Case study: Cheryl Barnett, Brake bereaved volunteer

Cheryl Barnett is a Brake volunteer whose husband, Andrew, was tragically killed whilst cycling on holiday. Cheryl and Andrew had three children: Harry, who was seven at the time, James, who was five and Rosie who was aged just three.

In August 2014, Cheryl and Andrew had been on a caravan holiday in Devon with their three children, and Cheryl’s mum and stepdad. Andrew had brought his bike with him, as he was training for a cycle race. On August 2nd, the weather had been wet in the morning, so Andrew waited until the afternoon when the rain had stopped and set off at around 2pm.

Cheryl, her mum and stepdad decided to go for afternoon tea, returning to the park at around 6.30pm. Cheryl was a little surprised to notice that Andrew had not returned yet at this time, and began to feel more anxious as time moved on.

At around 7.15pm the manager of the caravan park arrived with two police officers to Cheryl’s caravan.  Cheryl remembers the manager saying “Shall I take the kids to the park?”  Cheryl recalls sitting on the caravan steps and the Family Liaison officer saying to her “there has been a crash and Andrew has died”. Cheryl remembers screaming. She was informed that the driver had been arrested and taken in for questioning.

When Cheryl informed the children that Andrew had died, Harry asked her “Is daddy dead”. When Cheryl responded yes, Harry then questioned: “Will we get a new daddy?”

Because of the police investigation, Cheryl was told that she wasn’t able to see Andrew’s body. The police did however give her his wedding ring. When Cheryl was later able to formally identify Andrew, she remembers how cold and hard his body was.

Cheryl was later given the details of how Andrew had died. An elderly male driver had hit him from behind, claiming that he had not seen him. The police informed Cheryl that the road been straight with clear visibility.

Although the driver eventually pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving, the judge decided that it was not in the public interest to send him to prison. He now has a five year driving ban and has to retake his test if he wants to drive again.

Initially following the death, the children were very upset and cried a lot. The differing ages of Cheryl’s children saw very varied reactions from Harry, James and Rosie. Harry has Asperger’s Syndrome, and was initially very angry. He blamed the bereavement on his two younger siblings and Cheryl, and would say that if they had not been born then they would not have been on the holiday where Andrew died.

Rosie, the youngest child, initially had difficulty understanding that her dad was dead. Cheryl would often have to repeat this information to Rosie, ensuring that she went through the emotions of grief and bereavement multiple times. Rosie’s difficulty with comprehending the finality of death was further expressed when she asked Cheryl: “When are we going to grow daddy back?”

James was 5 at the time of the death and had better understanding. Cheryl recalls that James would often cry, and wanted to be with her all the time.

Support that Cheryl found helpful:

  • Harry struggled with his anger issues initially, and would refuse to go to school, and on one occasion ran away from the school. Cheryl went to her GP to seek further support and guidance, and was referred to a family counselling support service called ‘Dragonfly Bereavement Support’. Harry and James received one-to-one support, which they found very beneficial.
  • Peer and group support was very beneficial for the family, and the children found it helpful to be with other bereaved children. Cheryl remembers other activities such as creating memory boxes, allowing the family to celebrate Andrew’s life, as being very useful.

Support from the school and other organisations

Cheryl’s children’s school had a specialist, dedicated teaching assistant, who was responsible for the emotional wellbeing of all pupils. This support was very helpful for James, who was offered regular one-to-one sessions.

After the bereavement, James had become very concerned that something would happen to Cheryl if he left her. The teaching assistant was able to meet James at the school gates and was very supportive.

A local early intervention officer, who had previously worked with Harry on anger issues related to his Asperger’s, was also able to assist Harry with the strong emotions he was experiencing. Cheryl personally says that she particularly benefited from peer support that was provided by the group ‘Widowed and Young’.

Unhelpful support

Cheryl states that she was very lucky to have received such positive support from her friends, family and other organisations. However, she pointed out the importance of teachers being aware of special days such as Father’s Day. Although the support received was mainly very positive, Cheryl has said that her experiences have highlighted the extent that bereaved people sometimes have to go to in order to actively seek support – any signposting that can be offered to a bereaved person can be very helpful.