Just over three months ago, my dad died. As anyone who has lost a parent will understand, this was an enormously traumatic event in my life.
There was the initial avalanche of emotions that accompanies grief: the disbelief, the anger, the pain. Three months down the line, I still feel the effects every day. I find it harder to concentrate than I did previously. I’ve also found my confidence has taken quite a hit. That safety net that was always there before – that unconditional positive regard – has suddenly gone.
From everything I’ve been told and I’ve read, this is all pretty normal and most people go through a similar experience when dealing with the loss of a loved one, especially a parent.
However, in a sense, I can see that I’m lucky. This happened to me in adulthood. It has happened to me at a stage in my life when I’m relatively well-equipped to process what’s happening and to see things with some sense of perspective. While I’d do anything to have just a few more years with him around, he was there throughout my formative years and my memories of him are there for good.
I cannot even begin to comprehend the effect that losing a parent or another close loved one must have on a child. The sense of injustice, pain and sadness must be almost immeasurable.
And yet there are children up and down the country who find themselves in exactly that situation. Children walking into classrooms who, only a matter of months, weeks and possibly even days ago, lost someone who they completely relied upon, physically and emotionally.
Sadly, this experience is more common that we might expect. The Child Bereavement Network estimated that, in 2015 alone, 41,000 children in the UK lost a parent before the age of 18. Other studies have estimated that around 3.5 per cent of all five- to 16-year-olds in the UK have experienced the loss of a parent or a sibling. This works out as about one in 29 children, roughly equivalent to one child in every class.
A recent report by the University of Cambridge and the child bereavement charity Winston’s Wish points to the short-term and potential long-term effects of losing a parent at a young age. It suggests that children who experience such losses encounter psychological, physical, health, social, cultural and educational challenges. While some of these will fade with time and support, the report suggests that others seem to persist and to be lifelong.
While no one can take away the pain that a child will be suffering following the loss of a parent, studies have shown that schools do have the potential to be a significant support factor in the lives of bereaved children following a loss and that simply having a specific person in school that a pupil knows they can talk to can make a big difference.
Dealing with the death of a parent
While we shouldn’t expect teachers to be experts in this complex area, and quick access to expert external support is obviously essential, there is one thing that every school can do almost immediately to help improve how they support pupils in these circumstances: they can proactively plan for it. The report by Winston’s Wish and Cambridge University suggests that few schools have planned responses to bereavement in place, and that simply having an agreed bereavement policy can make a big difference.
I’m no great fan of schools having endless policies and extended procedures for every possible eventuality, but this seems to me to be one area where some clear guidance on what to do could make a big difference.
Such a policy might include simple checklists to make sure nothing is inadvertently missed in the days and weeks following a death. It could also include guidance for teachers on how best to support pupils, and where they should turn to for further help.
As we know only too well, the competing demands that schools face are immense and it is tempting to put such a piece of work on the “one day/maybe” list. However, thinking this through in advance and ensuring that everyone in school has a clear idea of what to do when they find themselves supporting a bereaved child and their family will benefit everyone concerned.
Spending time as a staff talking about grief and bereavement may not be one of the easiest activities you can engage in, but for some children it might just be that it’s one of the most important things you can possibly do.
James Bowen is director of policy at the NAHT headteachers' union and director of the NAHT Edge union for middle leaders