Lessons in loss.
Matthew Panter meets a Shropshire funeral director determined to see bereavement awareness added to the school curriculum.
John Adams was just 12 when his beloved mother Maria died of cancer. Naturally heartbroken, he says the experience left him feeling a degree of isolation.
His family rallied around to support one another, of course, but school was a different matter.
Teachers and pupils simply didn’t know how to react, John says.
He doesn’t apportion any blame to anyone for not knowing how to support him. Indeed John, who is a director of Perry & Phillips Funeral Directors, totally understood how grief was, and in many ways still is, a taboo subject.
But he wants to channel his own experience into supporting others moving forward and especially into helping those who suffer grief as children to be given the tools to cope.
As a result, he’s on a mission to get bereavement awareness incorporated into the national curriculum for schools.
He has enlisted the support of Philip Dunne, MP for Ludlow, Bridgnorth and South Shropshire, to his cause, and close to 11,000 people have already signed his petition to have the idea considered.
His campaign also has some high-profile supporters, including the actor Jason Watkins, while King Charles III is also aware of his efforts, having invited John, in his role of President of the National Association of Funeral Directors, to Buckingham Palace recently.
“It was really hard when my mum died,” John reflects. “No one knew how to react to me.
“I was fortunate that, within my family, we spoke about it but at school it was quite a lonely place for me.
“It wasn’t anyone’s fault. People often just don’t know what to say and that’s not just children but also adults.
“But, from my experience at school, I know it can be so much better than it was for me and it’s about trying to improve on that. If more schools start talking about bereavement, I believe the outcome will be a kinder, more compassionate and empathetic society.”
Maria, John says, is the driving force behind his determined campaign. He is happy to talk about her. Maria died in 1999, having had cancer for six years.
“I remember that, from six until 12, we lived through uncertainty,” he reflects.
“But I just feel lucky to have had her for 12 years and honoured she was and still is my mum.“She is still a huge part of my life. She is part of everything I do now.
“She was determined, friendly and just a very kind person who would always find time for other people. She is the fuel and fire for what I am trying to achieve.
“With the experience I had as a child and arranging funerals as part of my profession, I know how important it is to talk about grief and how people can be helped in the hardest of times.
“It’s about being pro-active and not reactive, giving people information and support in a safe and controlled way.”
John is hopeful the idea of bereavement awareness being added into the national curriculum will at least be talked about in parliament.
“All we can do it keep banging the drum,” he said. “I believe in it. It’s not guaranteed, nothing is with politics and government, but the louder the voice, the greater chance we have of getting something passed.
“I just want to give children tools of support and offer advice, in the same way pupils learn about sex education in school.
“It is about helping them understand emotions and feelings when someone dies, exploring those things associated with loss but in a gentle way.
“It’s about trying to take the fear out of death through offering support to a child, compassion to friends and support for teachers on how they can communicate and speak. If we get things right we can have a positive impact on society and how we treat one another.
“Opening up on sadness and grief through honest conversation is important and you can still protect people by giving them information.
“It doesn’t mean you will suffer a close loss but it just means, when you do, it will help. It’s just in case.”
John said that a parent dies every 22 minutes in the UK. And he said: “We have charities such as Child Bereavement, who carry out very special work by supporting young people when they lose a loved one and provide care and support when a child dies.
“The educational work they already have in place could help so many, prior to suffering a loss. We just need to see this all aligned and I believe we are getting there in Parliament.”
John’s petition has shown he is far from a lone voice.
“I have been overwhelmed by the reaction to it,” he says.
“It is not just about how many people have put their signatures to it but the fact many people have told their story as well and explained why it means so much to them.
“We are approaching 11,000 signatures so we have hit our target and opened up the conversation and we are getting communication.
“The fact I have also had the opportunity to speak to The King about it was both surreal and a huge honour.
“He looked on it positively and, of course, he has experience of grief with the loss of his parents and what his two children went through. He understood at first hand how this can help.
“I just feel that grief can be the darkest of times, but there are things we can do to make a difference, moving forward.”
-The petition is running until April 10 and can be viewed at petition.parliament.uk/petitions/624185