5 minutes with… Julie Stokes
Winston’s Wish, the child bereavement charity, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. We spoke to its founder Julie Stokes, now an executive coach working with large businesses, about the charity’s work, the shift in approaches to child bereavement, and how all this has informed her work within business.
What do you think looking back over 25 years of Winston’s Wish?
It’s so often you hear that vulnerable children have experienced a bereavement… around 41 per cent of youth offenders have experienced childhood bereavement compared to the 4 per cent national average. These are the areas where Winston’s Wish really fly a flag: sometimes the key preventative work done early on can make a tremendous difference. The 25-year story of Winston’s Wish is so lovely to look back on now. So many of those young people that we’ve worked with are doing amazing things. A fantastic example for me is Gemma Allen, who is now a wonderful senior practitioner within Winston’s Wish and is a champion for the work we do with children who have been bereaved by murder. Recently Channel 4 made an exquisite portrayal of life through the eyes of a child whose parent has been murdered, called A Killing in My Family. Gemma led that project and worked with the team at Winston’s Wish to bring together a group of families who were able to tell, in a confident way, their story and look at the benefits of what we would call peer support.
What’s changed in the approach to child bereavement over last 25 years?
We are talking about death, and I do think as a society we are becoming much more able to embrace the concept and reality of a good death. A child said to me years ago ‘Children can be seen but not sad’, but now we’re more able to tolerate the sadness of children than we were in the past. It’s one thing if adults can talk about it, but we’ll know we’ve really made it in society when we can be genuinely inclusive of children when they’re going through loss. The discussions around child bereavement are really coming of age now. When you get Princes Harry and William being able to talk about their bereavement, under a strategic flag of mental health, that shows a maturity of conversation you could not possibly have had 25 years ago. I always wanted to position Winston’s Wish as a non-pathological service. These children are not sick, they’ve had something very difficult happen in their lives and they need to make sense of it. It’s quite a difficult message to give, because some will require more of a mental health approach. But in the main I think, as a society, we have got better at realising that the death of a parent is one of the most fundamental losses a child will ever face.
What does the future hold for Winston’s Wish?
Winston’s Wish creates a real sense of unity. One thing it’s looking to do this year is try and get that sense of belonging for adults who were bereaved as children as well. Social media really helps with some of these conversations too, and Winston’s Wish is really looking into that and how we can have some important conversations in different ways. I just love the way people are having much more open discussions with others online about this stuff.
How has your work in child bereavement informed working with businesses as an executive coach?
I have worked in very different sectors, and I think the thing that unifies those different sectors is the psychological skill base, though it gets dressed up, presented and valued in slightly different ways. I have colleagues who are consultant clinical psychologists working exclusively in the NHS, and sometimes you do forget how relevant and valuable that skill set is. Those skills are so relevant to people because, at the end of the day, wherever you’re working the core issues of how people think, feel and behave are the same. So, many of the rules and regulations on navigating your way through the career needs to open up. It’s a wonderful skill set to have to know what it means to be psychological.
What have been some of your proudest moments of the last 25 years?
I think the most delicious for me are the almost microscopic moments when somebody says something or a child comes out with a wisdom with confidence. I think some of the proudest moments are when you see 25 children united in sadness and then within moments afterwards you see them joking together and laughing and having a sense of togetherness. There’s something really beautiful for me about belonging. It’s the teamwork, the volunteers who were with us in the beginning too. My best friend’s husband, who was bereaved as a child, suggested all the presents for their wedding should be donated as money, which bought us our first ever leaflet on Winston’s Wish. The people make me most proud.
See winstonswish.org.uk for more, and find more from Julie in our archive.
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