A teaching assistant who completed her degree after her daughter died from a rare form of cancer is highlighting the lack of guidance in schools for pupils coping with bereavement.

Louise Welburn, who has just received the Curriculum Managers’ accolade at the Darlington College awards, wrote her dissertation on bereavement policies in schools.

It highlights the absence of statutory guidelines for schools and colleges to provide children and staff with bereavement support, training and education.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Sophie Welburn with mum Louise and dad Chris

Louise’s daughter Sophie was diagnosed in 2021 with a rare, incurable and aggressive tumour in her brain stem called a Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a condition that affects between 20 and 30 children a year in the UK.

She died less than nine months later, also leaving dad Chris and sister Niamh.

“I’d started my degree in education and training before Sophie was diagnosed and went back to it after she died,” recalled Louise of Darlington, who gained a first class BA honours degree and has now been shortlisted for the Association of Colleges HE Student of the Year award.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Louise Welburn collects a Curriculum Managers' accolade from principal David Gartland and deputy principal Carole Todd at a recent Darlington College awards ceremony

“I wanted to do my research project on a topic that would be meaningful. This helped me to focus when I returned to my course. The more I researched, the more I realised very few schools have a planned, proactive response to bereavement.

“A bereavement policy would act as a reference point and guide for schools, so that nothing was missed during an emotive time. A proactive response, which includes well considered policies and training for staff, will ultimately help children through one of the most distressing situations a child can experience.

“I received vital support from counsellors at St Teresa’s Hospice. But it would be great if people knew where to go for the resources because when you need them you need them in a hurry.”

Louise said it had been an incredibly difficult year. “But the degree gave me an outlet and a focus,” she said. “My Darlington College lecturer Jamie Pearson was brilliant and really supportive when I went back.”

Jamie said: “She was an excellent student. When Sophie was diagnosed with cancer and was given months to live, Louise suspended her studies so that she could entirely focus on making her last few months as magical and amazing as possible. This included moving forward her wedding date to ensure her daughter could be a part of the day.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Sophie Welburn with dad Chris mum Louise sister Niamh

“Louise then contacted the college asking to return to the course which in itself was incredibly courageous. She had a 100 per cent attendance and her engagement with the course was outstanding. She received 82 per cent for her research.”

As part of her research Louise cited Lesel Dawson, a professor at Bristol University and Arts and Culture Lead for the Good Grief Festival.

She said: “I am delighted that Louise has won the Curriculum Managers' accolade for her important research on school bereavement policies. Her dissertation contributes to a wider movement to improve grief literacy in schools, including the campaign to introduce mandatory grief education, which would enable young people to understand grief and help prepare them for one of life’s inevitable challenges.”

Funeral director and past president of the National Association of Funeral Directors John Adams, who successfully petitioned the government about grief education in schools, added: “Following the personal experience of loss Louise has encountered, unintentionally and through her own bereavement, she has been empowered in helping society deal with life’s only guarantee.

“Age appropriate conversations around loss are how we build a more positive and kinder society for all. A huge well done to Louise for taking on this special work – Sophie would be so proud of her incredible mum.”

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