Speech by the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Patricia Lewsley, at the opening of the Cruse Bereavement Conference

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for asking me to speak at today’s conference.

The death of someone close is something that we have all experienced at some stage in our lives but it’s something that many people can feel uncomfortable talking about because we don’t know what to say to bring comfort to those who have lost a loved one.

The death of someone close to a child; be it a parent, grandparent, sibling or friend; can have a profound and devastating affect on their life – not just their childhood and through their adolescent years – the effects can have long term impact into adulthood.

Children and young people who have experienced bereavement feel many emotions, they may:

· blame themselves;

· express a lack of understanding of what has happened,

· find it difficult to cope; and

· in many cases their grief and distress can go unnoticed by other family members who themselves are also grieving.

Their understanding of death will vary depending on the age and stage of development and that is something that everyone needs to take into consideration when dealing with a child who has been bereaved. In recognising and acknowledging the grief that children and young people experience, adults need to create safe and comfortable environments for children and young people to speak about how they are feeling and thinking.

The choices we make as adults have a massive impact on the child’s ability to grieve – this can include deciding not to tell the child the truth about what has happened or not seeking their views when making funeral arrangements. This can cause a lot of hurt and anger within the child or young person. Therefore it is essential that parents are offered support, guidance and advice to help them make decisions that are in the best interests of their children.

Last year I learned first hand just how devastating a death can be on young people when a member of the NICCY youth panel died. I was assured to see how my staff and other outside organisations supported and worked with these young people over the months that followed. This experience opened my eyes to the wide range of support and help that children and young people need not just in the immediate aftermath of a death but in the weeks and months that follow when they start learning to live without their friend.

Children who have been bereaved need early intervention services to prevent more serious problems occurring such as mental and emotional health problems. Services must be flexible to accommodate individual needs and requirements and help the child or young person get through such a difficult experience.

In many cases the parent of the child may also be grieving therefore teachers, health and social care staff and staff from organisations such as Cruise and Barnardos play an important role in supporting not only the child but the family. The needs of the child will change as the child continues through their grief, thus services must be designed to identify needs as they change and respond accordingly.

When preparing for this speech I came across this statistic “In Northern Ireland last year at least 30,000 children where directly impacted by the death of someone close to them”. I was shocked to read this as I suppose I never believed that it would be this high.

It gives me a great insight into the level of service provision that is needed to support these children.

While we have organisations that provide support and work with children and young people who are bereaved, we need these services to be improved and extended to support all children and young people in Northern Ireland who need access to such services.

In ensuring that children and young people have access to bereavement services, changes in both policy and practice should ensure that:

· information should be made available to families suffering from a death regarding support available for their children;

· those working with children and young people need to be given appropriate training to develop skills in supporting a child who has been bereaved; and

· increased funding to extend the current provision of child bereavement services is identified.


A child who has been bereaved needs to have a voice in matters affecting them to prevent them developing more long term problems – counselling and support is key to helping cope with their grief. These services must be child friendly, accessible, and flexible to meet the specific needs of children and young people.

In 2004 research commissioned by my office stated that

“Children who are bereaved are frequently ignored, not seen and forgotten about”

Looking around and seeing so many people ranging from parents to health care professionals, social workers, teachers and volunteers here today I hope that this will no longer be the case.

I want to congratulate Cruise Bereavement Care for organising this conference, I hope that you all learn new skills today that will help to support children and young people who have been bereaved and I wish you all well in your future work.