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Leading experts appeal for an understanding of childhood traumatic bereavement during and beyond the pandemic

Today, the UK Trauma Council (UKTC) and three child bereavement charities appeal for more awareness of traumatic bereavement, particularly in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

There have been more than 120,000 deaths in the UK due to the pandemic, with a large number of children and young people being affected through the death of a family member or someone else important in their life. The pandemic has created situations in which a death comes unexpectedly, without the chance to say goodbye, or where family members feel guilt that they may have brought the virus into the home. These factors may increase the likelihood of a traumatic bereavement.

In a traumatic bereavement, the trauma gets in the way of the typical process of grieving. 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.

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.”

In collaboration with leading bereavement charities, Child Bereavement UK, Winston’s Wish and the Childhood Bereavement Network, the UKTC is supporting efforts to provide specialist and timely help for children affected by traumatic bereavement. The UKTC is hosted and supported by the Anna Freud Centre, and funded by The National Lottery Community Fund.

This new initiative has been prompted by the pandemic, which has had a profound impact on children and young people’s mental health. In England, the proportion of children and young people with a probable mental health disorder rose to one in six in July 2020 (from one in nine in 2017). To support those working with bereaved children and young people, a new portfolio of free, evidence-based resources for school staff, bereavement services and NHS mental health services are launched today. 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 explains: “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.”

As awareness increases of the impact of the pandemic, the UKTC welcomes the efforts to address children and young people’s experiences of trauma within the UK Government's mental health recovery plans. Building on these measures, 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, says: “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.”

The UK Trauma Council brings together 22 experts in the field of childhood trauma, drawn from across all four nations of the UK. The members represent a range of disciplines and sectors, including research, clinical practice, education, policy, and experts by experience.