Support for Bereaved Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:41 pm on 14 September 2023.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Farming, Agriculture and Rural Affairs) 2:41, 14 September 2023

I am delighted to participate in this debate and thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine for securing it. She and I do not agree on many things, but I absolutely agreed with what she said in her excellent opening speech.

Like many people who have spoken today, I wish to focus my remarks largely on children who are bereaved by the loss of a parent. And I, like many others here, declare an interest, because I come to this debate having been bereaved twice as a child, as the youngest of eight children: my father died in 1969 when I was 15 months old, and my stepfather died when I was 17 years old. Both events had a huge impact on my family. When my father died, the eldest child in the family was 14 years old. I am perhaps the only member of the family who has no memory of my father. I have never even seen a photograph of him, because of the poverty in which we were raised—photographs were a luxury, far beyond our reach. My father was a labourer and died very suddenly of a heart attack, while waiting for a minibus to pick him up for his shift at Hamilton Cross, which was far from home. I have no memory of that, but the shockwaves that went through my family were significant.

As an immigrant, my mother had no idea of what support—financial or otherwise— could have been available to her, so she struggled on with no more support than her own resilience and family allowance. I well remember my stepfather dying at home in 1985, also of a heart attack. I was there when it happened, and it was truly traumatic. My mother never really recovered from the shock and she died a short five years later.

On both occasions, my family’s reaction took the lead from my mother who, at the best of times, could never be described as a tactile woman. The way to deal with this was to simply plough on and get on with things. Loss was not discussed. Certainly, when my father died in 1969, my mother, left alone with eight children, dealt with it by making sure that everybody was shod and fed as best they could be and looked after with the basics. I have to say, that stiff upper lip approach to loss— I hate to use that phrase—from when I was a child growing up has very much shaped how I have dealt with subsequent bereavements in my own life.

In 1974, when I was a child at school, two children at my school—a brother and sister—were murdered. One of the children in the family survived. The story attracted huge publicity. The papers at the time showed that children were frightened. I remember that, as a school, we went to the funeral service and sang hymns. I was eight years old at the time, and remember being very traumatised by the sight of these two little white coffins. I cannot even begin to imagine how the surviving child felt. When the service finished, we were all marched back to school and immediately the workbooks were given out and we were back to our work with nothing said. Nowadays, that would not happen. The way that loss and bereavement is dealt with for children actually shapes how they then go on to process grief as an adult. I think that that is why I have dealt with grief subsequently in the way that I have. I am not aware that it has done me any harm, but I know that, for many children, it can be very, very destructive. Debating and discussing how children should be supported in managing grief really matters, and that is why this debate is so important.

I have spoken a great deal about bereavement in this House. I introduced the Bereavement (Pay and Leave) Bill, which asked, very modestly, for two weeks’ paid bereavement leave for anybody who loses a close family member. I did so because there is much evidence that the cost of that would be offset by the benefits to society. That Bill mattered, and it still matters even though it did not pass. It matters because we need to look after the bereaved. We need to support bereaved parents who have to look after their grieving children as well as trying to cope with their own grief. We know that how a child copes or does not cope with grief can have a long-term impact on their own mental health, their wider outcomes and their general wellbeing. How Government are able to support those grieving, especially bereaved children, alongside surviving parents really matters. Getting it wrong—I do not know that we are getting it right—has a huge social cost, which outweighs any economic cost. Put simply, we cannot afford to fail bereaved children.

As we have heard from Jim Shannon, the Childhood Bereavement Network estimates that 26,900 parents die each year in the UK, leaving approximately 46,300 dependent children aged up to 17 years of age. By age 10, 62% of Scottish children will have lost a close family member. By the age of 16, up to 7% of children in the UK will have lost a parent. We must remember that, when children lose a parent, there is another parent who somehow has to navigate their own grief and the grief of their child.

A few years back—I think it might have been in 2017—we had a debate when the Government brought in changes to payments for bereaved parents. I criticised that move, but it is done now. The argument is over because the litigation has gone through, and the changes have been made. The reason I was concerned about that change to legislation is that those who are grieving need support, and unless that support is adequate the social fallout is significant, and we all pay the price for that. At the time, I expressed real concern about the consequences of the so-called streamlining of these payments for children, and the potential detrimental consequences for their emotional and mental wellbeing, as well as for their educational outcomes.

We all understand that the bereaved need time to process and somehow come to terms with their grief. How long a person needs to emerge from the fog of bewilderment, shock and disbelief, as well as the pain of the grief that the loss of a loved one brings with it, varies from person to person. We know what that is like, but also how much worse it is for children. Cash payments for bereaved parents are now limited to 18 months. I feel that that means that grief has been given a sell-by date, when it is not like that; if only it were.

When a parent has been bereaved, and left to bring up their children on their own, we know that the surviving parent wants to be around to support, listen and help their children to make some sense of the irreplaceable loss that they have suffered. That is where bereaved parents want, and ought, to be—not stuck in an office or on a shop floor, having to put in extra hours to make up their income shortfall due to the death of their partner, and hoping that friends and neighbours will step in.

My fear is that the recent streamlining cuts to the bereavement payment regime disproportionately affect women. Working-age women are more likely to claim bereavement allowance, with recent figures showing that most people who claim it are women. Nobody wants or expects to claim bereavement support, but its existence is vital for bereaved parents who are left to bring up children with one parent missing, with all the grief and distress that that can bring.

Some people have mentioned this in the debate, but having been an English teacher for 23 years before I was elected I can personally testify to the terrific and extremely sensitive support that young people can receive in schools following the loss of a parent or close family member. That kind of support is essential in helping children to process and come to terms with their loss, but it is not always available and is not always of the same standard. I have alluded to the fact that when I was at school, in the ’70s and ’80s, if somebody lost one of their parents or a close family member, it was never mentioned or discussed. That is not particularly healthy for every child.

In the early days of grief, a child will be in the fog of disbelief and bewilderment, and the surviving parent is not always able to help them to navigate and process that grief, because they are suffering with their own grief and trying to navigate their own bewilderment and loss. That is where outside agencies such as schools, though not just schools, can provide vital support to bereaved children, and why an appropriate level of financial support is necessary and crucial, so that the family unit can work through their grief with less financial pressure interfering with that process.

Everybody in this debate understands that we need to do more to support children who are struggling with bereavement, as well as bereaved parents who lose a spouse, who will also struggle but have to continue to be the responsible parent and meet their child’s needs. They will need support with that. This debate is extremely helpful, as too often grief and its corrosive impact are not discussed as openly as they should be. We need to get better at talking about dying, because death touches every family and we all experience it.

We need to do better at supporting children through the death of a close family member and helping them to make sense of it in a way that is suitable for that child. If we can do that, we will have healthier, happier and well-balanced children who in turn will be better at supporting their own children through such loss. That is where we need to get to as a society. We are not there yet, and we need to get better at supporting bereaved parents, because the bereavement that a child suffers is inherently linked to their other parent, if it is a parent who has been lost.

Ultimately, this is about ensuring that, despite the confusion, trauma and bewildering impact that grief can cause children who lose a close family member, the children affected can and will, with support, recover and go on to live healthier, happier and more fulfilled lives. It is really important that we have this debate and keep on pursuing this subject, because there is a lot of work to do here.