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‘Talking to a child who has lost a parent is particularly difficult, and heartbreaking.’ Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP


My mother died when I was 10. Writing about it after decades of silence, I see now how important it is to discuss bereavement

Death and taxes, as the saying goes, are the only certainties in life. So why then is one of these things still so hard to talk about? Not taxes, that’s just zzzzz, but death. Always death.

As inevitable as dying may be, talking about mortality remains taboo. How strange this is when it affects us all – not just our own deaths of course, but those of our loved ones, as shown by Prince Harry’s recent admission that he regrets not talking sooner about how his mother’s death affected him.

Harry was 12 when Diana, Princess of Wales, died. At 31, he was hosting an event at Kensington Palace for the mental health charity Heads Together when he admitted that he only began opening up about her sudden death three years ago. That’s a lot of years of sweeping a defining life event under the carpet.

I was 10 when my mother, Jane, died in 1985. And it has taken me all this time to open up about it. Last year, I wrote a piece for the Guardian’s A Moment that Changed Me series about her death. I had recently started a new relationship, and my boyfriend asked me what had happened. I realised I had never really talked about it before, and that I needed to.

The piece struck a chord. In the first few days alone it had more than 225,000 views online. I had comments from readers all over the world – and not just in the comments thread beneath the piece, but from strangers who tracked me down via social media.

Even now, a year later, people I know vaguely come up to me and say they have read the piece, and that they were moved, or that they too have been bereaved. Maybe it was their father, their sister or their friend – but they have been bereft, broken and lost, and they too have rebuilt themselves, and their lives. The message is clear – this is a universal feeling.

And even if you have never been bereaved, have rarely contemplated your own mortality or that of your nearest and dearest, talking about death can be liberating. An old school friend got in touch after I wrote the article. To think that I was going through all of that at school, she said. She didn’t have an inkling. How could she? My new life had begun and I was not to look back on my old one. This was the message that resonated throughout the rest of my childhood.

After my mother’s death, I was looked after by a friend of hers, who had three older children – two were young adults, aged 20 and 18. They didn’t understand how a 10-year-old could be grieving. On the first Mother’s Day that rolled around – less than four months after she died – they pressured me into giving my new foster mother a card. “She’s done a lot for you,” they said. How could I possibly say this woman wasn’t my mother? That I had but one mother, and that she was dead. I was a shy child. I kept my mouth shut and handed over a card. They did not mean to be cruel. They were protective of their own mother. And I am sure they genuinely did not know how I was feeling, or think to talk to me about it.

I understand. Talking to a child who has lost a parent is particularly difficult, and heartbreaking. But bereaved children are not rare. The charity Child Bereavement UK estimates that 23,600 parents of children under 18 die every year, and that one in 29 children has lost a parent or a sibling – that’s one child in every class.

There’s a mistaken idea that children forget, and that they adapt. Yes children can be resilient and adaptable – as can adults. But children grieve. We need to acknowledge this, and learn how to talk about death.

It has taken me 30 years to realise that my story isn’t over – and that talking about my mother’s death doesn’t mean I am stuck in the past, but that I am moving forward. I have started writing about her more, and about the multifaceted aspects of bereavement. And because of this opening up, not only have strangers been in touch, but also people who knew my mother. I have even met some of them – a moving, strange and surreal experience. So I will continue to talk about death, to open up, to throw off my Britishness, because it feels right. And you should too.

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