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'I sit with their pain, and know I can't fix it'

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Annette Lawrance-Owen has made it her life work to help grieving families move forward after the loss of a child

Where do you find strength? Why do you get up in the morning? How do you continue living in the face of consuming tragedy?

annette lawrance owen

annette lawrance owen

These are the questions through which bereavement counsellor Annette Lawrance-Owen guides families after the death of a child. They are questions she almost had to face herself.

When her son was 10 weeks old she walked into his room to find him grey and ashen. She was able to use her skills as a nurse to start his breathing again but she still contemplates “what would my life be like if my son had died that day?”

Ms Lawrance-Owen’s inspiring commitment to caring began at a young age with the birth of her younger brother, who has Down’s syndrome, and her sister who is seven years her junior. “They had special challenges,” Ms Lawrance-Owen says. “And I was their older sister.” This inclination towards caring was encouraged by her parents and her aunt, who was a nurse herself.

“I loved my work and knew I was called to be a nurse”

Her path to becoming the role model she is today has not always been smooth but she has not been deterred. When she failed her nursing finals, Ms Lawrance-Owen picked herself up and dusted herself off. She explains “It was a difficult and humbling experience, however I loved my work and knew I was called to be a nurse, so with support and encouragement I sat my exam again and passed.”

She encourages students facing similar challenges to “keep going! I learnt some resilience at that time which has been extremely useful since.”

After finishing her studies at St Thomas’ in London, Ms Lawrance Owen worked as a paediatric nurse before undertaking her health visitor training. She made it a priority to visit the grieving mothers of babies who had passed away as she felt strongly that her responsibility as a nurse was not finished just because there was no longer a baby to care for.

“They walked with those families, supporting them through their pain”

She remembers crying after her first visit to Child Bereavement UK, a service providing support to bereaved children and families who have experienced the death of a child. She was moved by the work that was being done by the founder, Jenni Thomas, along with the rest of the team. “They walked with those families, supporting them through their pain and seeing them through to the other side,” she recalls.

Ms Lawrance-Owen decided then that was the work she wanted to do. She recognised that there was little support for families whose children had died within the community trust and took the iniative to change this. She was supported by her manager to undertake more training and learn how to support bereaved families and the trust paid for her counselling training, which she says did more than help equip her with the tools to support families; it helped her learn how to care for herself.

Today, Ms Lawrance-Owen continues her incredible work at Sussex Community Foundation Trust. She shoulders the responsibility of serving as the rapid response for families who have experienced the death of a child. 

In April 2008, local safeguarding children’s boards were assigned the responsibility of reviewing all child deaths, as set out in the government paper “Working together to safeguard children”. The purpose of this review is to identify why the child died if possible, identify any contributory factors and provide ongoing support to the family, the latter being Ms Lawrance-Owen’s remit.

“She listens and provides practical guidance for dealing with grief”

She first makes a home visit to complete an assessment of the family’s situation, which includes discussing their strengths and weaknesses and what kind of support they have available to them.

She listens and provides practical guidance for dealing with grief. She also serves as a key person of contact to shelter the families from having to deal with multiple agencies. She is a constant in that period of their lives.

Ms Lawrance-Owen says the most difficult part of the job is “sitting with their pain and knowing I can’t fix it.” She acknowledges that it is also one of the most important parts.

“Grief is not a medical condition. I know I can’t ‘make it better’ but I can share the journey and give guidance to help restore balance to these families’ lives,” she says.

“You have to build up a positive work-life balance and build up your own resilience”

Ms Lawrance-Owen also recognises the risk of emotional exhaustion for nurses in all fields. “There is a cost for caring,” she says. “You have to build up a positive work-life balance and build up your own resilience. It takes time and conscious effort. It’s a daily challenge.”

What makes all the difficulties and effort worth it, she says, is seeing families begin to function again. She works hard for the moments when a family is able to have a bit of fun, when they find themselves laughing again.

Ms Lawrance-Owen has made achieving these happy moments her life’s work.

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