Jenni Thomas OBE is widely recognised in the UK as a leading authority in grief support and education in relation to a child's death and a child being bereaved.
Jenni worked for over 50 years within the NHS, first nursing and later as a counsellor, supporting parents, children and families when they were faced with devastating experiences of loss. She has dedicated her career to improving the way in which vulnerable families are supported in a crisis. Working with and continually listening to grieving parents, Jenni recognised the need for their voices to be heard. She created and put into practice vital training and support for all the professionals who would come into contact with vulnerable families.
Jenni was responsible for establishing the first Paediatric and Maternity Bereavement Counsellor role in the NHS in 1985 in Buckinghamshire, which was endorsed by the Department ofHealth as good practice. This was the model for similar roles created throughout the country. This was a significant step forward in the support of grieving families desperately in need of help.
Everything Jenni learnt was the basis of the work of the charity she founded in 1994, The Child Bereavement Trust (now known as Child Bereavement UK).
Jenni has received numerous awards for her contribution to the field of bereavement. These include:
Jenni began her career in the NHS on the Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU), Amersham Hospital. She later worked on the Maternity and Paediatric Units at the Royal Berkshire Hospital Reading and Wycombe General Hospital SCBU. During this time Jenni realised that the emotional needs of bereaved families were not being fully recognised and that the staff were not trained in how to support them.
Jenni trained as a counsellor and later in Humanistic Psychology and person-centred art therapy. She was greatly influenced by the work of John Bowlby and his attachment theory. In 1985 Jenni became the first Bereavement Counsellor in the NHS, working for Buckinghamshire NHS Trust. The success of her work led to similar posts being created in other health authorities, using protocols and policies developed by Jenni. From accident and emergency units to hospital chaplaincy, Jenni taught professionals how to act as advocates for vulnerable, grieving families. The training resources she devised and produced were based on what she had learned from bereaved families. She continued to develop this work as Bereavement Facilitator for the Oxford Regional Health Authority, while gaining a diploma in Humanistic Psychology at theUniversity of Surrey.
Jenni produced a wealth of training material based on the needs of grieving families and the professionals caring for them, including doctors, nurses, midwives, pathologist, social workers, health visitors and others in the wider community.
This included her first book, 'Supporting Parents when their Baby Died’, for professionals, and the training videos 'Death at Birth' and 'When our Baby Died', produced with Brad Williams in 1990. Jenni also raised funds to establish the Snowdrop Garden, a burial place for babies and children in High Wycombe Cemetery.
It was during this time that Professor Sir Muir Gray, Chief Medical Officer for Oxford Health Region, suggested to Jenni the idea of founding a charity to take her work forward on a national basis.
This led to her establishing The Child Bereavement Trust (CBT - now CBUK), in September 1994. It was launched at the Royal College of Nursing in the presence of Diana, Princess of Wales. As CBT went from strength to strength Jenni received invaluable support and guidance from Countess Mountbatten of Burma, the charity’s Honorary President.
In 2001, Jenni was appointed to serve on the Retained Organs Commission (ROC), set up to advise and oversee the return of organs and tissue to bereaved families across the UK. Its report was published in 2004.
In 2003, she moved from her role as CBT Chief Executive to founder President, a role she held until July 2009. Prince William became the charity’s Royal Patron in March 2009.
Throughout this time, Jenni continued her work as Maternity and Paediatric Bereavement Facilitator with the Buckinghamshire NHS Trust until she retired from the NHS in 2008.
Her bereavement training model continues to serve as a benchmark for many public services including the police, social services and education. Without the many outstanding professionals that Jenni has worked with throughout her career, her work with bereaved families would not have been possible.
Jenni currently supports local bereaved parents and families through two charities, The Angus Lawson Memorial Trust (ALMT) and Rosie's Rainbow Fund. She is patron of Teddy’s Wish, Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood UK and an advisor to the Ruth Strauss Foundation.
In 2019 Jenni decided to create a podcast “Jenni Thomas Talks AboutChild Bereavement” where she could share more widely her knowledge and experience and continue to support bereaved families and professionals through her conversations. The podcast series of nine episodes has been funded by the Angus Lawson Memorial Trust and is available here.
I am often asked why I became involved in working with bereaved families. Perhaps people imagine that I have experienced the loss of a child myself. However, it was only when I trained as a counsellor in 1980 that I began to understand that my childhood experience of loss and grief had profoundly influenced me and my choice of work.
Our family was in mourning during my childhood. I do not remember my father, who was killed during the Second World War when I was two years old, but growing up in a family where my mother had lost her husband soon after the death of her only brother a few months earlier, ensured that grief pervaded our lives. Two important family members had died and the space they left was enormous. I don’t remember talking about feelings of grief as a child but I will never forget the overwhelming sadness I felt for my mother. I wanted to make it better for her. I think that's where the nurse and carer in me began.
From training as a counsellor, I began to understand my own experience of loss as I had never thought of myself as a bereaved child. I, like every other healthcare professional in those days, had no training in understanding loss and grief. Nursing staff, doctors and managers, were simply expected to know how to deal with death and distress. Although we had our caring and our humanity, staff who showed their emotions were considered unprofessional. There was then, and sadly still can be today, very limited support for staff.
However, I noticed that families responded to staff who were able to show feelings and say how sorry they were when a baby or child had died. Counselling training helped me to understand people but most of all it taught me about myself and why I was drawn to loss and grief work.
This led me to question the whole bereavement culture within our healthcare system, in particular the separation of medical care and emotional care. I believed that death and dying had to be acknowledged as important areas for all healthcare professionals. My quest to change the system began its long journey.
I negotiated with senior management to provide bereavement counselling for families. I devised training that would educate professionals in loss and grief as well as provide emotional support for them while they developed their self-awareness. A significant and daunting aspect of my work was changing the NHS culture to realise that healthcare professionals asking for support, was seen to be a strength and not a weakness.
In 1984, I began counselling parents whose infants had died at or soon after birth on the maternity or neonatal units. I saw first hand how important it was for grieving families to know that the grief they experienced was a normal reaction to an abnormal event. Parents told me that what they needed was not to be made to feel abnormal with too much emphasis on counselling and that human, caring support was invaluable.
Some years later, despite all my experience, nothing could have prepared me for the call that came from my youngest son telling me that he and his wife were on their way to hospital – the hospital I was based in. Lucie was in premature labour at 23 weeks into her pregnancy. Walking into that hospital, where I had so many times before been part of the team supporting bereaved families, felt so different when it was my own little grandchild who was being born just too early. All the things I’d learnt that were important to other families suddenly became hugely significant in this, our family crisis. Annabelle lived for less than an hour. She will never be forgotten and will always be my sixth grandchild. I feel immensely privileged to have been there at her birth.
I have four adult children and am married to Simon Walters, a journalist.
Recording the podcasts has given me an opportunity to reflect on all that I have learnt from the many families and how varied people’s experiences of grief can be.
I once heard - and how true this is – that there is no right way to grieve. We do as we must in grief.