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Children’s Grief Awareness Week

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 25th November 2015.

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Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party

I, too, put on record my thanks to Gil Paterson for raising the important issue of children’s grief awareness week. As Gil Paterson did, I extend my thanks to and welcome all the groups that are in the public gallery.

The debate has provided a very valuable opportunity to highlight children’s grief awareness week, which is organised by the Grief Encounter charity, and more widely to put on record our thanks for the excellent work that is being done across a range of different organisations and settings to provide what we all recognise is much-needed support to people, including children, who have suffered from a bereavement.

Bereavement is traumatic for anyone at any stage, of course. I think that Malcolm Chisholm made that point. It is particularly traumatic when that loss comes in early life. As Gil Paterson said, the statistics are stark. One in 29 children in the UK has lost a parent or sibling. Given the number of children and young people who are affected and the impact that the loss can have on them, it is crucial that we provide free, professional, compassionate support at a time when they are vulnerable.

In the context of support, I want to mention getting it right for every child. In the GIRFEC approach, the named person role will be made available to children and young children across Scotland from August 2016, following the passage of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014. The named person has a role to promote, support and safeguard the wellbeing of children and young people, and I have no doubt that that will be a useful mechanism by which people can find the support that they need. Families may well use the named person for issues that affect their child’s wellbeing, such as separation, loss or bereavement. The named person and GIRFEC approach will be a structure by which we can signpost children and families to groups with specialisms that are able to help. I hope that we can take on board the points that have been raised through the briefings that have been circulated for the debate, and the points that have been raised about what we need to do around the curriculum for excellence and to better recognise nationally the need to co-ordinate support for families and children at a vulnerable time.

I recently spoke with a constituent’s niece, Dr Rachel Fearnley, who has done academic research on the topic of bereavement. She described to me some of the areas on which she believes we need to concentrate in the context of grieving. She said that there is a gap in support in the pre-death period for some and that help kicks in only post bereavement for some. I think that Nanette Milne recognised and raised that point.

Dr Rachel Fearnley’s study said that children who are impacted by bereavement may suffer a social death. The cubs, scouts and sporting events that they used to attend may end while the focus is on the family member who is ill. She also told me about the need to consider adolescents who may find their own coping strategies. If there is not effective intervention, that may well lead to criminal or negative behaviour. I think that Kenny MacAskill also raised that point. We need to ensure that young adolescents do not cope with those things through self-medication or negative behaviour and that we act early to help those vulnerable young people to avoid that route.

Gil Paterson and Malcolm Chisholm described the trauma, pain and hurt of children who suffer bereavement, and Gil Paterson mentioned books that go some way to support families. His and others’ comments on the pain that is felt by siblings who lose a brother or a sister reminded me of an event that the Youth Cancer Trust organised, which involved hearing a brother speak about losing his sister to cancer. He described feelings of sadness and anger, but he also felt quite jealous that the focus was always on the sister. The complex wrangling of emotions that he had to go through showcased to me very eloquently our real need to provide emotional support to help those young people to cope with the trauma that they are going through.

As well as the legislative provisions that I have mentioned in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, the Scottish Government provides funding to a number of organisations that support families at a time of loss. Those organisations include Child Bereavement UK, Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland and the Children’s Hospice Association Scotland. We need to ensure that we continue to provide support to organisations that are well placed to understand the complexity of the issue that we are debating.

Gil Paterson’s motion for the debate focuses on not just the impact of a child losing a loved one but the loss of a child, and notes the valuable work of the Scottish Cot Death Trust. I recognise that miscarriage or stillbirth can also have a huge effect on a family, and there are a number of measures in place to help health boards provide appropriate training to enable doctors and midwives to support parents at that vulnerable time.

Through the work of the early years collaborative and the maternity and children quality improvement collaborative, we are supporting practitioners to deliver improvements in services. Both collaboratives aim to reduce the rate of stillbirth, and a wide range of work has been taking place—for example, increasing the uptake of healthy start vouchers, joining up midwifery and addiction services for vulnerable families and supporting pregnant women to stop smoking. We have seen a positive downward trend in the rates of stillbirth.

I want to mention the work of Sands, which is a charity that undertakes work throughout Scotland with health professionals to improve the quality of care and services provided to bereaved parents and their families. The Scottish Government currently provides the organisation with financial support to help it continue that valuable work and to work with health boards to ensure that relevant staff receive appropriate education and training to support parents at that vulnerable time. I think that the clear message from this debate is that we need to ensure that that training and support is given not just to the professionals who work in the health sector but to teachers and others who come into contact with young people, and that it is appropriate and adequate for them.

Again, I thank Gil Paterson for introducing a debate on an important and emotional topic, which is difficult and complex. It requires us all to ensure that we truly get it right for every child and recognise the suffering and trauma that young people and their families can experience. We need to bring about a cultural change to deal openly in Scotland with grief and death.

We also need to ensure that we use this debate not just as one that we will go home from and forget, but as a platform for recognising the greater need to continue to support charities and organisations that help people cope with trauma, grief, suffering and pain. We must also ensure that we work practically together to ensure that there is on-going dialogue about that so that we can recognise where challenges exist and work together to overcome them.

We have to ensure that we are getting it right for every child and not just getting it right for some children some of the time. We want to ensure that children can cope with grief and trauma in a way that does not diminish their long-term aspirations and hopes, and allows them to fulfil their ambitions to live without having to continue to suffer the pain that they have gone through.