A career of caring for bereaved children: Julie Stokes

A career of caring for bereaved children: Julie Stokes

A career of caring for bereaved children: Julie Stokes

Introduction

Psychologist Julie Stokes (CF 1992) has spent three decades championing services for bereaved children, most notably by founding the pioneering charity Winston’s Wish, which was named in honour of her Churchill Fellowship.

“My Fellowship has directly helped to transform the way we involve and support children." - Julie Stokes, Fellow

In the late 1980s, Julie Stokes was a recently qualified clinical psychologist working in Gloucestershire Royal Hospital when she was asked to help set up one of the UK’s first hospital-based teams focussing on palliative care. Through this work, Julie noticed that many children were losing parents or siblings at a young age and that they received little in the way of formal support. Each year, an estimated 45,000 children are bereaved of a parent or sibling in the UK. Julie’s own mother had experienced the death of a sibling and a parent at a young age, but with little formalised support available, she had to manage her grief on her own.

Determined to do something to help, but with little knowledge of what that might be, Julie applied for a Churchill Fellowship in 1992 to explore international best practice in supporting bereaved children. Travelling to Canada and the USA, she witnessed first-hand a number of pioneering programmes. In particular, her visit to the Amanda the Panda Family Grief Centre in Iowa had a profound influence on her thinking. The programme there brought bereaved children together in group activities to address grief in a creative, fun and meaningful way.

Julie brought this learning back to the UK and presented her findings in a paper at an international conference in Edinburgh. Not content to stop there, she secured the support of her NHS Trust to do something practical. Inspired by the models she’d seen internationally, Julie created an independent trust fund in 1992 under the umbrella of the hospital, to support bereaved children who had experienced the death of a family member through any type of death. The result was Winston’s Wish, named out of gratitude for her Churchill Fellowship.

The charity started very small, covering the Gloucestershire area. Julie worked closely with a marketeer to create a brand that children could relate to. This included developing a mascot, inspired by Amanda the Panda - a bear called Winston, whose wish was that every bereaved child would get the support they needed. After just three years, this grief support programme was well established, and in 1994 Julie won the BT/Childline award ‘for providing outstanding services to children’.

Ten years in, Julie was approached by the BBC to make a documentary about Winston’s Wish. This greatly raised the profile of the charity and led to £500,000 of funding from Swiss Life to establish a national helpline service that would reach children nationwide. The charity’s staffing rapidly expanded and, since then, Winston’s Wish has grown to become the UK’s leading childhood bereavement charity, supporting more than 20,000 children each year through its helpline service, webchat, counselling, workshops, residential weekends and more.

For Julie personally and professionally, the Fellowship has had a lasting impact. Since she first set out on her travels so long ago, Julie has lectured all over the world, contributed to 11 TV documentaries (including the ground-breaking Channel 4 series ‘The Mummy Diaries’) and, in 2006, received an OBE for her services to children and families.

In 2007 Julie left Winston’s Wish and now works as an executive coach. But she still keeps in touch with some of the children from her initial support group, who have now gone on to have children of their own. In 2021 she published one of the first non-fiction books about grief specifically aimed at children. It is called You Will Be Okay and pulls together all of Julie’s learnings and experience over the past three decades.

Julie says, “My Fellowship has directly helped to transform the way we involve and support children following the death of a parent or sibling. I had no idea when I walked into my panel interview (nursing a black eye from an accident the day before) that a one-hour conversation and Fellowship would have such a profound impact on my life. I am so proud to be a Churchill Fellow and really embrace the way the organisation is evolving to stay current and relevant to new Fellows.”

“My Fellowship has directly helped to transform the way we involve and support children." - Julie Stokes, Fellow

In the late 1980s, Julie Stokes was a recently qualified clinical psychologist working in Gloucestershire Royal Hospital when she was asked to help set up one of the UK’s first hospital-based teams focussing on palliative care. Through this work, Julie noticed that many children were losing parents or siblings at a young age and that they received little in the way of formal support. Each year, an estimated 45,000 children are bereaved of a parent or sibling in the UK. Julie’s own mother had experienced the death of a sibling and a parent at a young age, but with little formalised support available, she had to manage her grief on her own.

Determined to do something to help, but with little knowledge of what that might be, Julie applied for a Churchill Fellowship in 1992 to explore international best practice in supporting bereaved children. Travelling to Canada and the USA, she witnessed first-hand a number of pioneering programmes. In particular, her visit to the Amanda the Panda Family Grief Centre in Iowa had a profound influence on her thinking. The programme there brought bereaved children together in group activities to address grief in a creative, fun and meaningful way.

Julie brought this learning back to the UK and presented her findings in a paper at an international conference in Edinburgh. Not content to stop there, she secured the support of her NHS Trust to do something practical. Inspired by the models she’d seen internationally, Julie created an independent trust fund in 1992 under the umbrella of the hospital, to support bereaved children who had experienced the death of a family member through any type of death. The result was Winston’s Wish, named out of gratitude for her Churchill Fellowship.

The charity started very small, covering the Gloucestershire area. Julie worked closely with a marketeer to create a brand that children could relate to. This included developing a mascot, inspired by Amanda the Panda - a bear called Winston, whose wish was that every bereaved child would get the support they needed. After just three years, this grief support programme was well established, and in 1994 Julie won the BT/Childline award ‘for providing outstanding services to children’.

Ten years in, Julie was approached by the BBC to make a documentary about Winston’s Wish. This greatly raised the profile of the charity and led to £500,000 of funding from Swiss Life to establish a national helpline service that would reach children nationwide. The charity’s staffing rapidly expanded and, since then, Winston’s Wish has grown to become the UK’s leading childhood bereavement charity, supporting more than 20,000 children each year through its helpline service, webchat, counselling, workshops, residential weekends and more.

For Julie personally and professionally, the Fellowship has had a lasting impact. Since she first set out on her travels so long ago, Julie has lectured all over the world, contributed to 11 TV documentaries (including the ground-breaking Channel 4 series ‘The Mummy Diaries’) and, in 2006, received an OBE for her services to children and families.

In 2007 Julie left Winston’s Wish and now works as an executive coach. But she still keeps in touch with some of the children from her initial support group, who have now gone on to have children of their own. In 2021 she published one of the first non-fiction books about grief specifically aimed at children. It is called You Will Be Okay and pulls together all of Julie’s learnings and experience over the past three decades.

Julie says, “My Fellowship has directly helped to transform the way we involve and support children following the death of a parent or sibling. I had no idea when I walked into my panel interview (nursing a black eye from an accident the day before) that a one-hour conversation and Fellowship would have such a profound impact on my life. I am so proud to be a Churchill Fellow and really embrace the way the organisation is evolving to stay current and relevant to new Fellows.”