'If the grief becomes traumatic, it is more like a deep well'

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

The UK Trauma Council (UKTC) and three child bereavement charities have appealed 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.

The UKTC 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. Its Co-Director, David Trickey, Co-Director of the UKTC, commented“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. 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 has been launched. 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.”

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.”

- Find resources on bereavement and grief in our archive. Read more about the formation of the UKTC.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber