Supporting grief as a human right: an invitation to explore

These last four days I’ve taken some time off and as illustrative of what I am told is an inability to sit still I have been doing some badly needed tidying and catch-up jobs. As part of this I came across my daughter’s Child Record. As well as an exercise in reminiscence which every parent indulges in from time to time it reminded me of all the focus that I and others put into those critical first months and years of life. From pre-birth classes to birth planning to the nth degree, from health visitor visits and the excellent Baby Box there is so much attention, resource and focus on making sure that our wee ones enter their life as they should. That brought to mind a remark someone made to me about if only we could put the same degree of attention, resource and focus on the way we end our living and on the way we support those who are experiencing loss and bereavement.

The week from the 2nd to the 8th December is the annual National Grief Awareness Week. This is run under the auspices of the Good Grief organisation which is itself a body representing 800 bereavement support organisations. It’s aims are clear and include normalising grief so that we challenge the taboo around dying and getting the public to talk so that it’s easier to support those who are living with grief as part of their life. The week also highlights the need to end the postcode lottery of bereavement support and to focus upon the necessity for tailored support when it is required.

I’ll be taking part in Grief Awareness week by chairing a session for the UK Commission on Bereavement. I’ve mentioned the work of the Commission before and I’d encourage anyone reading this to take part in their survey and to share your thoughts if you have been bereaved in the last few years. See

A couple of days after the end of Grief Awareness week is the annual United Nations Human Rights Day on the 10th December.

Human rights have I believe a lot to contribute to the nature of bereavement support in Scotland.

In most instances however if you Google the connection then you will come up with comment and articles covering the importance of those who are bereaved being treated equitably. This has been the focus of an important legal case last year on ensuring cohabitees have protected legal rights.

But I think human rights have a lot more to contribute to bereavement support. Indeed, it is such a belief that led myself and others to become involved in the creation and promotion of A Bereavement Charter for Children and Adults in Scotland. The Charter is human rights based and explores what it means to support someone through their grieving.

So why human rights and grief? Well, I would reflect back on my earlier comments – put simply because the way we support those who grieve is as important as the way we support a child and new life into our world. If being born enshrines our human rights, then dying and bereavement do also.

Human rights are there in law and practice because they describe to us the way we should relate to one another and what a society that enshrines dignity as intrinsic to human identity should look like.

In technical terms we have within the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights the ‘right to health’. I have argued elsewhere that this right needs to be broadly interpreted both to encapsulate a right to social care and a right to palliative care. The ground for that reasoning is that the right to health is not solely a right to psychological health but that it has a holistic dimension including the right to psychological, emotional and mental integrity.

It is a fundamental part of personal identity and living in community with others that we all of us experience the death of those who are important to us at some stage or other should we live any length of years. The inter-relationship of human existence means that we all grieve. Grief is wrapped up in the bonds of connection we make and is the fruit of the depth of our loving.

Grief is always an individual journey but the taking of the steps towards a re-orientation of your life in the absence of the departed can for some become challenging beyond their own capacity and beyond their strength to achieve alone and without support. For most of us if we get stuck on our walk of grief others who know us will manage to lift us up, support us and put us on the right direction. But not for all. That is when professional and sometimes specialist bereavement support becomes necessary.

We have, I would contend, to see such as a human right for bereavement support as a core element of the right to health and indeed within other rights such as Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights and its emphasis on psychological integrity and family life. There are many more human rights which are engaged in the realisation of a human right for bereavement support. We should also see the requirement to provide such bereavement support as a duty indeed obligation upon the State and its actors. Bereavement support as a human right should be an intrinsic part of our ability to realise all our other human rights because it is for some an essential enabler of their ability to maintain psychological and physical health, to remain connected to others, to articulate their needs and requirements and so much more.

Scotland is on the point of seeking to incorporate the International Covenant into domestic law and a lot of work has been undertaken in this regard. I hope our legislators use this as an opportunity to encapsulate and enshrine the priority we should all give as a modern, progressive society top supporting those who need support in their grieving and bereavement. The extent to which we enable people to live through grief, the degree to which we are prepared to accompany our fellow citizens who require support is a mark of the humaneness of our society. I hope this Human Rights Day Scotland can begin to become first nation to start that process. If nothing else, we should start a serious debate on the extent to which supporting adequate bereavement support is a human right and all that that may mean.

Grieving is the letting go which takes part of our heart in the freeing; we should not only prepare for the parting, plan for the journey, but be supported if we need direction for our walking from where we lose the warmth of touch and the familiar, and as we learn to live and to love in a different way. The amazing American poet Mary Oliver says it all.


Look, the trees

are turning

their own bodies

into pillars


of light,

are giving off the rich

fragrance of cinnamon

and fulfillment,


the long tapers

of cattails

are bursting and floating away over

the blue shoulders


of the ponds,

and every pond,

no matter what its

name is, is


nameless now.

Every year


I have ever learned


in my lifetime

leads back to this: the fires

and the black river of loss

whose other side


is salvation,

whose meaning

none of us will ever know.

To live in this world


you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it


against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it


to let it go.


Mary Oliver

In Blackwater Woods


Donald Macaskill




Last Updated on 20th December 2021 by Shanice