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Children need frank discussions about death, says author Lee Crowther

Author: Leila Hawkins
19 September 2017

Lee Crowther is the author of The Grandad Gran Prix, a children's book aiming to help kids come to terms with the death of a family member. Crowther wrote the book after his father died, and here he explains what moved him to write it and why it is crucial to have honest conversations with children about death.

Crowther's father died in 2012 after battling with cancer for a year.  After his death he began writing down memories of the times he and his family had spent with him, which would ultimately become the basis of The Grandad Gran Prix.

Told through the eyes of a young girl called Flo, the book tells the story of two competitive grandads who take on a challenge against each other. It is a fictional tale, yet is imbued with Crowther's recollections of his childhood and his father's last year before dying at Douglas Macmillan Hospice in Stoke-on-Trent.

"I was really struggling to cope" Crowther says about the aftermath of his father's death. "I got this thought in my head that I could not get rid of - "what if I forget some of the things that happened to us over the last 12 months as a family?" And also some of the things that happened in my childhood, when me and my sister lived with my mum and dad. I thought, I want to write something."

While his father was ill he realised his two young daughters and sister's sons did not have anything to read that might explain what was happening. "I decided to write it as a kids' story" he explains, "because I wanted it to be something that could be used by other people in similar situations to speak to their kids, or for a teacher to discuss with their classroom. It was a bit like therapy."

Initially he did not have much luck with agents, however as chance would have it, while he was picking up his youngest daughter from school one day he got talking to one of the mothers, Liz Clarke, the Head of Media and Marketing at Douglas Macmillan Hospice, who were in the process of setting up an initiative to go into schools and get children talking about conditions like cancer and the work hospices do.  Crowther gave Clarke a copy of his book, and after reading it the hospice encouraged him to take it to a publishing house in Newcastle. North Staffordshire Press saw a definite market for it, and two years later the book was published.

Crowther says there are not enough resources to help children understand the deaths of their relatives, either books or educational programmes. Of his family's experience he simply says, "we just found our own way really."

The medical and social care teams at Douglas Macmillan gave him a valuable steer while he was writing the story, particularly on the importance of being frank when it comes to speaking to children about dying. "They came back with a very interesting point in a chapter where I originally wrote that Flo's mum says "grandad has passed away." They said I should just say that he died. Kids are far more responsive to being direct, so I changed the text to reflect that and make it more relevant to children. Adults use phrases to make things sound a bit softer and easier. But if you tell it like it is, kids take it well."

Crowther emphasises in the book that it is up to the parents to decide how open they want to be with their children. "Very early on [my wife and I] took the position that we were going to tell them everything, that we were not going to hold back. That is a very personal choice for every parent to make."

His wife is a primary school teacher, and part of the Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) educational curriculum she teaches includes real life issues like life-limiting conditions such as cancer and death.  Crowther is hoping his book will be used by teachers as a starting point for these discussions and to be kept in school libraries.

"Quite a lot of teachers have bought the book" he says.  "A school in Manchester has a copy, and schools in Stafford and Stone as well. I have also spoken to the head of Entrust for PSHE for Staffordshire,  and she is now recommending it to schools as well."

He would also like to see it used in a wider context. "It has been used by the care team at the Douglas Macmillan Hospice, but I also want it to be used as a resource in hospices, hospitals like Christie in Manchester who we are having a conversation with at the moment, and families, so they can just sit down and read it and have a laugh hopefully, as it is quite fun." 

"But whether it just helps a teacher, hospice, social worker, a family or a child to perhaps interact with the subject that is fine. As far as I am concerned if it helps one child, then that is good enough for me." 

For more information visit The Grandad Gran Prix

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