Karen Shillington adds a panel to a Compassionate Friends quilt that usually hangs in her local church.
Karen Shillington adds a panel to a Compassionate Friends quilt that usually hangs in her local church. Chris Ison

'Grief has no timeframe'

JAMIE Shillington was just 21 years old when he chose death over life.

"A lot of the time I'd think 'Am I going mad?' because of the emotions that I had after he died," Jamie's mum Karen Shillington says of losing her only child in 2006.

"Life is precious and it's gone in a second."

Heartbroken, devastated and craving solace, Ms Shillington reached out to Compassionate Friends three years after Jamie's death.

"To know that others have the same feelings makes you feel it's normal and this is what the grieving process is all about," the 61-year-old central Queensland resident said.

"Just having people that had been there before, gave me a sense of hope that there could be life after death. That the world does not stop turning."

Over the years, the global support organisation has amassed a dedicated army of selfless volunteers who have lost children, siblings or grandchildren.

While entry to the Friends comes at sad and tragic price, it's this shared lived experience that ensures the organisation really connects with people during the most trying of times.

Like many bereaved parents before her, Ms Shillington reached a point where she wanted to turn her experience and loss into something positive and so she became a Friend.

"My main role is to be a listening ear," she said of supporting Rockhampton and Gladstone residents in crisis.

"People want to tell their story and they just want to tell that story over and over - that's normal and that is okay.

"Just to be there and to listen, to support them and to let them know that they are not alone.

"You're never going to be the same again and your life is never going to be what it was before but life can be a good, but in a different way."

Ms Shillington said death could be confronting for some people but it need not be a terrifying experience.

"Grieving has no timeframe - it takes a long, long time," she said.

"If you're supporting someone just be there for them and don't be afraid to talk about the person who has passed away. That's the most important thing.

"As a parent we all fear that our child will be forgotten, that people won't talk about them and who they were so it's really important to have these conversations.

"The person might break down in tears but they'll also be very happy that you've acknowledged the person who has died."

Losing Jamie and helping others come to terms with the death of their loved ones has given Ms Shillington a particularly poignant perspective on death.

"It definitely has changed me," she said.

"I don't fear death at all.

"You talk to any parent who has a lost a child and they will tell you that they do not worry about dying because they know they will be reunited with their child.

"Every loss is different in its own way but a loss of a child is beyond comparison."

 

'Hardest death for human beings to recover from'

YOU'RE disorientated, dizzy and can't concentrate. You feel like throwing up. Your body aches for no reason. The world around you is foggy and you struggle to make sense of even the simplest things.

This is how your body responds to the loss of a child.

Thankfully, few people in Gladstone will experience what childhood grief and loss expert Dr Greg Roberts describes as the "hardest death for human beings to recover from".

It's not possible to say how many people under 18 have died in Gladstone over the past few years.

But ARM Newsdesk research does show that 20 of the 4731 infants born in our region between 2010 and 2014 did not live beyond one year old.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data reveals vehicle accidents, perinatal or congenital health problems, cancer and drownings are the leading killers of children aged one to 14.

Suicide, vehicle accidents, poisoning and assault are the most common causes of death for young people aged 15 to 24.

Dr Greg Roberts is one of Australia's leading authorities on child mortality.

He has worked with bereaved parents for 15 years and he is now the clinical operations manager with Red Nose Grief and Loss (formerly SIDS and Kids).

Dr Roberts said our childhood mortality rate was falling thanks to a range of factors including strong education about sudden infant death syndrome prevention, excellent vaccination programs and breakthroughs in life-prolonging medicines for once-fatal diseases such as cystic fibrosis.

However, he said the sad fact was some Gladstone mums and dads would have to live through the trauma of losing a son or daughter and the physical and emotional impacts of that loss could still be intense many years later.

"Having a child die is above the death of a spouse as far as the level of stress and impact on a person," Dr Roberts said.

"Immediately afterwards bereaved parents will find it really hard to concentrate and to focus on things.

"They will be in shock.

"Grief itself is a normal process but if a person isn't supported it can lead to mental health problems because of the intensity.

"In society we have this expectation that grief is this step-by-step process that gets better as time passes.

"That's somewhat true but it takes a lot longer after the death of the child."

Dr Roberts said supporting families through the loss of child was about respecting space and offering practical help such as cooking meals or doing household chores.

"It's not about cocooning the parents, but it's about checking in on them, making sure they're okay and whether there are things that they need.

"But at the same time it's important not to take over."

 

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data shows vehicle accidents, perinatal or congenital health problems, cancer and drownings are the leading killers of children aged one to 14. Suicide, vehicle accidents, poisoning and assault are the most common causes of death for young people aged 15 to 24.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data shows vehicle accidents, perinatal or congenital health problems, cancer and drownings are the leading killers of children aged one to 14. Suicide, vehicle accidents, poisoning and assault are the most common causes of death for young people aged 15 to 24. Think Stock

Helping sick children understand death

LEE-ANN Pedersen has been helping children come to terms with their own mortality for more than 10 years.

The 45-year-old nurse practitioner at Brisbane's Lady Cilento Children's Hospital works with Australia's sickest kids - little ones who have life-shortening chronic illnesses.

A focus on "family and honesty" underpins Ms Pedersen's approach to discussing death with her young patients.

"My job is to work with how the family operates," she said.

"I respect the family's wishes and how their philosophies work but if the child asks me a direct question, I'm not going to lie to them."

Ms Pedersen said her job was hard but it was also a privilege.

"We're in a very privileged position in that we get to meet families at a very vulnerable time and we are just one small part of the puzzle," she said.

"We can make a difference but sadly we can't change what's going to happen.

"We try to make it better for the family and the little person in the middle.

"That is what keeps you coming to work every day."

Lady Cilento Children's Hospital treats children from across northern New South Wales and Queensland.

- ARM NEWSDESK