More than half of Scottish children have experienced bereavement of a close family member by the age of eight, according to a new study.

And for children from deprived households, the risk of experiencing the death of a parent was five times more likely.

'The prevalence of childhood bereavement in Scotland and its relationship with disadvantage’ study from the University of Strathclyde used data from the Scottish Government funded Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) research.

The Strathclyde study carried out eight separate data ‘sweeps’ from the same group of 2,815 children, who were usually visited annually, from ten months old to the start of primary six.

It found that by the age of 7.8 years, 50.8 per cent of the children had experienced bereavement.

By the age of 10, that figure had risen to 62 per cent, with the death of one or more grandparents the most common bereavement.

Researcher Dr Sally Paul from the School of Social Work and Social Policy said: "The findings show that children are not protected from death by virtue of their age. If you have a classroom of eight-year-olds then at least half that class will have experienced bereavement of a close family member.

 “We talk about bereavement as a majority experience but there hasn’t been a large prevalence study done in Scotland before and we wanted to have hard figures for that. Our findings suggest that the figure in younger children is much higher than previous estimates and that children with a lower household socioeconomic status are significantly more likely to experience the death of a parent or sibling.

“We believe the figures are actually an underestimate of the true extent of childhood bereavement in Scotland as we only looked at data which reported on the death of close relatives.  We don’t know how many children experienced the death of other important people, such as other family members, close friends, neighbours, teachers and so on. We also made the decision not to include people who dropped out the GUS study.”

Dr Paul added: “Our research has shown that there is a link between children from the most deprived households and the risk of a parent dying. The risk is five times greater than for a child from an area of less deprivation.”

While the study maintained that most bereaved children won’t need professional services like counselling, it also points to research which argues bereavement can make children vulnerable to anxiety and depression, as well as self-harm and suicide.

Bereavement has also been linked to underachievement at school, offending and unemployment.

Dr Paul added: “Age appropriate education on death and grief in early years and primary education, and supporting the capacity of families, peers and community networks could all help engage with children on these issues.

“This potentially requires significant culture change in society about the willingness and ability to have open and honest conversations with children.”

Researcher Nina Vaswani, from the Children and Young People’s Centre for Justice, said: “A lack of social support – including from schools – has been documented by some previous research as potentially contributing to feelings of isolation, loneliness and social exclusion with some children reporting bullying and difficulties with friendships.

“But children are really resilient and with just a bit of support from somebody in their social environment they can and do cope with most things. The rates of bereavement are so high in childhood that it would be impossible, and unnecessary, to support all those people by specialist services.

“Grief, in whatever form it presents, is a very understandable reaction to what is a common childhood experience, and should not necessarily be viewed as problematic. It’s about making sure that the people in the child’s environment, whether it’s family or friends or teachers, are confident, able and willing to talk about difficult subjects like death and that those conversations are happening with children from an early age.

“It’s also about making sure that no children fall through the cracks and those who need additional support are identified.”

Case study: Mariya lost her brother Ahmar when she was seven years old

Mariya Javed was just a few weeks short of her eighth birthday when she tragically lost her brother in 2017.

Older brother Ahmar, 13, had a rare condition called Ateriovenous Malformation (AVM) which meant a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in the brain caused him to suddenly develop a bleed on the brain.

Once in hospital, Ahmar suffered a second, more serious bleed, and his parents Sameena and Javed had to take the agonising decision to turn off his life support machine in the Royal Hospital for Children in Glasgow.

Since Mariya hadn’t seen her brother in hospital, her mum said it was as if her elder brother simply vanished from her life.

Sameena, from Elderslie, Renfrewshire, said: “Even though there was a five-year age gap they went everywhere together and did everything together. When Ahmar was ill she didn’t see him in hospital because we actually thought he’d get better and come home.

“So for Mariya it was like he disappeared overnight, one minute he was there and the next he wasn’t.

“I did explain to her that she could ask me anything and she did ask questions. She came to the funeral and afterwards we tried to keep as much to a routine as possible. She actually coped better than I thought she might.”

The day after the funeral Sameena thought it was important for Mariya to return to school.

She added: “Nothing was normal of course, but I wanted to try and keep some normality for her. Being able to see her friends and teachers was important. Her friends knew what had happened of course and didn’t go out of their way to ask but were there if Mariya wanted to talk about it.

“The more normal they were I think the more it helped her, chatting and playing games like they usually did. School was a good distraction for her.”

In the months and years following the death of her son, Sameena has been campaigning for bereavement education to be made compulsory in the school curriculum in Scotland, and launched a charity called Another Star in the Sky. The charity has so far raised £14,000 in Ahmar’s name to research AVM and other similar conditions.

Sameena said: “Having actually been through it with my own family, children do need to know about this and we need to talk about it.

“So may children suffer bereavement and I think there should be something in every school to help them understand it and process it all. “

Sameena says that three years on, Ahmar is still very much part of the conversation at home, especially as the family has a new addition with the birth of her two-year-old son Mohammad Ayaan, who never got to meet his brother.

She said: “I’ve always made a point of talking about Ahmar. Initially, Mariya didn’t talk much about him, but as she’s getting older she’s talking more. It’s important that she knows that she had this brother, he existed and was part of our lives. In a way, we feel that he’s always around.

“Ahmar was a straight-A student and wanted to be a doctor and it’s difficult to see his friends and think of all the things he should be doing. I know if he’d lived he would have done great things.”

You can find out more about the Another Star in the Sky charity here.