'Mummy, why did God take Daddy to Heaven?' The widow of Radio 4 presenter Nick Clarke talks of her family's struggle


Last updated at 01:44 04 May 2008

When I told my four-year-old twin boys Benedict and Joel that their daddy had died, their response was to ask if they could watch television.

"Daddy" was the much-loved Radio 4 presenter Nick Clarke, who died 18 months ago from a sarcoma, a highly aggressive cancer in his leg, which was amputated in an unsuccessful attempt to save his life.

Facing my sons with the news that he had gone was almost as terrible for me as watching him die.

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Barbara, Joel and Benedict

Coping with the pain: Barbara with Joel and Benedict - they are doing as well as can be expected, she says

Their reaction was my first lesson in understanding that children grieve very differently from adults and that there is almost no one, apart from the surviving parent, who is trained to help them.

Neither the family GP, local social services nor even a child's school has any duty to ensure that he or she receives support and is monitored for signs of distress.

My boys, who are now five, have never once cried over Nick, who was the presenter of The World At One for 17 years.

But they have watched me weep bucket-loads of tears, and they understand that this is what happens when adults are very, very sad.

Benedict's immediate response to his father's death was to regress: in the weeks after Nick died, he would lie on the floor pretending to be a baby and asking for a bottle of milk. At school he became aggressive.

Joel, always the more outgoing twin, withdrew into studied silence, emerging occasionally to talk about the red bus he'd been given by Nick's sister Suzie.

He would panic if he didn't know where I was in the house and at school he would panic if he couldn't locate his teacher.

The questions came later. I couldn't confront the boys' pain at first, but over the months I became strong enough to engage in heart-breaking conversations, the course of which I could never predict.

Joel: "Mummy, why did God take Daddy to Heaven? It's not fair is it?"

Me: "No, darling, but God wasn't trying to punish him."

Joel: "Maybe he took him because he liked him so much and wanted to be with him. Can we look at the Eurostar on your computer now?"

Young children, I now know, jump in and out of grief. It can come upon them from nowhere and disappear as rapidly as it appears.

It isn't always expressed in words and it is easy, therefore, to assume that children as young as mine don't grieve for long or deeply.

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Nick Clarke

Proud father: Nick with Benedict and Joel at Christmas in 2002, when the twins were just a few months old

It is possible to conclude that "they move on", as someone recently suggested to me, or even that they're "over it" by now.

But children never 'get over' a loss of this magnitude. And that is why it matters that they get help and support in their grief, in the way that adults can and do.

I realised how much this matters when a friend handed me a sheaf of printouts from Winston's Wish, the charity that supports bereaved children, showing the impact that such a loss can have on a child, both short-term and long-term.

It shook me. It has compiled research that shows, for example, that 41 per cent of young offenders have experienced bereavement, and that girls who lose a parent are six times more likely to become pregnant by the age of 18.

Bereaved children find it hard to concentrate at school, may be bullied because of what has happened to them and more than 50 per cent show distress and symptoms of depression, which may persist for years.

Some research even shows that at the age of 36, adult men are more likely to be unemployed if they lost a parent as a child.

"The death of someone close, especially in circumstances that are already disadvantaged, can put children at increased risk of social and educational difficulties and can threaten their mental and emotional health," says the charity, quoting a 2005 study for the National Children's Bureau.

And while the encouraging news is that children who are supported by open communication and understanding have better outcomes, they need someone to give them that support.

That task usually falls to the remaining parent, who is likely to be in no fit state to offer it.

I certainly wasn't: after Nick died I treated my children abominably. I screamed at them and - this is hard to admit - I hated them for being a burden as I sank deeper and deeper into incapacitating grief.

The knowledge that they needed my help and that I couldn't offer it was almost unbearable.

I assumed at first that someone would help us. But I was shocked to discover that when a child is bereaved, no one has an obligation to help that child.

Most teacher-training curriculums do not touch on bereavement.

Schools are ideally placed to help, and many do, but there are no guidelines to fall back on and many more fail in what should be one of their fundamental duties of care.

"Schools are waking up to the fact that they have an important role to play in the life of a bereaved child," says Louise Swanston of Child Bereavement Charity.

"But many teachers lack the confidence to know what to do and need supportive training."

Giving them nothing, as too often happens, is simply not acceptable. And the statistics make clear that this is not a small-scale issue.

Winston's Wish estimates that every day 53 children in this country lose a parent and about 70 per cent of schools have a bereaved pupil on their roll at any one time.

So how have my boys fared? We got lucky. When I tearfully told the boys' reception teacher, Sally Keck, that I had no idea how I could support them she offered to help and sat with them individually for a few minutes every week.

Sally listened and although she had neither training nor experience in childhood bereavement, she used her instinct and advice given to her by Winston's Wish.

I learned from the notes she took that Joel was terrified of losing me, which explained his obsessive clinginess at home.

"I'm scared that when I'm at school the angels will take Mummy, too," he told her.

Benedict was able to express an anger that he was scared to share with me for fear of bringing on my tears.

"I feel cross at myself. I don't know why, I just feel cross lots of the time."

Joel talked openly about Nick's funeral, which no one else has done with him: "We made a big box [the coffin] for the funeral and put flowers and writing on it.

"Mum arrived in a fancy car and we sang songs. Then the angels came and took the box to Heaven."

Miss Keck's work with the boys gave me the courage and confidence to start helping them myself.

We have talked, and talked. Daddy is still the boys' daddy and always will be.

When we argue they shout at me that Daddy is the "only person in the world" who really loves them.

Joel once took his fury into the garden where he stood with his head tilted upwards to the sky, screaming: "Daddy, Mummy doesn't love me, only you do."

I have also overheard him talking to photos of Nick on his own.

Children don't want to "move on" or "get over it".

They want to remember and Joel and Benedict are fearful of forgetting.

I've told them what their last words were to their father because I know they can't remember.

Together we are filling a trunk with Nick's possessions and it will be theirs for whenever they want to look inside.

They will, when they are ready, be able to listen to Nick's moving audio diary, which they contributed to, about his operation and chemotherapy, which was broadcast on Radio 4 in June 2006, five months before he died.

Last summer, we held a birthday party for Daddy, invited a few neighbours (to some bafflement), had a cake and candles, and burned the boys' birthday cards in the barbecue "so they can go up to heaven".

We'll do it again this year when Nick would have been 60. We often look at photos together, and we read children's books about loss.

The passage of time is different for children. As Benedict said just three months after Nick's death: "Oh Mum, you're not crying again are you, it's AGES since Daddy died."

We've had fabulous help from the voluntary bodies, too.

At a recent "assessment" at Winston's Wish, Joel and Benedict were asked to recount their story.

They did so lucidly and with ease until it came to talking about the moment that Daddy died.

Joel hid behind a sofa and Benedict covered himself with cuddly toys. The assessors explained how normal this was.

Afterwards, I took the boys for Coca-Cola and chips and gave them crayons and pictures to colour in. On this occasion both of them covered the whole page in angry black scrawl.

This is apparently normal, too, but it made my heart weep.

Almost a year-and-a-half down the line, the boys' grief is still churning but now in different ways.

Joel and Benedict seem very accepting of the fact of their father's loss but still have so many questions about why and how it happened.

Recently, Miss Keck has been investigating with them why medicine doesn't always kill cancer.

"In battles," she explained, "there are goodies and baddies and the goodies usually win and kill all the baddies.

"But sometimes some baddies get away and can't be killed."

The boys know that cancer doesn't always kill and Joel now confidently talks about the difference between bad cancer cells and very bad cancer cells.

Every school should be able to offer this kind of support and understanding.

Schools should be given guidelines on how to help bereaved children, and should have at least one nominated member of staff who knows how to support a bereaved child and who understands the impact that bereavement can have on a child.

Finding a slot in the teacher training curriculum on loss ought to be a priority - it could also be very useful in other situations where children experience loss, such as through divorce.

Most children won't be as "lucky" as mine and it makes me angry that they are being let down.

The boys are doing as well as they could be, I think. Their current obsession - very common among bereaved children - is to discuss who now makes up their family.

We've drawn a family tree and the boys have insisted that every one of Granny's five dogs be included on it.

"They're in our family, too, aren't they, Mummy?" Godparents sit next to the tree and are important, too, including Godmother Cathy's dog. "He's our God-dog".

The "work" continues. Children revisit their grief throughout their childhood, particularly at significant moments such as the start of a new year, or a first football match where there is only one parent watching from the sidelines.

It is "work" because it is hard and painful at times.

But something that Benedict told me last week gave me hope that we are on the right track.

"Mummy, there are tears that are sad but there are also tears that mean you're happy, aren't there?"

That has to be progress.

I Don't Know What To Say, Barbara Want's report on children and bereavement, will be broadcast on Radio 4 at 8pm on Monday, May 12. For more information about Winston's Wish, go to www.winstonswish.org.uk.

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