The cruelty of losing not just one, but both parents when you are a child is a horrifying thought for most people.
But that’s exactly what happened to Audrey Holligan, from Fife, by the time she was just seven years old.
The bereavement charity volunteer, who works for Cruse Scotland, was inspired to help children cope with grief after tragically losing her mother and father and another close relative at a terribly young age.
Now the mum-of-one is backing a poignant new Grief Awareness Campaign, launched by our leading personal injury firm Watermans, which is aimed at highlighting the impact that sudden fatalities can have on a young person’s life.
Audrey, now 54, told how her mother had died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage when she was just 18 months old and her father of the same traumatic illness when she was seven.
Children and Young Person Bereavement Support Worker Audrey, who has worked as a children and young person’s grief support worker at Cruse for three years now, said: “My mother died when I was 18 months and my father died when I was seven years old.
“Sadly, most of my family had died by the time I turned 12. I always knew even back then that I’d always want to work for a charity like Cruse so that I could give something back.
“You can never fix grief but if you can help a child to make a difference in their own lives then that’s huge.”
In another tragic string of events her cousin, who Audrey describes as being a “second mother” to her, was killed in a car accident aged 21 the week before her wedding day. Audrey was just four years old at the time.
“Having gone through counselling myself after my relatives died, it was a natural progression to then volunteer and try and help other children who suffer from grief,” Audrey said.
“Even just being able to help one child to help themselves, the ripple effect of that is huge.”
At the age of 14 Audrey, who was born in Edinburgh and grew up in Dunfermline, began working at a youth club helping children who come from troubled backgrounds.
She later took up studies to become a psychologist, which has also led to her involvement in script work for the BBC children’s channel CBeebies.
“I help them with script work in children’s programmes that they do if they’re dealing with subjects involving trauma and grief,” Audrey explained.
“I help to give pointers of the type of language they should use and situations which can help children watching understand grief on a child level. It’s a different journey for the child who loses a parent.”
Mum-of-one Audrey, who is also a qualified psychologist counsellor, is now in the midst of obtaining a Master’s degree in Play therapy, a psychodynamic model that works with children through play.
Play therapy is a method of therapy that uses play to uncover and deal with psychological issues.
“Most of my early memories are of grief,” Audrey recalled. “Grief isn’t a stranger to me and death isn’t a stranger to me – it’s something I’ve walked with my whole life.
“Death wasn’t something people spoke about as much back when my parents died but I think today people are more aware of how to deal with death and grief.
“My tool was sport, that was my therapy if you like back then. The grief didn’t really come out in me until I had my own child at 41. That was when the trigger was pushed.
“What we are trying to do is normalise the situation for a grieving child through music, activities, play, sport – anything that the child will connect to really.”
Growing up as an orphan was admittedly difficult for Audrey. However, she knew she wanted to take her own experience and create a positive impact by helping others going through similar experience.
The inspirational mum continued: “My career, whether deliberate or subconsciously, took me to working with traumatised children whom society had rejected. It was only then I saw my own inner child and how broken it was. This led me to counselling for myself and I never looked back.”
Some of the key signs Audrey advises to look out for when a child is struggling with grief include a child isolating, their concentration being affected, sudden phobias, changes in play patterns, a pre-occupation with death, self-harm, becoming clingy or ‘pleasing,’ and other mental health issues.
Audrey believes that a positive change is happening around the subject of death as teachers at schools are receiving better training than ever before when it comes to dealing with the subject, which has often been seen as ‘taboo.’
She continued: “With Covid-19, people are talking more about death and things like creating a Will. They are thinking more about their own morality and that can only be a good thing.
“Adults tend to grieve once and they revisit that grief, while children will grieve many different times throughout their life at different ages and stages.
“My hope is that if I can help one child help themselves to get through what is usually the worst thing that will ever happen to them, then that is invaluable for that child.
“I would have given anything to have had a support worker when I was a child to help me rationalise the grief and to normalise what was going on around me.
“It is fantastic that Watermans are raising awareness of the impact of grief and encouraging people to talk about the subjects surrounding it, such as Wills, sudden deaths and other issues.”
Having acted for a significant number of families who have lost relatives as a result of road crashes or accidents at work, the team at Watermans know that it is never a case of “one size fits all” when it comes to helping people through such a difficult situation.