Last Friday, we welcomed back Child Bereavement UK to lead a study day to discuss what catapults a normal reaction to grief into a mental health issue that prevents someone from rebuilding their life to a manageable degree.
Seven per cent of the general population at some point will develop a block to reacting normally to grief – a condition described as complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder – 40 per cent of them will have experienced the violent death of a loved one, a number that increases when the grief involves the loss of a child.
Complicated grief can persist for years, and by definition more than six months, and often involves the sufferer becoming preoccupied by the death, unable to move past the awful circumstances of it to hold on to happier memories or to create a new 'relationship' with the person who died, an accepted stage of normal grief.
This little understood and under-treated condition fundamentally becomes debilitating, with people affected often becoming dependent on alcohol and drugs, unable to hold down a job or maintain their relationships. In the worst cases, sufferers contemplate suicide.
In our experience of working with clients who are traumatised by the loss a child following medical negligence, rather than drugs or alcohol, the need for knowledge and answers as to why this terrible thing happened can become the pivot upon which they turn, and lack of knowledge then prevents them from recovering. They become stuck with the images of the death and can make no sense of their loss.
This search for knowledge can develop into an obsession with obtaining justice that centres on the response from those involved – usually the hospital trust or doctor in a negligence case.
When we're all too often up against a trust that refuses to acknowledge the mistakes behind the tragedy, the hell for the grief-stricken simply goes on and on, meaning they remain unable to assimilate the grief, and are consumed by the trauma.
On the other hand, a trust that acknowledges the pain of those suffering the loss, is honest enough to acknowledge its mistakes, and accept responsibility for the tragedy, goes a very long way to alleviating the suffering of those locked into their grief.
As a client who waited four long years for answers as to why her baby died in utero, recently showed me, one transparent, heart-felt letter of apology from the people who unwittingly caused such devastation can be the difference between surviving the loss and forever sinking into despair.
On receiving that apology, together with a full explanation of how the Trust viewed her allegations of their failings, and their accepting those failings, she told me she'd always wanted that information and that apology, although it was late, it still mattered to have it.
We have to hope that this readiness to offer full explanation and apology could become the norm in litigation rather than the exception. If so, it could reduce the number of people still unable to assimilate their grief.