Bereavement and death: the last taboo?

Benjamin Franklin (1789) is reputed to have said that the only things certain in this world are death and taxes, however, bereavement and death remain elusive, if not taboo, subjects of conversation. Arguably in the 21st century within the United Kingdom (U.K.), against a backdrop of rising  mental health difficulties, adults aim to shelter children and young people  from topics that might cause stress, anxiety, or upset in a process that Pilcher (1995) calls ‘separateness’, a differentiation between childhood and adulthood. Thus, death is not talked about in a proactive manner but dealt with as a reactive response. Frequently, when a young person experiences loss, the first source approached is the internet.

Whilst the internet is an easy tool to utilise, it is also laden with outdated material which could be potentially counterproductive and even harmful to the young person’s grief process. Moreover, most bereavement support models tend to be adult directed interventions that are ‘top down’, and which contravene article 12 of the rights of the child enshrined in The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (1989), which advocates that children have the right to express opinions about matters which affect them. 

Bereavement affects all areas of a young person’s life and can increase feelings of loneliness and isolation. However, the quality of support available to them is dependent on the skillset, and value placed by, the person the information is shared with because bereavement policies and procedures are not in place. Generally, there tends to be emotional literacy sessions which teach responsibility for correcting inappropriate behaviour rather than programmes which allow exploration and understanding of all emotions, including grief.

Grieving needs to be acknowledged as a process that is a natural response to death. So how do professionals working with children and young people move beyond this taboo and build a compassionate environment that allows for natural responses to death, that of grief and mourning, to take place without being pathologized? Open dialogue about death and bereavement would break down some of the stigma, however as Bochner (2000) notes that “personal narratives are demeaned as some sort of victim art or confessional” (p. 271).

Being ‘allowed’ and given space to talk about grief and personal stories of loss can be utilised as a powerful mechanism for sensemaking, development of voice and to a certain extent, ownership of the process of grief, a point echoed by Giorgio (2009), who stresses that retelling the story enables some sense of order onto “the mess of trauma; we regain control over our lives by acknowledging and sharing with others our own truths” (p. 157).  Opening up dialogue on death allows for it to be taken out of the realms of taboo subject and to be thought of as a normal occurrence that is part of the life cycle of humans which in turn will lead to a clearer path to support for both individuals and professionals.

Blog post written by Dr Sukh Hamilton, Senior Lecturer in Childhood within the School of Education and Sociology (EDSOC), University of Portsmouth.

References

Bochner, A., P. (2000).  ‘Criteria against Ourselves’. Qualitative Inquiry, 6(2), pp. 266-272

Giorgio, G. (2009).  ‘Traumatic Truths and the Gift of Telling’. Qualitative Inquiry, 15(1) pp.149-167

Pilcher, J. (1995). ‘Growing Up and Growing Older: The Sociology of Age.’ Sociology Review 5. pp 8-13.

UNHCR. ‘The Rights of the Child.’ (1989). Retrieved from http://www.unicef.org.uk/UNICEFs-Work/UN-Convention/

Displaced Children in a Global Context

On the 8th of July, the MICE ( Mental Health in Childhood and Education Hub) organised a conference: ‘Displaced Children in a Global Context’. The conference was attended by guests and visiting speakers from various countries such as Norway, Pakistan, and the UK presenting their research with a focus on child refugees, displaced children, racism and inclusive practice. There were many different professionals from across the country present during this conference.

What happened at the conference?

After the welcome speech from Dr Wendy Sims- Schouten, founder of Mental Health in Childhood and Education (MICE) hub, Sonia Carr, Chair of the Wiltshire Racial Equality Council talked about unconscious Bias from the victims perspective. Following Sonia’s talk, Yvonne Joseph, a very talented poet from Wiltshire shared her poems around her experience with racism and refugee children. The poems were very beautiful and thought-provoking. Yvonne has been writing poems for years and said that it is her “coping mechanism”. She was very pleased to share her poems at the conference and encourages everyone to start writing to cope with their emotions.

