Change is needed if we are to better support bereaved children – Christine Jardine MP
It was a conversation with my sister about our dad’s death which sparked the initial thought that maybe I could draw attention to an issue that seems to have gone almost unnoticed.
She had been just 8 and my other sister 13 when Dad died suddenly one Saturday morning of a massive heart attack.
Our world was turned upside down.
Until that point we were a pretty ordinary family. Professional father, mother who was main home maker with two girls doing well at school and one at university.
We had never had, nor needed, any contact or support from social services. And so it remained.
We were not on their radar.
The girls’ schools were great and I suppose the university would have been too if I had asked.
But there was no way of social services knowing who we were, where we were or whether we needed any emotional support.
Forty years on I assumed things had changed.
I was wrong.
Every year an estimated 27 thousand parents die in the UK.
And we know that by the age of 16 around 5 per cent of young people have lost one or both of their parents.
But we still do not know who they are or where they are.
Yes, fantastic work is being done by our schools and voluntary sector organisations in supporting children who have lost a parent, sibling, grandparent or other loved one.
But they can only help those children that they know about. They have no way of reaching out and offering support to those who may not be aware of the services available.
They don’t know where they are and there is no data or registry to help to put them in touch.
We can’t leave all the onus on the families or young people themselves. When you are grieving you do not know what support you or your children need.
And as a child you cannot possibly be expected to understand or communicate the enormity of the pain you are suffering.
I remember thinking my sisters were doing fine, that they had a loving family and the school was aware of what they were going through.
But it was only when my own daughter was eight and I watched her reading with her dad and wondered how she would cope that I realised the extent of the trauma my own sister, and mother faced.
Then when she was 13 I realised again that my other sister, facing all the normal angst of early teenage years, had been given an enormous extra challenge to overcome.
Perhaps the biggest irony of all was when my own husband died when my daughter was exactly the age I had been when I lost my own father. I realised then that I had not been as much of an adult as I thought.
And for the first time I recognised that I had carried that trauma with me for decades and never really dealt with its impact. Neither had I ever been fully aware of what my sisters needed.
In the weeks since that conversation with my sister I have raised the issue in parliament, met a UK Government minister, led a debate on the issue and contacted both the UK and Scottish Governments.
Everyone is sympathetic but seem stumped as to how to resolve the issue.
Both the UK and Scottish Governments recognise the need for action but highlight the support available through schools and other organisations.
But that is to completely miss the point.
Both because it leaves responsibility again with the families to figure out for themselves what they need.
And because it doesn’t take into account that children, on the loss of one or both parents, may move to a school where they are not known and not want to have attention drawn to their situation.
Surely it would not be that difficult to find a way of recording with every death whether there is a child whose life has been turned upside down.
Then they could be notified of support that is available and the charities and organisations who so desperately want to help them would have a way of reaching out.
Looking back I am inordinately proud of how my sisters, my mother and then my daughter coped with the grief that no-one had anticipated or prepared them for.
We have all done pretty well for ourselves but I know that somewhere out there is a child who will go to bed tonight and cry for the parent who used to read them to sleep.
I just wish we knew how to reach them.
Christine Jardine is the MP for Edinburgh West and Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Cabinet Office, Women & Equalities and Scotland