Almost every day we are bombarded with devastating cases of murder or manslaughter in the media. We’re told of perpetrators’ motives, their punishments and even their methods – often in agonising detail. But rarely do we hear about the life-changing impact these events have on the people left behind, the bereaved partners, close relatives and children forced to come to terms with what’s happened and learn to move on.
Every day, a child in England and Wales loses a family member through murder or manslaughter, and a new Channel 4 documentary offers a rare insight into the grief and turmoil they go through. A Killing In My Family (to be shown on Wednesday evening) tells the stories of eight families attending the UK’s only residential weekend for children bereaved by murder or manslaughter. It is organised by Winston’s Wish, the UK’s first childhood bereavement charity, which was founded 25 years ago, and provides therapeutic help in individual, group and residential settings. Families either reach out to the charity themselves or are referred via the Victim Support Homicide Service.
A group of 16 children – from as young as 4 to their early teens – whose lives have changed overnight face their grief and pain together, with guidance from bereavement professionals. For many of the children, it’s the first time they’ve met others with an understanding of what they’ve been through. There is also a separate session for their surviving parent or grandparents.
The documentary is heart-rending viewing that reveals as much about the work that goes into rebuilding people’s lives after loss as it does about individuals’ resilience. The hour-long film touches on some difficult themes, a key one being that the way we talk about bereavement and communicate loss with children at home and through the education system may not be doing them justice.
Sometimes people use euphemisms like ‘they’ve gone to sleep’ but what does that mean to a child?
The words 'murder' and 'killed' are used with a frequency we might not expect in the presence of children so young. “It comes down to giving children an age-appropriate, clear and coherent understanding using concrete language,” Gemma Allen, a senior practitioner at Winston’s Wish who appears in the documentary, tells Refinery29. "When somebody dies – regardless of how they died – it’s almost an instinctive reaction to want to protect your child.
“With all the best intentions, sometimes people use euphemisms like ‘they’ve gone to sleep’ but what does that mean to a child?” says Allen. “That can heighten their anxiety and worry. It can also leave them confused, thinking 'If Daddy’s gone to sleep, why hasn’t he come back? Doesn’t he love me? Does he not want to see me?' That’s why we try and promote and support families to use the concrete words – obviously with explanation, but in some ways it reduces those feelings of confusion and anxiety.”
There is still a taboo in society around death in general, which can make it difficult for adults to be forthcoming about what has happened, Allen says. In the documentary, another support worker recalls how children will frequently talk openly about what’s happened, only for adults to shy away from it. As we grow up, it seems we learn to sweep our thoughts and feelings about death under the carpet.
Also essential for children – or anyone – affected by murder, manslaughter or any kind of death, is having a clear and coherent narrative of what happened, Allen says. Without this, it’s easy for us to ruminate, and imagine events that are worse than what actually occurred. The key session in the documentary is a storytelling activity in which the children are asked to draw and write in detail what happened. A poignant moment follows, when 6-year-old Lilly asks if ‘killed’ is spelled with a “curly c or kicking k?”
Being able to recall the events gives children back some control over the situation, Allen says. The paper they use resembles a film reel, “the idea being that children can have things going round and round in their heads and if they don’t have an opportunity to externalise them, these thoughts build up and up,” Allen adds. By writing, drawing and verbally revisiting your story, you’re gaining control over it and feeling in charge of your narrative.
Winston’s Wish also uses the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle to explain how parents and carers can best help children come to terms with their stories as they age. It’s about giving them pieces of the puzzle over time, whether it’s small bits or large chunks, so that ultimately they have as many pieces as they can handle by the time they are adults themselves, Allen says.
If a child sees their mum, dad or whoever cry, that gives them permission to do the same
The documentary also shows the children's adult relatives, who are at a separate location, as they struggle to come to terms with their own loss. For many, it’s the the first time they’ve had space even to acknowledge it. Winston’s Wish encourages adults to air their feelings openly and honestly, rather than keeping a stiff upper lip and ‘crying inside’.
The charity also encourages the families to remember the person they have lost. During a candlelit ritual, they recall precious, happy memories of the mother, father, son or daughter who was killed. It's emotional, and there are tears, but there is an underlying joy made evident by having a safe space to reminisce. “We say it’s ok to cry in front of the children because it's modelling to them [that crying is ok]. The child looks up to them for guidance and if they see their mum, dad or whoever cry, that gives them permission to do the same," says Allen.
By giving us an insight into its invaluable work, the charity hopes to encourage greater openness around, and acceptance of, feelings of grief. Allen also emphasises that these are "ordinary children in extraordinary circumstances", and while they may appear unusually resilient and mature on screen, given their circumstances, a lot of behind-the-scenes work and support from Winston’s Wish has gone into getting them to this point.
“Lots of difficult conversations have been had," Allen says. "Getting to a point where we’re supporting children to have an age-appropriate clear understanding of what happened to their family member; thinking about memories in order for them to continue that relationship with the person who died; having a sense of who they were and thinking about and building on their coping strategies. A lot of the work has already been done in terms of building up their resilience and ability to cope and manage…”
Nevertheless, what happened does not have to define or disadvantage them for the rest of their lives. After 25 years of working with bereaved children and young people, support workers at Winston's Wish have learned that they can often handle a lot more than adults give them credit for. "They can take on board really difficult information and it doesn’t have to disable them. It doesn't have to impact negatively on their futures," Allen says. Ultimately, what it all boils down to is the need to have open and honest conversations about death and what that means.
A Killing In My Family airs tonight at 10pm on Channel 4 and will be available on 4OD.
- For further information and support from Winston’s Wish, contact the Freephone National Helpline on 08088 020 021 (open Monday to Friday 9am - 5pm with extended hours during the screening of A Killing In My Family), email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.winstonswish.org.uk.
- Donations to Winston’s Wish allow us to support families like those featured in A Killing In My Family. Text WWTV10 £10 to 70070 to donate, or visit www.winstonswish.org.uk.