Dr Rana Dajani, Associate Professor at Hashemite University, Jordan and Founder and Director of ‘We Love Reading’ programme for child refugees was unable to attend and deliver her presentation due to visa issues however we were able to see some of her work in video form. The video involved people from different parts of the world engaging in the ‘We Love Reading (WLR)’ programme and sharing their positive experiences. A link to the video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ux_GXei0lPY. In the video Rana shares how the program has changed the mindset of people around the importance of reading. The programme has three outputs:

  • It fosters the love of reading among children so they can reap the benefits of reading
  • It empowers adults and youth mostly women to become changemakers.
  • It creates a community with the mindset of I can.

Furthermore, Dr Rana Dajani’s programme ‘We Love Reading’ has been beneficial towards vulnerable children who have experienced trauma, emotional instability due to war and displacement. WLR is a scalable, efficient, sustainable program that started in Jordan and has spread to 52 countries and counting.

Image. Dr Rana Dajani delivering the ‘We Love Reading’ programme for child refugees.
Images. Dr Rana Dajani delivering the ‘We Love Reading’ programme for child refugees.

Dr Nora Wiium, Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Bergen, Norway and an expert on youth development in a global context shared her project called ‘Positive Youth Development’ (PYD). This project seeks to examine developmental assets that are available and accessible to youths and emerging adults and how these assets, in turn, relate to thriving and positive outcomes such as the 5 Cs of PYD ( Confidence, Competence, Character, Caring and Connection) and subsequently, to young people’s contribution to their own development and the society they live in. Dr Nora Wiium presented the data from a cross-national project on PYD which involves over 10,000 adolescents and emerging adults, from over 20 different countries across Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle, East, the US and Latin America. This project aims to influence programmes and policies to encourage the developmental assets required to promote positive development and contribution among young people in the participating countries.

After the coffee break, Professor Helen Haste, University of Bath and an expert on youth civic participation in a global context shared her study around civic engagement in young people that goes beyond voting. She discussed interviews conducted in China among young people who were asked to express their opinion on a specific topic around civic participation in China. From the interviews, it showed that some people felt like it was unnecessary and some people felt like it will have a positive influence on people of China. Professor Helen also discussed another interview with a young individual in South Africa around the subject of apartheid and explained the importance of narrative in the interview.

Dr Wendy Sims- Schouten, Associate professor in childhood studies, University of Portsmouth presented her research on ‘Historic and Contemporary voices of displaced children’. This research focuses on the varied and developing child welfare practices regarding child refugees, unaccompanied minors in different international contexts. This research will help provide greater understanding and conceptualisation of the role migration played in childcare provision across Britain and imperial contexts. She compared the historical and contemporary child emigration schemes and stated that very little has changed over the last years. She also explained her communication with offspring of displaced children who migrated to Canada in the 1930s, through emails and shared their experience and story. In her research Wendy uses a variety of sources including correspondence, archival data, memoirs and interviews to showcase children’s experience of both the positive and negative outcomes of humanitarian schemes. The outcome of this work adds to current understanding of the social, emotional and material histories of displaced children and children in care.

Image. Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten presenting her research ‘Historic and Contemporary voices of displaced children’

Dr Ann Emerson, Lecturer in Education presented her research ‘Challenges & Opportunities for Education of Displaced Children: A case study of Pakistan’s Jalozai Camp’. This study focuses on primary data collected in 2013 in Jalozai camp which housed around 65,000 internally displaced people in Pakistan. The study focuses on the education provided for the children in the camp and challenges that they experience whilst pursuing education. For example, Dr Ann Emerson explained that even though children go to school, the challenges around attending school regularly is still a problem in the camp. The study shows that family issues, illness or even the weather can prevent children from attending school regularly.

Blog by Manisha Thapa, Research Assistant MICE Hub (Education and Sociology, University of Portsmouth).