‘Amazing opportunity’ to support bereaved families

“When Elliot died, time just stopped. Life continued around us but we didn’t feel part of it anymore, we just existed in a bubble, living from minute to minute with so many emotions coming and going.”

Andrea Kerslake with son Elliot and daughter Emily

‘Amazing opportunity’ to support bereaved families. October 2023

Andrea Kerslake, Assistant Head of Student Support at Leeds, reflects on the past decade since the devastating loss of her two-year-old son, Elliot, and explains how hope grew from tragedy with the founding of a new charity to support other families left alone to face their grief in the aftermath of child bereavement.

When Andrea put Elliot down for his afternoon nap ten years ago, little did she know he would never wake up again.

People say losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to a parent, but among all the pain and anguish, nothing could prepare Andrea and her family for the heartache that was to come.

With little or no support to comfort them in their time of grief, they were left with a sense of desperate isolation and loneliness.  

It took 12 weeks to get an initial cause of death, which was later challenged by a wider group of professionals – something the family only discovered in a telephone call out of the blue. It took a further 19 months to get an inquest, and only then after a constant battle for answers.

Completely alone

Andrea said: “In the early days it didn’t seem real; the shock seemed to protect us and stopped the full impact from hitting us all at once. Functioning even on the most basic level became almost impossible.

“There are suddenly so many decisions to make. We went from planning Elliot’s third birthday to planning his funeral. How are you supposed to process that? 

“When we left hospital with only an advice leaflet in our hands, we felt completely alone. Alone in the fact we had to contemplate facing the future without our gorgeous little boy, who had been such a huge part of our family life. But also alone in how we were supposed to support his sister Emily and brother Oliver in their grief, support each other as a couple and keep our family together.

“As a mummy who put my son down for an everyday sleep to have to wait so long to find out the cause and to finally hear it wasn’t my fault caused such additional pain. We had to chase for every scrap of information at a time when we were devastated at our loss, when just putting one foot in front of the other felt an enormous achievement. We had two other children to protect, so you just do it. But we felt the systems and processes surrounding Elliot’s death didn’t consider the bereaved family left grieving and trying to cope.”

‘Amazing opportunity’ to support bereaved families. October 2023

Elliot Kerslake, who died aged just two

Keeping Elliot’s spirit alive

It was determined that Elliot died from ‘natural causes’. While he slept, a virus attacked the area of his brain that controlled his breathing and heart rate. The coroner said he didn’t stand a chance.

Andrea added: “To us Elliot wasn’t ill, he just had the usual toddler running nose, but our lives shattered that Sunday afternoon.

“We went from sorting out the evening meal and making sure Emily and Oliver’s homework was all done for Monday back at school, to leaving Elliot behind in the hospital.

“Along with other professionals and friends, we were shocked at the lack of support available to help us navigate the processes and even begin to cope with the grief. We also didn’t feel the schools had the resources or training needed to properly support Emily and Oliver – instead, they saw their reaction to bereavement as a behavioural problem.

“So, we founded the Elliot’s Footprint charity. We didn’t want any other family to face a tragedy like this on their own. We know we can never take away the horrendous pain, but if we can ease it the tiniest bit, then we will.

“What’s driven our survival is the feeling we owe it to our two other fantastic children and to the memory of our gorgeous little boy to make the most of life by carrying his spirit in our hearts and souls. It’s like a line in the sand has been drawn that demands we make the most of every second.  

“We live on with a new mission to keep Elliot’s loving and caring spirit alive through Elliot’s Footprint. We vow to help other families who sadly find themselves in this strange world we now belong in. We reach out and guide them through, just as Elliot would have done in life.”

‘Amazing opportunity’ to support bereaved families. October 2023

John Kerslake enjoying a day on the beach with little Elliot

Bridging the gap

Research funded by Andrea and her husband John discovered families in Leeds have insufficient support following the sudden death of a child. Elliot’s Footprint has gone a long way to helping bridge that gap since it was launched in 2014. The charity offers help and guidance, whilst campaigning and fundraising for improved bereavement services. 

Through its ground-breaking research, Elliot’s Footprint identified the need to have someone there for families at the immediate point after the loss of a child. Working with other organisations in the region, the charity raised funds to pay for the UK’s first ever dedicated Bereavement Support Worker, who can reach out and be there for a family when they need them the most.

Andrea said: “We’re very proud of our achievements. 

“Our training in more than 100 schools was a high point along with our lobbying, both locally and nationally, to improve bereavement support.”

How you can help

Elliott’s Footprint is now seeking new trustees to help further the charity’s cause. 

Andrea explained: “Even though we work in challenging circumstances, we’re a very proactive and positive charity. There’s a significant ripple effect from the work we do, which is felt throughout family and friends suffering the pain of their loss.

“Becoming a trustee is an amazing opportunity to make a huge difference in people’s lives. We might be a local charity but we have national recognition.

“You don’t need to be an expert in this field – you can bring your own experiences and skills to play a vital role in pushing the charity forwards. By contacting us, there’s also no commitment. We’re happy to just talk it through to see if volunteering is right for you. You might also be able to help the charity in other ways, which would be fantastic.”

Contact Andrea Kerslake at Elliotsfootprint@gmail.com for further information.

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