"Dad was the one who was poorly, who needed the care, but it was never just about Dad; it was about all of us."
Tia Walters knew her granddad Lionel Churchman wasn’t going to get better. Her Mum Kerry had explained: "Sometimes the medicines doctors use don’t work. Angels have medicine that can make those people better but that means they have to go and live with the angels."
Then just seven, Tia visited Granddad during his final days at Sue Ryder Thorpe Hall Hospice in Peterborough, fussing over him, organising his things so they were within easy reach and feeding him ice cream.
"When he died she seemed very accepting, on the outside at least," says Kerry. "She was very upset but she talked about the angels taking care of him and how that meant he didn’t have cancer any more. She described him being in his garden shed and looking down every night from the brightest star."
A change in Tia's behaviour
But within weeks Kerry noticed a change in her daughter.
"She had always been easygoing but now she seemed angry, frustrated and short-tempered," she recalls. "She was pushing me away and I couldn’t get to the bottom of the problem.
"I’d expected her to grieve, but I thought that would be lots of tears and questions. I didn’t link these new emotions she was displaying to Dad dying."
Lionel's last Christmas
Meanwhile, Kerry was going through her own grief, and helping her mum Carolyn through hers.
"Dad had been poorly for 18 years," she explains. "It started with bladder cancer. Treatment had put him in remission in the past, but finally the cancer had spread to his liver, lungs and kidneys. By Christmas 2014, he was very poorly. He opened his presents with us and then went back to bed for the afternoon.
"He deteriorated very quickly from then onwards. He was in pain and, while Mum was doing everything she could, we knew we needed help," she adds.
Tia was involved in the decision to move Lionel to Thorpe Hall Hospice early in the new year.
"We wanted to include her in the conversations so nothing was a shock for her,” says Kerry. “But even the best preparation doesn’t really prepare you for the reality of the death of someone who’s been such a big part of your life.
"It was so difficult. Tia’s behaviour had changed, but she wasn’t talking to me so I didn’t know what was going on in her mind. We were all grieving differently – Mum as a wife, me as a daughter and Tia as a granddaughter – so it was hard to know the right thing to say or how to reach her," she continues. "I was worried I had nothing to work with, I was confused, and I didn’t want to mistake a bad behaviour for a need for support or the other way round."
Tia and the Charlie Chimp Club
The offer of a place at Thorpe Hall’s Charlie Chimp Club, a support group specifically for bereaved children aged seven to 13, came at just the right time.
"The family support team explained how the six weekly sessions were aimed at giving the children chance to talk about how they were feeling, help them understand their emotions and let them meet other children in the same position so they knew what they were going through was normal," explains Kerry. "It sounded ideal – and Tia was keen."
Indeed, Tia embraced everything the club offered from the first session onwards, growing more positive each week.
"At first she didn’t really tell me what they’d done; just said she’d had a nice time," recalls Kerry. "But, after the second or third session, she started opening up. She talked about games they’d played, people she’d talked to and the memory box she had made to remember Grandad. The sessions helped her understand her own feelings and realise she wasn’t alone."
At such a young age, Tia found the visuals and graphics the Charlie Chimp Club team use particularly useful.
"She didn’t have the words for some of the things she was feeling but, given the chance to express those feelings through colouring and pictures, she could finally let them out," Kerry says.
Bereavement support for Kerry
And the sessions were just as useful for Kerry.
While Tia was in the club, Kerry met with the other parents.
"At first I sat there thinking I was fine and that I was coping okay," remembers Kerry. "But after a couple of weeks, I realised actually I was feeling everything everyone else was talking about, but I’d suppressed it while I focused on Tia.
"As we talked, I realised they were all struggling with the same things – not knowing when children were trying it on and when they were genuinely upset, not always having the right words, and trying to be strong all the time when you just can’t be. Those conversations took away the guilt I was feeling."
And the sessions gave Kerry and Tia coping mechanisms to continue with after the final week.
"Tia made a worry box where she shut away her worries so they couldn’t get out," Kerry says. "I left her notes in it – it was a brilliant way to help me understand how she was feeling so I could work out how to help her. It wasn’t long before we’d regained the closeness that we’d lost."
"The support we received made everything less overwhelming"
"The support we received from the family support team at Thorpe Hall was invaluable – it just made everything less overwhelming," Kerry adds. "We are so lucky to have such a service to call upon.
"Dad was the one who was poorly, who needed the care, but it was never just about Dad; it was about all of us. And they’ve helped us all come through our grief."
A year after Lionel’s death, the family received a handwritten card from Thorpe Hall.
"It was just lovely knowing that someone was still thinking about us and still reaching out to us. We’re part of Thorpe Hall and that is so reassuring," Kerry concludes.
Find out more about Thorpe Hall Hospice