When a baby or child dies, or a child is bereaved, lives are shattered, and healthcare professionals often play a pivotal part in helping families through their loss. Child Bereavement UK shed light on how the professionals providing a helping hand need to be supported themselves in order to be effective in what can be emotionally-challenging work.

The feelings of isolation, confusion, helplessness and pain experienced by someone who is bereaved can’t be over-stated. Having someone who is experienced in supporting bereaved families, who can listen, and help reassure you that your, sometimes, overwhelming response to the death of your child or partner is normal, can be a lifeline. Supporting families when a baby, child, or parent has died can be emotionally very challenging. Yet professionals often feel that they should demonstrate strong emotional control when working with bereaved families and may mistakenly feel that it’s a weakness to show their emotions.

Child Bereavement UK support families and educate professionals both when a baby or child of any age dies or is dying, and when a child is facing bereavement. Bereaved families supported by the charity frequently tell us that it’s helpful when professionals are able to show their own humanity. They appreciate the acknowledgement of their loss, and professionals who can ‘sit with and hold’ the distress of the family, and then offer information, support and signposting according to their needs.

The most important thing that a professional can do is to listen. Listening involves much more than just hearing; it involves using all our senses to pick up on what the person is communicating, both verbally and non-verbally, giving our undivided attention to the other person and noticing not only what is being said, but also what is not being said.

Active listening of this kind is important, but it can be hard to do.

Sarah Harris, Director of Bereavement Support and Education at Child Bereavement UK, explained, ‘It is important not to underestimate the toll on the practitioner who is working with families who are grieving, and, understandably, many professionals are uncomfortable around the issues of death and bereavement.

The need for support for yourself is not a sign of professional inadequacy or personal weakness, but rather a sign of maturity, recognising that you need help to do this work well. Most professional carers are very good at caring for others, but far less good at caring for themselves or for each other.’

David Trickey, Consultant Charted Clinical Psychologist, who works with Child Bereavement UK to deliver training for professionals, added, ‘Tea pots need to be refilled if they are to carry on pouring cups of tea. Professionals and volunteers need to be cared for and supported if they are to carry on caring and offering support. Most people know this, but few actually do anything about it. Child Bereavement UK address this crucial aspect of bereavement care through its resources, courses, and helpline.’

Child Bereavement UK’s training for professionals encourages reflective practice in which feelings and experiences are shared with others involved in supporting bereaved families. Reflecting on, and being aware of, our reactions to situations helps professionals to better understand their own strengths and weaknesses. There are no ‘set answers’ or ways of dealing with situations; professionals are continually learning from bereaved families and discovering new ways to help support them. It advocates that enabling health professionals to access the support they need is an important part of empowering them to support bereaved families, and that professionals working in this field need to feel supported and valued. In recognition of this, Child Bereavement UK have developed a full day workshop, considering the impact on healthcare professionals when a child dies, and the charity also facilitates reflective practice, consultation and debriefing sessions.

In addition, a masterclass ‘Eight Pillars of Strength: Supporting Families, Individuals and Ourselves’ has been developed by Child Bereavement UK’s founder patron, and author of Grief Works, Julia Samuel.

Professionals who attend the charity’s training have said that they benefit from the chance to reflect with others on their work and the impact it has on them. A bereavement support professional said,       ‘It was great to have a study day which acknowledges how our work can, and does, affect us, and also to think about how we can help ourselves and each other.’

For more information about supporting yourself and Child Bereavement UK’s training for professionals, visit www.childbereavementuk.org/for-professionals.

For guidance and support for professionals supporting bereaved families, call Child Bereavement UK’s helpline on 0800 02 888 40.