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A Message To MPs Who Voted To Remove Financial Support From Bereaved Families

15/03/2017 11:39
mattjeacock via Getty Images

To the MPs who voted to remove financial support from widows and widowers last week -

You say providing financial assistance to bereaved families is outdated and that most families have two wage earners now. You say the government has a responsibility to help the bereaved adjust to the change in their lives and get back into the workplace quickly. You use the term "workless households" and tell the country that this is detrimental to our children. You assure us that this new system is far more sympathetic to newly bereaved parents and that it has children's best interests at heart. You voted that as of April 5th 2017, support will be provided to newly bereaved families for just 18 months, and not until the end of a child's education as is currently the case.

So now I would like to put forward my view. I probably have a greater understanding of what this means and I certainly have more empathy than the MP who texted, grinned and passed notes to another MP as the story from the perspective of a widowed parent was put forward.

My husband and I had been married for 18 years. We both worked full time, Tony as a materials technologist and myself as a teaching assistant with special needs children. Tony also worked two evenings a week as a youth club leader. We had a busy family life with four children and a cat - we were just a normal family. Then on the first day back at work after the Christmas holidays, we chatted over a cup of tea and Tony asked what I needed picking up from the shop after he finished work. A normal morning, except that an hour later he returned from work, said he didn't feel well, walked past me into the lounge where he collapsed and died instantly. He was just 45 years old. It was a month after my 40th birthday.

Life changed in that moment. Being widowed at a young age is unbelievably hard. You feel as though you're in a living nightmare. You want to hide from the world, but you can't, because you are the glue holding what is left of your family together. Your children have never needed you more - they are grieving and suffering from shock, and it kills you to witness it because you can't take their pain away. You are exhausted, continually. You are empty because being empty is easier than opening up your own grief and running the risk of your kids seeing you crying, adding to their grief and frightening them.

But you MPs think 18 months will fix all of this and those of us left behind will be fine to go back to work, or adjust our situation to make ends meet again - whether that's in the best interests of our family or not. I personally went back to work after just 9 weeks, to a job I was well established in with an incredibly supportive network of colleagues. I spent most of the first weeks crying in the staff room with co-workers bringing me cups of tea and hugs even though they didn't have the words to help. If I hadn't had that job, or a job that was so supportive, your new financial support system tells me to get out there and find one, find another one...sell myself at an interview and be of use to society. This is a joke right? I could barely manage to function some days.

My only priority after Tony's death was getting my children through it. If that meant walking round the streets with one of the kids at midnight because they needed to get out of the house, that was ok. If that meant talking, hugging, crying, taking a morning off work because they couldn't face school, I did it, that was my job. For a long, long time. 18 months didn't cut it. It paid off because those kids are now wonderful, compassionate young adults. Our youngest children were 12 year old twins when I was widowed, so thankfully unlike many newly widowed parents, I didn't have the expense of childcare provision to factor in. It is very difficult suddenly trying to fill the role of both parents, it's a steep learning curve with lots of mistakes made. Trying to juggle pre existing bills and maintain a life upheld by 2 salaries, that has more than halved is tough, and this was even with the previous financial support in place. It goes without saying that this support didn't come close to a full time wage...but it helped.

With the new system in place after April, after 18 months the bills won't have changed but bereaved families income will be decimated. To summarise - the benefits widowed parents received were because our partners had paid into the system. They didn't live long enough to draw a pension for themselves or use the NHS or any other public services often accessed later in life. Their contribution went to help their family after their untimely death. Under the new system, after 18 months their years of financial contribution to the system will count for nothing. The lump sum of £3500 now offered isn't even a worthwhile exchange for the security of a set amount coming in every month either, with the average cost of a funeral now standing at £3675.

This money arguably gave parents the option to return to work part time whilst being there for their children. Children's mental health, behaviour, academic achievements, esteem and confidence can all be negatively impacted by the loss of a parent, and it is in everyone's best interests that the remaining parent does whatever is necessary to make life as normal as possible for their children. Losing a spouse is not a disincentive to working - this money was in lieu of the deceased parents pension, nothing more and nothing less - it shouldn't have any conditionality clauses attached to it. It made life feel a little bit safer at a time when every bit of security you thought you had, has crumbled away to nothing.

You MPs refer to the widowed parents allowance as a risk to welfare dependency. A trap that prevents people from readjusting to a single person life. I find this incredibly patronising and insulting to those of us left behind. To return to work after 18 months or be sanctioned.....really?

And for parents who were cohabiting, the situation is even more desperate as they will now get nothing. I thought we had moved on from punishing children who were born to parents without a marriage certificate? The reason you state is that 'it saves them the distress of having to prove they lived with the person who has died.' Surely this would be easy enough to prove, and even if it took months it would still be easier than trying to manage without the benefit.

You MPs have said to even suggest these cuts are due to austerity measures is cynical. Then I will wear that hat of cynicism with confidence. Only 44,000 families are currently in receipt of widowed allowances, a drop in the ocean really, except that is a lot of children who will suffer. And the cruellest thing of all? Those young mums and dads who will be affected by these cuts don't even know it yet. They don't have a voice because they have no idea that they need to have one.

Life has already dealt families the hardest blow when a parent dies, leaving children behind. By removing this financial support to their remaining parent, which gave some degree of choice as to how to best support the remaining family, you have condemned people who are widowed after April 5th 2017 to an even more desperate future. And for that, you should be ashamed.

For information about Winston's Wish, the charity for bereaved children, please visit winstonswish.org.uk @winstonswish

To email your MP about cuts to support for widowed parents, please visit - ncb.eaction.org.uk/lobby/8

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