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Better understanding needed of traumatic bereavement

There needs to be a greater understanding of traumatic bereavement, both now, and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, charities have warned.

The UK Trauma Council, along with Child Bereavement UK, Winston’s Wish and the Childhood Bereavement Network, highlighted that there have been more than 120,000 deaths in the UK as a result of COVID-19. As a result, many children and young people will have been affected through the death of a family member or someone important in their lives.

David Trickey, Co-Director of the UKTC, explains: “Traumatically bereaved children and young people experience significant distress and difficulties, over and above a more typical grief. Traumatic bereavement may be easily missed or misunderstood, meaning that children’s difficulties are not recognised by even the most supportive adults including parents, teachers and bereavement practitioners. It is vital that these children are identified and given the appropriate help and support.”

As a result of the pandemic, there have been situations where a death has come unexpectedly where there has not been the chance to say goodbye properly or where family members have felt guilt that they have bought the virus home. Both of these situations may increase the likelihood of traumatic bereavement.

The trauma gets in the way of the typical process of grieving during a traumatic bereavement. It blocks the child or young person’s ability to ‘make sense’ of the death and adjust to their loss. As a result, how the child or young person experiences or understands the death – the meaning they make of it – results in it being experienced as traumatic. This can happen to children and young people in any circumstance and at any age.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on children and young people’s mental health and in England, the proportion of children and young people with a probable mental health disorder has risen from one in nine in 2017 to one in six in July 2020.

The charities are aiming to provide specialist and timely help for children affected by traumatic bereavement. A new portfolio of free, evidence-based resources for school staff, bereavement services and NHS mental health services have been launched to support those working with bereaved children and young people. The development of the portfolio has been funded by the Government’s Coronavirus Community Support Fund, distributed by The National Lottery Community Fund.

These new resources will give schools and clinical staff the knowledge to recognise traumatic bereavement, advice on how to put appropriate support in place, and guidance on how to refer on to more specialist services. David Trickey said: “As our new resources show, young people often grieve in puddles, dipping in and out of their grief. But if the grief becomes traumatic, it is more like a deep well, and much harder for the young person to step out of. These resources should help identify traumatic bereavement, provide effective support, and allow trusted adults to hold the hope for the child or young person.”

The UKTC encourages the UK government, and those of the four nations, to support schools, NHS mental health services and bereavement services to use evidence-based approaches to address the impacts of traumatic bereavement during the pandemic on children and young people’s mental health and lives.

Professor Eamon McCrory, Co-Director of the UKTC, concluded: “Working together, we can begin to address the impact of the current pandemic on the wellbeing of children and young people. The easing of lockdown and return of schools creates more of a sense of normality for children, but some will have been intensely affected by what they have been through. An immediate priority is to ensure parents, teachers and professionals have the support and guidance they need to help those children who have experienced a traumatic bereavement.”


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