Gone too soon

words: Christine Parker, IFD College Principal
Childhood bereavement

The death of a child is heartbreaking for families and professionals alike, but the role funeral directors play in caring for these, the most dreaded of cases, has a lasting effect and offers peace…

“As an organisation, we have always championed training for roles in child bereavement in terms of the practical elements of organising a child’s funeral. We’ve also looked at the specific needs of bereaved parents and siblings, but not in great depth as it was an element within something else. Now we have created a specific Child and Infant Death course which gives anyone dealing with the death of a child an in-depth knowledge of practicalities and best practices.

The catalyst for the course was the Bonomy Inquiry into the Mortonhall scandal in Scotland (which investigated the Fife crematorium’s disposal of baby ashes). Lord Bonomy’s report led to it becoming a legal requirement in Scotland to be trained in how to deal with the death of a child and there was a strong recommendation that everyone involved in child bereavement should have appropriate training.

That meant midwives, funeral services, vicars, everyone who had contact with a bereaved family where a child had died. I felt that what the college was offering then wasn’t sufficient to actually comply with what was required in that report and that we needed something specific, so I wrote the module on infant and child deaths.

Child deaths and suicides are the two that every funeral director dreads – you know it’s going to be difficult and it’s going to involve your emotions in a way that other deaths don’t. Putting a little person into a coffin is one of the most emotional things that you will ever do. Recognising that, and also how the death of a child affects staff – particularly someone who may have previously been involved in the death of a child, whether that’s their own child, grandchild or relative – and how they may experience emotions coming back to them.

My husband and I ran Abbey Funeral Services in Tonbridge for thirty years [now run by Christine’s daughter Jo Parker, SAIF’s Vice-President] and I remember once, I went down to prepare a child for funeral. At the time we lived over the business and I’d gone down to the mortuary, but I came back up to the apartment in floods of tears and said to my husband, ‘I can’t put that child in a coffin – I just can’t do that.’ The child had died as a result of a cot death and there wasn’t a mark on that child, it didn’t look sick, it was perfect. It was a little angel, absolutely beautiful, and I just couldn’t do it.

Knowing my own experiences, it’s so important that we recognise how the death of a child affects funeral staff, so there’s a big chunk of that in this training. Nobody in the profession ever wants to arrange the death of a child, but when you’ve done it, and you’ve done it well, it leaves you with a feeling of enormous satisfaction because you know that if you’ve done absolutely everything you can.

If you held out a hand and supported that family through the worst possible experience of their lives, then you can pat yourself on the back. And even though you might be sad, or even if it’s distressed you, you have a sense of achievement and that itself is a comfort.

While businesses in Scotland should have at least one member of staff with this specific training, it would be best if more than one staff member had this training because if only one member of staff is trained, you put the responsibility for child deaths always on the same person and that can affect their mental health. It’s better to spread it out if you can.

In terms of a child experiencing death, it’s very rare that a funeral director would be in a situation where they would actually be speaking to the children, other than in passing. It’s very rare that you would be in the position where you would be expected to talk to the child about a death. You really don’t want to be in the position where you’re saying things to a child which can come back and bite you.

There are ways of talking to a family and that’s really where we come in. They will ask ‘what am I going to tell the children? How do I prepare the children for this?’. And I would very often use my own experience as an analogy.

We had a death in our family, when my son in law’s mother died quite suddenly. My grandchildren were quite young – the youngest was about five and it went straight over her head, the oldest was old enough to understand and be okay, but the middle child was eight and struggled with the whole thing.

My daughter was very concerned about the day of the funeral. She wanted to take the children, so I said, ‘Let me have the middle child for a day and I see what I can do’. I got in touch with the crematorium to explain the situation and asked if I could bring her up at the end of the day when there were no funerals going on, just so she felt comfortable in that environment.

That meant I could explain exactly what was going to happen on the day – how the hearse would come down with the coffin in it, and how the men would carry the coffin in and put it here and you know, the vicar is going to be here and he’ll press a button and it’ll go down and the curtains will go around. And then we’re going to go out and look at all the flowers. She asked me quite honestly and openly what happens when somebody is cremated. That really helped and she was fine on the day.

And you know, sometimes if a family talked to me, I would say to them, do what you can to prepare the child in advance, whether you’re going to take the child to the funeral or not. If you are, do the best that you can to prepare them for what’s going to happen, so there are no surprises. That way they’re fully aware of what’s going on, so don’t hide it from them, be honest with them.

If the child is not going to the funeral, it’s so important that you mark this death in some way. A client family chose not to take their two children to their grandmother’s funeral because they thought it would upset them. Well, obviously it was going to upset them, their granny had just died – you can’t prevent children being upset when there’s been a death in the family. So you probably need to do something that will help them get some sort of closure. They need to mark this if it’s not at a funeral.

So, when the children came to the reception afterwards, I took them outside and we set off a couple of balloons so we could say goodbye to their granny as we watched the balloons go up to heaven. They had some something to mark it and I think it’s really important. You need that because otherwise these children are left with an unresolved grief and that’s really, really damaging psychologically.

I would also always point families to national or local charities that are specifically set up to support children through a bereavement. I was a trustee of a Kent-based charity called Holding On, Letting Go, which runs very much along the same lines as Winston’s Wish, SAIF President Mark Porteous’ chosen charity. I would say to families, if you feel that children are struggling, and they need that extra support, go and talk to these charities. It’s really important.

The course

The IFD College module on infant and child deaths is an extensive level three NVQ training course with six credits. The unit promotes understanding of the additional sensitivities necessary when making funeral arrangements in such circumstances.

Additionally, the unit develops knowledge of relevant options, choices, products and services available to bereaved parents. It requires students to undertake groundwork and research and it covers all of the practicalities. By the end of the course students will:

  • Know the terminology used to describe the age or gestation period of a foetus, infant or child
  • Be able to comply with relevant regulations, legislation, codes of practice and own funeral business’ policies and procedures for identification of the child
  • Be able to comply with regulations and legislation relevant to the circumstances of the child’s death
  • Understand the registration process and documentation specifically relevant to the death of a child
  • Be able to advise parents on how their child is cared for during the funeral process
  • Understand empathy when advising parents on funeral arrangements for their child
  • Be able to provide parents with information regarding the choice between burial and cremation
  • Know how to complete all documentation required for the funeral arrangements of a child
  • Explain the current legal definition of cremated remains/ashes for the benefit of parental understanding
  • Know about burial sites and permitted memorials
  • Know how to arrange or oversee a funeral service for a child or infant in accordance with parents’ wishes
  • Understand the reasons for and outcomes of the Bonomy Inquiry, conducted by the Scottish Government into infant cremations
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