Bereavement is a life-altering circumstance. The ‘Growing up in Ireland’ study reveals that 2.2% of 9 year olds had lost a parent; 1% a sibling; and 28% had experienced the death of a grandparent. It is estimated that 4-5% of young people lose a parent by the age of 18.
The actual death of a person is an ‘event’, yet the consequences are carried from childhood to adulthood. Children have evolving needs as they move through developmental stages. A bereaved child’s need for information and support changes as they grow and learn to understand the facts around a death differently.
International population studies have begun to show long-term mental health and physical health deficits for cohorts of bereaved children. While this line of research is relatively new, it makes the compelling case for research and a focus on bereavement in national children’s policy development in Ireland.
With this increased understanding of the immediate, medium-term and long-term impacts of the loss of a family member, it is critical that the needs of bereaved children and young people in Ireland are identified and addressed as early as possible.
It is evidenced internationally that acknowledging and providing appropriate support to bereaved children and their families has a positive effect on their wellbeing and health. For some families, bereavement comes on top of pre-existing stresses including poverty, financial struggles, mental health or addiction issues, that are already challenging for the family.
The ICBN believe it is critical to:
- Advocate for and develop a coherent national childhood bereavement policy.
- Promote positive mental health and develop services nationally in order to minimise difficulties for bereaved children into the future.
- Influence educational curricula for children, adults and professionals.
- Engage in public education.
- Ensure that bereaved children are nurtured and protected from a range of hardships that may result from their loss (for example, economic or educational changes).
Professionals working with bereaved children and families know that grief is a normal reaction to loss. It is helpful to understand children’s way of processing grief, and try to support them so that they don’t feel that they should be ‘over it’ within a certain period of time – and more importantly so they don’t think something is wrong with them if they feel the loss coming up again and again. Adults can help children understand that this is a normal process of grief, we can’t promise things will get back to normal but we can help them learn to live with their ‘new normal’ without the loved one.
ICBN Standards for supporting bereaved children and young people
- Promote public and professional understanding of the impact of bereavement on children and the role of adults in bereaved children’s lives.
- Ensure that family and community are seen as having a key role in the support of bereaved children.
- Act as an improvement framework for those working with bereaved children and their families.
- Promote the concept that any services provided to bereaved children adhere to the highest standards when evaluated against the standards that have been set out.
- Shape the role for policy-makers locally and nationally to ensure that appropriate support is provided to children who are bereaved.
- Act as a preventative mental health approach for bereaved children to reduce the likelihood of future mental health problems.
- Underpin awareness, education and training across public, volunteer and professional levels.
Professional working with bereaved children and young people should show that services provided are safe, and adhere to best practice standards. This can be demonstrated by:
- Providing clear, accurate and up-to-date written information about the range of services, costs and qualifications.
- Individuals working offering bereavement support/counselling should be accredited by the relevant professional or national body.
- Having specific knowledge, understanding and experience of children’s grief and appropriate interventions.
- Providing information on children’s bereavement through leaflets, useful links, websites, information on further reading materials.
- Obtaining written consent of parents or guardians for children to access services, and verbal assent from the child who is availing of support.
- Assessment procedure ensures that the child’s bereavement needs can be met by the service provider.
- Clarity about the level of intervention offered, and about ongoing referral pathway if the child’s needs do not fit with the service being provided.
- Having policies and procedures to ensure records are maintained in a confidential manner in accordance with Data Protection legislation.
- Adherence to the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Acts 2012 to 2016.
- Adherence to Children First Act 2015 and National Child Protection Guidelines.