A year off for a child’s birth; two days for its death

Within five days of their son drowning, Lucy Herd’s partner had to be back at work. She tells Audrey Ward of her fight for parents’ right to bereavement leave

7 April 2013
The Sunday Times

Lucy Herd’s son, Jack, was known to everyone as her “limpet” because he was permanently attached to her side. When she walked the dogs or did the gardening, he was there. If she was invited out for dinner with friends, the sandy-haired boy with the mischievous smile would go too. Often the pair could be found at a farm near their home in Cumbria, watching the tractors driving by, the cows being milked or the lambs being born.

But one warm August afternoon Lucy got distracted and Jack left her side. “I think that’s what makes it so hard. I’m quite a paranoid mum. I always watched him. Well, I didn’t that day,” she says, her eyes filling up.

Jack was almost two years old when he drowned in the garden pond. A tall boy for his age, he managed to open the back door of their home and climb a 4½ft wall. “I was on the phone to my mother when he wandered off from me and went on an adventure which killed him,” she says.

Lucy, 38, recalls ending the phone conversation after a few minutes to look for Jack. She called his name but got no answer. Panic rising, she went outside and instantly spotted his blue lumberjack shirt in the pond.

“I remember screaming when I found him. I had to jump in to get him out,” she says. Her elder son, Joshua, who was 13 at the time, came running outside and called the ambulance. “In the hospital the doctors were all working on him and I was rubbing his bare feet, saying, ‘Jack, fight!’ ” Speaking of his feet brings more memories washing over her. “I’d worry that he was getting too hot in the back of the car. I’d open the window a little and he would throw his socks out. We had many a pair thrown out of the car window,” she says as she rummages in her bag for Jack’s blue and red sock, which she carries with her all the time.

After the doctors told Lucy there was nothing they could do, she held Jack’s hand and stroked his hair for hours, but it was a further day and a half before her partner could make it home. An engineer, he was working offshore in the Middle East when he learnt of his son’s death. When he finally arrived on the Sunday, Lucy was distraught to learn he would be returning to the Middle East on the Wednesday. ” ‘What do you mean you can’t be here?’ I asked him. ‘I have to go back,’ he told me.” He was entitled to just three days’ paid leave.

Once Jack’s father left, Lucy felt abandoned. “I really was on my own. I felt lonely and bewildered. I was in shock and I lived in a bubble. I remember feeling angry at the world and at Jack’s dad.” She spent her days in Jack’s bedroom, holding his blanket and teddies. “His smell was my comfort,” she says.

The absence of her close friends and family also hurt Lucy in those grief-sodden days. Her brother, sisters and mother travelled from Berkshire to comfort her, but they were all obliged to return to work shortly afterwards. “For the first few days I had everybody, and then they weren’t there.”

Her mother’s departure was particularly painful. “I remember running down the road after her and begging her not to leave. She stopped the car and sat me down and then we went for a drive.” She reassured Lucy that she would be back as soon as she could.

Now, almost three years on from Jack’s death, Lucy is spearheading a campaign to get statutory bereavement leave for parents who lose a child. At present there is no legal requirement for employers to provide paid leave to those in mourning, and the duration and pay arrangements depend on the employee’s contract. Government guidelines suggest “one or two days”, but many parents need more time, including those who have already used up their bereavement entitlement or holiday leave.

Given that parents are paid maternity and paternity leave, Lucy feels the situation is unfair. “You have the time to celebrate the birth of a child,” she says. After a death some parents take sick leave, but she doesn’t think this should happen. “That’s wrong — you’re not ill. Grief and illness are two very different things.”

David Cameron took two weeks off when his six-year-old son Ivan died, but Lucy suggests leave of up to four weeks. She has discussed her proposal with her local MP and has set up an e-petition on the government website. So far she has close to 7,000 signatures, but she needs 100,000 before the issue will be considered for debate in the House of Commons.

Lucy’s reasons for seeking the policy change don’t just stem from her experience in the days after Jack’s death. Six months after the funeral, her eight-year relationship with Jack’s father ended. “We didn’t have the time to grieve together,” she says.

Although she is quick to admit that their relationship was in difficulties before Jack’s death, she has met couples whose experience with a callous employer fractured their relationships. She does not want others to suffer because of a lack of time spent grieving together.

Lucy still has traumatic flashbacks. “I’m there again, with him face down. The pain is indescribable. You don’t move on, you carry on,” she says. Counselling has helped, as has the fact that she is now living close to her family in Berkshire. Having once worked in IT, she is now a full-time mother to Josh and her daughter Elle, 12.

“Do I sit there and dwell and think, ‘What if?’ Sometimes I do; but I have two other children and they keep me going,” she says.

She’s determined to see the bereavement campaign through. “My heart was wrenched out of my body the day my son died. There will always be that pain inside me, but I’m trying to build a bit of a light around that pain.”