The defiant passion of the bereaved parent

The Dunn family, whose son Harry was killed on a Northamptonshire road this summer, are in the headlines at the time of writing this (16/10/19). Their campaign for justice for their son has taken them to America, to the White House itself. I do not know if they will succeed in getting the driver responsible for the crash back to the UK to face justice, but I certainly hope so.

I did not lose my children to the specific actions of another but I can relate to what these bereaved parents are going through. There is something about losing a child, in particular from an avoidable death – a death that wouldn’t have happened if it were not for the negligence or carelessness or maliciousness or stupidity of another –  that causes indescribable pain. And that’s what this post is about. 

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” wrote an English playwright several centuries ago.

But that is barely anything compared to the tempest of emotions experienced by a bereaved parent, particularly if our child has been snatched away from us by the actions of another: A careless or dangerous driver, an act of violence, the thrust of a knife, the pull of a trigger, a criminally negligent act.

We give birth to our children, not without pain. We care for our children, not without hardship.  We love our children with every fibre of our being. We expect our baby to grow to be a toddler, to learn to walk, to talk. We expect our growing child to learn, to enjoy life, to also experience life’s ups and downs as we all do. We anticipate their teenage years and then reaching the milestones that mark adulthood: finishing their education, leaving home, starting a career, finding a partner, possibly having a family of their own.

Nothing matches the joy of watching our child achieve what they hope for. If their life is cut short – particularly through a senseless act, whether intentional or not – nothing matches the sheer agony of our grief.

Loss hurts. We grieve. We weep. We sorrow. We yearn for our child. Yet when a young life has been stolen away in these tragic circumstances, our profound sadness is also often accompanied by a defiant passion for justice and change. That’s what I think we’re witnessing in the actions of Harry’s family.

This defiant passion drives many parents to campaign for change. It could be a change of laws; it could be a road safety campaign; it could related to knife crime. We might campaign against the root causes of the crime and violence that took our child.  We may campaign against injustice – the laws that seem to allow the person who is responsible for our child’s untimely death to escape any consequences or receive only light consequences.

The energy of this defiant passion can drive us forward in the face of incredible obstacles. Eventually though, that energy will dissipate and we will be left with the sad awful reality of living a life from which our child is absent; of watching the months and years pass. The milestones they should have reached will not be reached. The happiness they should have found will not be found. The accomplishments they would have achieved will not be.

Supporting bereaved parents

As we hear about families caught up in such an unspeakable tragedy and the campaigns they might participate in, let’s reflect on what life is like for them away from the spotlight of their activities. What are they going through in their quiet moments when the deepest sorrow anyone could imagine is their constant companion?

If families such as these are within our own circle of friends, acquaintances and family, we should support them as much as we can. Reaching out to them, letting them know we care, giving them a listening ear, offering our encouragement as they take the steps they choose in living with their grief are all important.

We should never be afraid to speak about their child. Most parents are glad to hear other people remembering their child and being told little anecdotes about them. We should be particularly sensitive to their parents’ need for support and communication at times like Christmas, their child’s birthday, anniversary, or when similar situations are reported in the news.

We should respect and not question any decisions they make to involve themselves in a campaign or plan of action. We might see these as potentially futile, as draining them of their energy or of prolonging the intensity of their grief. That is not the case. What they are doing is right for them. This is how they are honouring the memory of their child, and they need our full support without implied disapproval or outright criticism.

(I’ll mention here that at the time of writing, the media narrative of the Dunn family seems to be very supportive, but this might not last. I dread the additional hurt it will cause if public opinion turns critical, as it often does.)

Being supported

If we are the parents caught up in this tragedy, let’s try to be kind to ourselves and accept the support of those who can help us. There are other parents who understand; there are organisations that can support us. (There is a short list of relevant organisations at the end of this post.)

Hopefully our campaigns and activities will do some lasting good. But whether we succeed in changing laws or bringing about other changes or not, we are doing the best we can for our precious child, and that really and truly is the best we can do.

Doing the best we can necessarily includes taking care of ourselves and being gentle with ourselves, realising that the heights of passion and defiance that are energising us now will likely be followed by low times. Whatever happens with our campaign or project, ultimately we are faced with the sadness of our child’s absence. Finding how to live without them is the challenge we now face.

— With love and compassion – written by a fellow bereaved parent. I honour my two children Pax and Catherine by trying to support others who are grieving. That is the best I can do; it never feels good enough but at least it’s something. 

P.S. Of course much of what is written above could apply to anyone who has lost their partner or other family member in a similar unprovoked tragic way, but I’ve chosen to focus this post on parents, for whom the loss is in some ways unique. 

Support and solidarity for grieving parents

The Compassionate Friends (TCF) is a charitable organisation of bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents dedicated to the support and care of other similarly bereaved family members who have suffered the death of a child or children of any age and from any cause. They run a helpline, supportive events including local meetings and larger gatherings, plus private Facebook groups and support forums where parents can ‘talk’ online. They also produce a range of information leaflets that can be found here.
Helpline: 0345 123 2304  (answered by a bereaved parent)

Support After Murder and Manslaughter (SAMM) is a national charity  supporting families bereaved by Murder and Manslaughter. They have a helpline and offer other support.
Helpline: 0121 472 2912

BRAKE is a road safety charity working with communities and organisations across the UK to stop the tragedy of road deaths and injuries.
Helpline: 0808 8000 401

RoadPeace is a national charity for road crash victims in the UK. They provide information and support services to people bereaved or seriously injured in road crashes and engage in evidence based policy and campaigning work to fight for justice for victims and reduce road danger. (Set up by a bereaved mother)
Helpline: 0845 4500 355

Ben Kinsella Trust campaigns against knife crime:

The Samaritans are always there to listen in moments of despair or anguish, no matter the cause: 116 123

The Living with Loss events that I run – retreats and workshops – are attended by people bereaved in different ways. There are usually at least a few bereaved parents. Visit here for more information

If you know of other organisations to recommend, please write them in the Comments and I’ll add them to this page.

As the parents of a child who died an avoidable death, we might be highly motivated to campaign for change. This is an appropriate way of honouring our child’s memory. But we should be aware that the heights of passion and defiance that are energising us now will likely be followed by low times. Whether we “succeed” or not in our campaigns, ultimately we are faced with the sadness of our child’s absence. Finding how to live without them is the challenge we now face.



The Knife Angel is a 27 foot sculpture created at the British Ironworks Centre in Oswestry as a National monument against violence and aggression. It is a memorial to those whose lives have been affected by knife crime. Find out more


Click here for more perspectives on being a bereaved parent

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