The Sunday Magazine

Children are the 'hidden mourners' in our society, says child health expert

"Sorrow, anguish, solitude: this is a particularly toxic combination for children.”
Sir Albert Aynsley-Green says bereaved children may be confused, angry, guilty, or tearful — and we don’t do enough to help them. (Shutterstock)

Sir Albert Aynsley-Green was just ten years old when his father died unexpectedly in hospital. That event set a path for his own life: his decision to become a pediatrician and his current focus on helping children deal with bereavement and grief.

Children are the "hidden mourners" in our society because scant attention is paid to them when they lose someone important in their lives, he tells The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright.

Often, well-meaning comments about death, such as, "Mommy's gone to live with the angels in the clouds," can have unintended negative consequences, says Aynsley-Green. 

Sorrow, anguish, solitude: this is a particularly toxic combination for children.- Sir Albert Aynsley-Green
Sir Albert Aynsley-Green, child health consultant (Anthony von Roretz)
From 2005 to 2009, Aynsley-Green became the first person to serve as Children's Commissioner for England, acting as an advocate for children and young people, to ensure their interests were considered in decisions about public policy. 

In 2015, he was named president of the British Medical Association. He is now an independent consultant on children and child health and has taken a special interest in the field of childhood bereavement and is a patron of Britain's Childhood Bereavement Network

Aynsley-Green says there is no "one size fits all children" solution. Every child has different needs, perspectives and understandings of what death means. However, what is important across the board is to provide children with information and education on what death means and, most importantly, to encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings and listen intently to what they have to say. 

"In my book, bereavement means to leave desolate or alone, especially through death; and grief, in my book, is a deep and intense sorrow," says Aynsley-Green. "Sorrow, anguish, solitude: this is a particularly toxic combination for children." 

One of the books recommended by Sir Albert Aynsley-Green (Jessica Kingsley Publishers)
Aynsley-Green is calling for three touchstones as a foundation to help children through bereavement: first, to explain that death is a part of life; second, to ensure that children, young people and families in every community have access to expert support that is appropriate to their needs; and third, to have staff members in every school and hospital who are trained to support grieving children, with protocols in place to help them.

"Staff caring for a dying adult should ask, 'What does the death mean for children in the family?' and we know from our research that this is hardly ever raised and children — like me at the age of 10 — are left bereft, confused and very, very uncertain. So 'think adult, think child' is my over-arching mantra."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

Sir Albert Aynsley-Green recommends these books to help children through grief and bereavement: