'You are not as alone as you think you are' - meeting Stand-By-Me's young ambassadors
PUBLISHED: 06:57 06 February 2020
To mark Children's Mental Health Week - and this year's theme, Find Your Brave - we met Jack, Mia, James and Daisy, young ambassadors for North Herts-based child bereavement charity, Stand-By-Me.
James was only nine when he lost his dad to heart disease.
"I remember going downstairs one morning and seeing people gathered in my house," James told the Comet. "My mum explained to me that dad had just died. He had 15 operations, but after his last operation, he didn't wake up."
James, now 10, says that at the time he was too young to fully understand what had happened, and didn't really know how to process not having a dad anymore.
"For a long time, I thought it was just a dream," he said. "It was only months later when I realised - he's not coming back."
Last year, James started going to Stand-By-Me's group therapy sessions - based in Hitchin's Walsworth Road - where bereaved children meet together and use activities to help each other process complicated emotions.
Seven-year-old Daisy lost her brother the day before his 16th birthday, following a long illness.
Daisy says that special lessons in school with her teacher, Irene, helped her talk about her feelings.
"Irene gave me this book where I can write things about my brother and my memories of him," Daisy said. "It has helped me a lot, and I write things in my book about him, like how he could be so cheeky."
Like James, Daisy became a Stand-By-Me young ambassador, a role which gives young people who have come through the group sessions the opportunity to share their experiences and raise awareness at events and fundraisers.
Jack, 18, has been a YA since the programme was launched, and says the role has helped him deal with his own stigma of talking about grief and his mental health.
"I was 12 when my dad died suddenly of a heart attack," Jack said. "And at first I wasn't so much upset; more angry. I was clashing at school, and had only just started Year 7 at the time, so it jumbled up the whole year for me - and school didn't really understand.
"As a YA, I've learnt not to be embarrassed about how I'm feeling. I used to find it really hard to be open up with my friends at school, because it just felt too awkward. This has given me the confidence to talk more, and share my life story with others."
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Sixteen-year-old Mia also lost her dad unexpectedly - the day before her 14th birthday - and says for a long time she struggled with the 'why' questions.
"I kept thinking about the 'why me's,' the 'what if's.' You just never expect it to happen to you," Mia told us.
"Initially I was unsure about coming to the group sessions because of my anxieties, so at the beginning I came with my sister. In the sessions, there would be a different focus each week. So one week we might talk about the subject of feelings, and how to manage them. Another week we might do work on memories.
"For example we'd create a memory bottle full of sand, and colour the sand in ways which symbolise something meaningful about the people we've lost."
Mia says that, while everyone's situation is different, going to Stand-By-Me helped her realise she wasn't alone.
"Our stories might be different, but at the end of the day, we have all lost someone," Mia said. "Stand-By-Me helps you learn from one another. It gives you that opportunity to find people you can trust and talk to. You are not as alone as you think you are."
Stand By Me trustee Sandra Blacker said that even today "people still underestimate the effect bereavement can have on young people's mental health".
"We know that young people who have been bereaved are more likely to experience adolescent mental health issues," she said.
"Schools don't always have the resources, or realise the impact this can have in later years - which is why we have our 'contact-me' programme."
Stand-By-Me's contact-me initiative ensures that one staff member within each school is well acquainted with the child's situation, and can check in and ask how they're doing.
"Out of 80 schools in our area, 64 are currently signed up to the programme," said Sandra. "And it really is the small things that help: just knowing somebody is looking out for you, and knows what you've been through - it makes such a difference."
For more information on Stand-By-Me's other services, and the young ambassador scheme, visit stand-by-me.org.uk. You can also donate by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Children's Mental Health Week - from February 3 to 9 - has seen schools and charities all over the country raise awareness for child mental health, centred around the theme of Find Your Brave.
For more information and resources visit childrensmentalhealthweek.org.uk.