My little boy turned seven a few weeks ago. His birthday is always incredibly bittersweet for me. With every year that goes by, I'm reminded of how much further he moves away from his mother's physical presence. She was killed just after his second birthday.
Clearly, as a single parent, he is the main focus of my life and the centre of my universe. He's such an incredible child: funny, clever, spirited and so emotionally intelligent. His presence is what strikes me most, though; he's just so incredibly alive.
That's why I was so shocked to learn that - as a bereaved child at least - my son doesn't officially exist. This came to light as a result of a freedom for information request by Life Matters: The Task Force for Bereaved Families, which I chair. In order to establish the scale of family bereavement across the nation, we asked the General Register Office and the Department of Work and Pensions for the number of children bereaved of a parent in the UK. Both stated: 'The information is not held by the department.' The information, in fact, is not held by any department.
While the Office of National Statistics collects data annually on the number of children affected by the divorce of their parents, no record is made when a deceased parent leaves dependent children behind. This means that, just like my son, all bereaved children in the UK are essentially 'invisible' to the Government, making it difficult to know how many children in a given area are likely to need support.
This is just one of six headline issues that the Life Matters task force has identified since it was set up in April 2017, in response to the dramatic slashing of bereavement benefits. To mark Children's Grief Awareness Week, the task force presented the issues and corresponding report and recommendations to MPs and policymakers at the House of Commons earlier this week. Each is designed to help improve the emotional and financial support that those affected by bereavement receive.
The recommendations include:
- Adapting the information registered at death to include any details on dependent children of both married and unmarried couples
- Training all teachers and carers of children on how to manage and support bereaved children
- A call for the Government to confirm that Personal, Social, Health & Economic Education (PHSE) will become statutory, so that all children can learn about bereavement and grief within a safe, supported and age-appropriate curriculum
- Introducing a cross-Government bereavement strategy, and identifying a Government lead for this
- A call for every organisation to have a bereavement policy and procedures
- A call for the Government to open a new consultation into how it can better support bereaved families following the scrapping of Widowed Parent's Allowance earlier in 2017
The task force has created a new film, which acts as a letter to MPs calling for their support on the policy recommendations. Featuring Jeff Brazier - father to two sons bereaved of their mother, task force member and author of The Grief Survival Guide - the film is available to view and share here. This campaign page, supported by comparethemarket.com, also provides a link to the full task force report and a resource to help find local MPs' details to share the film.
We live in a country that is far better prepared for birth than death. In his new book, Thinking Out Loud, Rio Ferdinand says, 'When a baby is born, you can't move professional advice. But when someone dies, you're on your own.'
We need to act together to help change this. We need to build a more compassionate society with equally defined frameworks to support families following a death as we do following a birth. Frameworks that can support families that suffer death just as we do for those who celebrate life. And that's exactly what the Life Matters task force set out to achieve: better support for all bereaved families. Please help us by sharing the film with your local MP.