Your dad's dead, let's paint the bathroom

16th April 2004 at 01:00
Just half a lifetime ago, children were expected to face the death of a parent with a stiff upper lip, and were largely excluded from the mourning process. So how much has changed, asks author Rachel Anderson, whose own father died while she was a child, and whose latest children's novel deals with 'an ordinary family death'?

Attitudes towards children's experience of family bereavement have become more humane within my lifetime, though not as fast or as radically as one might have hoped. This was l956: five children, aged from three to 15, on a dark winter's morning. Their father has just died. After a short sorrowful period in the privacy of the mother's bedroom, they are advised against attention-seeking displays of emotion. They're not even supposed to think sad. That was me and my siblings. By the afternoon, I'd been put to painting a jolly bathroom mural of pink ballet dancers.

Not only were we discouraged from showing grief but we were excluded from much of the mourning process, which was the adults' concern. We were seated at the back of the church for the funeral, and prevented from joining the mourners outside for the prayer of dismissal and interment. My eldest sister and I were reminded that if we cried we'd set the little ones off, and that weeping makes women look ugly.

The Times obituary detailed our father's life, omitting any mention of his offspring. Formal letters of condolence arrived for our mother but nobody expressed any sympathy to us. At school, we were sent to Coventry. No member of staff expressed a word of comfort or regret. Even a pat on the shoulder and a "Sorry to hear your news" might have helped. But silence was the easiest way of handling an embarrassing situation.

Pupils, too, had been advised not to mention the unmentionable. Set to translating into French "Father and Mother are in the garden", tears welled up. I was removed speedily from the class, laid on a camp-bed behind a screen in the wash-room as if I were unwell, to be released, once I'd stopped sniffing, back into the apparent indifference of the normal world.

Discouraged from speaking my anguish, I tried writing it. When discovered, this came in for censure. "That's not a very nice story, everybody with red eyes. Nobody wants to read about that. Why can't you write about something cheerful?" In a what-we-did-in-the-holidays essay, I used the word "orphan" and was reprimanded for exaggeration - "A child is only an orphan when she has lost both parents." Stiff upper lips, best feet forward, worse things happen at sea, were the approved responses.

On the bleakest evening, I ran to the village to sit on my father's grave. The rector's wife told me off for moping, and took me home for a soft-boiled egg, but still not a word about my father. I was sent to stay with my father's sister. I longed for her to speak about her brother, anything. Even if she'd said: "I loathed him," it would have been a recognition that he'd existed. Nothing. She told me about golf. I felt my head would explode with compressed rage and confusion. I vowed that one day I'd try to do something (I had no idea what) to encourage other girls suffering from this unendurable desolation.

Time passed but didn't heal. When my first child was born, I cried, not for her father but for mine. When my mother re-married, I slid into a long depression. The doctor caring for me called it a "delayed grief". Fifteen years! Some delay.

I learned that the earlier turmoil - anger, nightmares, fear of sleep, hallucinatory appearances, psychic voices, lack of concentration, apathy, guilt, plea-bargaining (with God: Give me back my dad, and I won't mind what else happens) and conviction that the surviving parent would soon die - had not been signs of incipient madness.

And what guilt I felt. Recently, one of my younger sisters, Janie, revealed that she, too, had long held herself responsible for our father's death because, when told to keep quiet outside the room where he lay ill, she'd thrown a tantrum. If only someone could have reassured us that our muddled experiences were not abnormal, but common for grieving children.

Some 30 years on from my own loss, my husband and I were faced with the submerged grief of the nine-year-old we received for adoption. His blood parents were unknown, presumed dead. Although we knew this, he didn't. The houseparent said she didn't believe it was a good idea to talk about the past with the children in the home as it was too sad. Only after he'd joined our family, did our new son begin to reflect on the possibility of a birth mother he would never know.

It then transpired that the loss of, or abandonment by, the first mother was only the beginning of his misfortune. Before he'd met us, a single young woman who'd planned to adopt him had died from cancer. None of this had been explained to him. His distress was deep and violent. He screamed and shouted, became obsessed by cemeteries, blamed me and my husband for the death of the previous woman who'd wanted to adopt him, accusing us, night after night, of killing her so we could have him. To his fury was added my outrage that children were still being denied full emotional rights. Our "therapy" with him was entirely home-spun. We didn't then know about creating memory boxes. Besides, we had no photos or knowledge of these lost strangers. But we talked about them as well as we could.

We discovered the name of the would-be adoptive mother and eventually located her burial place. A cathartic exercise for me had been taking my husband and our small children on a trip to find my father's grave. We now made a similar pilgrimage to the grave of our adopted son's nearly-mother. We took flowers, a bucket and cloth. With wonderful tenderness, he washed the headstone.

We assumed his experience of such hapless institutional care was untypical. Unfortunately it was not. Several years on, towards the end of the 1980s, we fostered a child from another area, whose mother had taken her own life. Despite supposed improvements and increasing frankness, the childcare professionals advising us were still insisting on secrecy, silence and repression of memories, under the impression that this would give the child "a clean start".

The social worker suggested that, as the girl had been only four at the time of her mother's suicide, she was too young to remember the event and it was a mistake to stir up the ashes. Her problems soon became greater than we could handle. We found a residential special school where the emphasis was on therapy first, learning after. The case-worker agreed that, though it seemed a good place, it was not possible for a child in the care system to go there as the fees were too high. We all failed that child, just as badly as I had been failed by adults.

Today, a variety of organisations can provide resources specifically for use with bereaved young people, but not every child is offered such support, not all want it, and not all, according to research from one children's hospital, would benefit from it. Moreover, except in the instances of horrendous community disasters, the friends and classmates of the bereaved child are unlikely to be offered counselling.

This is the gap I set out to fill with my new novel for children, Pizza on Saturday: not a handbook, but an everyday story about an ordinary family death. A young reader once told me: "There's always somebody who dies in your books, isn't there?" Not always, but often. Bumping off fictional parents is the time-honoured writer's scam for jigging the plot, making life more demanding for our characters. This time, though, I wanted to follow through the consequences of an utterly regular death: no heroics; no supernatural effects; fairy godmothers or wicked stepfathers.

It sometimes feels as if my father's death has been the most challenging event of my life and that I have spent the past 47 years learning to make sense of it. In telling the story of Charlie, her mum, big brother, bossy sister and family dog, and the quiet intervention of Mrs Wieczerzak from next door, I grew close to the dismayed girl who was once me. And, although Charlie is very much a girl of the modern world, I've given both of us a chance to understand the complexities, the changing family dynamics, and the normality of our journeys through grief.

Pizza on Saturday, by Rachel Anderson, is published by Hodder Children's Books, pound;4.99

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