Charity created in son's memory: coping with bereavement at Christmas feature

Remembering a child who has died is difficult for any parent all year around, but at Christmas the emotions are magnified as family and friends prepare to celebrate the festive season together.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 24th December 2020, 5:14 pm
One of Jane Nattrass’ treasured photos of her and Henry together.
One of Jane Nattrass’ treasured photos of her and Henry together.

Jane Nattrass knows all too well what this feels like, as she prepares to mark her 10th Christmas Day without her only son, Henry Dancer, who died of a rare form of bone cancer at the age of 12.

“We’d barely taken down the condolence cards when the Christmas cards began to arrive,” said the County Durham resident, originally from Morpeth.

Jane wants to reach out to other grieving families across the region as Christmas 2020 will be a very strange time for so many people.

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And for some parents and relatives, it will also be the first Christmas they will spend without one or more of their loved ones – many of whom may have died from Covid-19.

Jane hopes that sharing her own personal experiences will help at least one parent or family member this Christmas.

For two years after Henry’s death, she focused most of her attention and energy on trying to come to terms with her son’s passing from osteosarcoma, which robbed her of her bubbly boy.

Henry and his family were told by his consultants that his advanced form of the disease affects one in 10million people, which shows just how rare a situation it was for them.

She then decided to try and create something in memory of her son, which is when Henry Dancer Days was born.

Henry Dancer Days is a charity that supports children with cancer and helps their families with life-changing essentials such as providing support with physiotherapy equipment and helping out with winter heating bills, even buying tablets and mobile phones enabling the young people to have a crucial connection with loved ones during their long spells in hospital getting treatment.

Before becoming a charity director, Jane enjoyed a career working in the arts.

The 57-year-old is married to husband Gary, who works as a sound supervisor for a national television broadcaster. Gary came into Jane and Henry’s lives when Henry was aged four.

Henry played a big role on Gary and Jane’s wedding day by handing the happy couple their marriage certificate.

Henry enjoyed a special surprise a week before Christmas in 2009 when the football mad Newcastle United fan got to meet his hero, Alan Shearer.

The legendary number nine has continued to support Henry by playing a special patronage role with Henry Dancer Days.

Speaking about trying to deal with Christmas without Henry, Jane said: “At first, I thought I couldn’t cope with the idea of Christmas. I was too numb and certainly felt that I had nothing at all to celebrate.

“I simply wanted the festive season to go away.

“The day itself was just another day. The build-up was always harder, which is mirrored on other occasions like birthdays and anniversaries.

“Thinking of how we usually spent Christmas, and the painful awareness that there would be an empty chair at the dining table, was almost unbearable. It reinforced the fact that Henry was gone.”

She added that it was hard to accept there would be no opening of wrapped toys, or family traditions based around an excited young boy. And any get-togethers with friends and family with children would really hurt.

Jane concluded: “Our Christmas tree was a real joy to Henry and it still goes up each year, even when I don’t really want to decorate it.

“I always buy a new decoration, including one bearing his name to hang on the branches, and make sure that his Christmas crafting history is evident – some are beginning to fade but my love for him never will.

“Ten years on and I’ve found that there is no right or wrong way to cope with grief.

“You realise that the world is moving on without you and you’re going to feel sad and have some guilt at the rare happy moments you experience.

“You can retain any rituals or traditions, but don’t be frightened to say ‘no, I don’t think I can manage it’.

“Try to be kind and honest to both yourself and to others.”

Another strand to Henry Dancer Days is its ability to make magic moments for those families whose children are terminally ill and who want to create invaluable memories that can be treasured forever.

The charity receives support from organisations such as BBC Children In Need, The National Lottery and The Fore, and is overwhelmed with the level of support from its ever growing army of fund-raisers.

To date, Henry Dancer Days has helped more than 3,500 people with its Hardship Support Programme and engaged with over 10,000 people through its storytelling scheme – which takes place throughout seven hospitals nationwide, currently being held virtually due to Covid-19 restrictions.

To find out more information about the crucial work being delivered by Henry Dancer Days to support families and to learn about how you can make a donation to the charity, go online to www.henrydancerdays.co.uk