JACK and Toby are “besties”. With beaming smiles, and arms round each other’s shoulders, they burst, noisily, through the door.

The happiness volume button goes up another notch when the boys spot Paula Thompson. They run to give her cuddles before turning to Pat Hodgson with the same excited greeting.

With so much joy and exuberance in the room, it’s hard to believe that Paula and Pat are running a “Young Persons’ Bereavement Group”.

It is a service provided by Butterwick Hospice Care, at Bishop Auckland, to support children who have lost someone close to them, with six-week programmes run between 5pm and 6.30pm on Wednesdays.

Parents and others carers describe the service as “a lifeline” but it is under threat with funding due to run out this September.

Toby, nine, lost his dad, Christian, in 2012. A passionate Sunderland supporter and popular figure at Darlington Railway Station, where he worked, Christian died of septicemia and multiple organ failure following an operation. He was just 38.

Christian’s widow, Joanne Howey, of Staindrop, explains that Toby found it hard to cope with his dad’s death: “He was only two when Christian passed but, as he got older, he started asking why he didn’t have a dad like other children,” she says. “He was coming out of parties crying because other kids were being picked up by their dads.”

With Toby’s anxiety getting worse, Joanne was referred to the Young Persons’ Bereavement Group in June and it has made “a world of difference”.

“It’s helped him to understand that he’s not alone with those feelings – he’s not the only one who’s lost someone,” says Joanne.

The last place Toby saw his dad was at Darlington Memorial Hospital and he would get angry if ever he went past in the car with his mum. “I hate that place,” he’d shout.

“Coming to the group has helped him to understand his feelings much better and he’s made new friends,” says his mum.

The best of those friends is eight-year-old Jack, who has arrived at the group with his auntie, Joanne Ali, of Bishop Auckland.

Jack was devastated when his grandma, Barbara Ornsby, died suddenly. “They had a special relationship and he’d never experienced the death of someone close before,” explains Joanne. “Jack has two autistic sisters, so we were struggling as a family to cope but coming to the group has been such a help. He started to speak about his feelings, and he’s made friends that he really looks forward to seeing. It’s an amazing place – it needs to be kept going.”

Funding for the service was established a year ago thanks to a grant from the Scotto Trust but it runs out in September and the future is uncertain.

It is a huge worry for Paula Thompson, who runs the group as a Family Support Counsellor with the Butterwick. “There is such a big demand for counselling for children who have been recently bereaved, or who have someone at the end of their life. Before we had the group, the referral time for one-to-one counselling was 14-16 weeks. We can’t go back to that – we have to find a way to keep going.”

Paula is ably supported by Pat Hodgson, a volunteer and qualified counsellor, who adds: “It would be a huge blow if the service was lost because it is having such a positive impact. We’ve got children who never knew each other before ending up as best of friends, and the same goes for parents and carers who’ve gone on to set up their own support networks.”

The six-week sessions cover emotions, fears, worries, anger, and grief to start with. A life-sized “Angry Body” drawing is pinned to the the door, depicting where emotions come from. Anger is dealt with by the youngsters throwing wet tissues at the body and shouting at it.

By week five, the focus is on memories of loved ones, with the children making “memory pockets” containing mementos of their lost loved ones. Week six is a celebration of the lost lives, with a focus on rebuilding self-confidence.

While heavy emotions are inevitably dealt with, there is also a lot of fun, with plenty of games, arts and crafts, blowing bubbles, and growing forget-me-knots. And it all happens in a friendly, safe, and understanding environment.

Bronwen Coley, of Shildon, has come with her grandchildren Alfie, nine, and Ruby, seven, who lost their mum in May, 2018.

“It’s helped them to understand that they are not alone in their loss – and it’s helped me to too because it’s been such a hard time. It would be horrendous to lose the service because it’s so important to have somewhere like this where people understand what it feels like to lose someone so close,” she says.

For all the families in the room, the Young Persons’ Bereavement Group at the Butterwick Hospice has been a godsend at the most difficult time of their lives.

The last word goes to eight-year-old Jack. Asked what he likes about the group, he pauses to consider his reply. “When I get upset, I think about coming here and that makes me happy again,” he says.

Then he breaks into a smile, gives Toby a bear-hug, and declares: “We’re besties forever!”

  • Anyone who can helped provide financial support to keep the Young Person’s Bereavement Group going should contact Jo Wallis, Head of Marketing and Fundraising at Butterwick Hospice at jo.wallis@butterwick.org.uk