paths might never have crossed, but who could, collaboratively be agents for change.
2020 brought Covid-19 and the world changed. Quite aside from the drastic loss of life and heartbreak all around us, we also learned to Zoom, and Facetime, and go to online Teams meetings….. I even had to speedily learn to transfer my training sessions into Webinars. It was clear that post-Covid, face-to-face meetings and training sessions would be a rarity. The world had learned that Zooming was much cheaper than travelling – and Webinars could reach more people than the average training room might accommodate. Unfortunately, I rather liked meeting people face-to-face, and training in a room full of interested, inquisitive faces who could interrupt and ask questions….. so I retired at the start of 2021. By then, I was already a Trustee of Elliot’s Footprint and had enjoyed sharing the internal machinations of the charity. I stepped down late last year as retirement had offered me the opportunity to join our local Hospital Chaplaincy team – and a myriad of other commitments (including grandchildren!) that I could finally give my time to. Do consider joining Elliot’s Footprint Trustees if you can – it’s so important to maintain a skilled and dedicated group of people who can have the satisfaction of knowing they are keeping a most worthy cause alive. I’d like to hope my working life enhanced some people’s grasp of the theoretical, practical, and sensitive understandings of grief that will benefit our society. To all involved with Elliot’s Footprint I say “well done, and keep up the good work”. To Andrea and John, especially, I also add “thank you for your friendship.”