Difficult times for children’s bereaved parents

Millions of people will pause to thank a chaplain before death occurs. But what about those whose deaths often are undignified or traumatising?

Courtesy of the British Medical Journal

Coping with loss is a topic that resonates with many of the people who play and direct Pandemic. It is also an essential part of the culture and work of the countrywide emergency services, as well as the structure of the NHS. But it can be particularly hard on children, many of whom have had a child of their own who has died.

One estimate suggests that by 2030, about six in every 100 children will die of pneumonia, diarrhoea or other related causes. So the needs of children and their grieving parents are growing.

Pandemic includes a touching and complex conversation between Sandy and Amy, who had a baby girl and are both raising children who have both suffered from the same devastating illness.

Sandy is raising a boy who did not survive. Amy is raising a girl who did. The parents are prepared to see each other’s fear and grief as a “symbolic” reminder of the death of their other child.

“In our culture we tend to ignore loss to other people. It’s hard to talk about,” says Dr Mark Ingram, who has been studying child bereavement for more than 30 years and is now clinical director of the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

“Some people think ‘if my father dies then I’ll cope and I’ll get over it.’ It’s hard for a child, because there’s a lot of the burden on their shoulders. But there are ways through that. The professionals who worked with Sandy and Amy understood the situation and communicated in a way that enabled them to work through it.”

St Matthew’s Hospital, Gloucester, where Sandy was transferred after being admitted, had a support team in place in case Sandy and Amy needed support when she came home. And children are taught and encouraged to talk about their loss in counselling sessions.

But as Ingram points out, the little that is done so far has not included reaching the parents themselves in the circumstances of their bereavement.

“There are lots of ways for people to grieve and it’s wonderful that in our hospitals and healthcare teams staff are aware of how to work with bereaved children. That’s why the forthcoming children’s review is important. But in this particular situation, parents shouldn’t have to be ‘gritty’ with their grief. It should be more about they finding the right team of professionals to help them and the couple to talk to.”

Sandy’s courage and her search for understanding, unselfishly considering all the ways in which she and Amy would recognise one another if reunited, are a powerful testimony to their resilience. We also learn about how the death of a child often involves a sexual assault or invasion of privacy. Children’s mental health services are also often not there.

“When we meet parents, they’ll say something about ‘the NHS’,” says Ingram. “Then we’ll do a bit of checking and work out whether that’s an accurate assessment. It’s something they should be told.”

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