You are here: Reflecting on loss from the frontline

Rob McCabe, Strategic Lead for the Birmingham SEMH Pathfinder, reflects on our recent literature review on the impact of loss and bereavement on people experiencing severe and multiple disadvantage.

Having worked in the care and social work field for nearly thirty years, mainly as a social worker in the Criminal Justice System, I come close to loss on many levels and occasions, regularly bearing witness to the horror, pain and subsequent impact of loss on many young people and their families. The Revolving Doors’ lit review resonates with my understanding of the problems facing the people I work with; but also with my own experiences, as a worker and just as a person.

I have observed at close quarter the impact upon children who have suffered significant bereavement, and also the loss, conflict and emotional turmoil of those who have been abused and mistreated by those their own loved ones. I have seen both parents lose their children; and children lose their parents to custodial sentences. I relate to the review’s discussion of those non-death losses that exist on a ‘continuum of loss’, and often accompanying bereavement in Vaswani’s ‘ripples of death’ (2014). I also relate to the discussion of the way in which a complex assembly of trauma and deprivation can mean that losses cannot be processed in a healthy way, and become ‘complicated’ and toxic.

As a social worker you are not only a witness to the loss of others, it touches you too, in ways you don’t always see at first. While I was working as a frontline Youth Offending Service worker, I would prepare pre-sentence reports for court, often presenting mitigating circumstances surrounding the young person’s offending. I would trawl through Children Services records, noting tragic events of significant and traumatic loss, and the multiple windows of opportunity for involved statutory agencies, that, had they been afforded the resources, funding and time, could have far more effectively addressed the young person’s actual needs. All too often, the right statutory help over the right amount of time was not forthcoming. Instead, much more money and resource would eventually end up being spent on the incarceration and criminal rehabilitation of the young person. Seeing this constant waste of opportunity is a loss which wears away at you slowly. Perhaps this is an extension of the ripples of loss – the impact on those who are trying to work to support their clients and yet can see the failures of the system they must work within.

Sometimes the loss affecting the people I worked with became mine as well. As a frontline social worker, I have experienced the death of two young people that I worked with, both who took their own lives, the first in the early-, and the second in the mid-noughties.  Both were teenagers (14 years old and 16 years old) and were born to poor families; both families had significant histories of domestic abuse, substance misuse and alcohol issues.  Whilst both suicides were shocking, the death of Peter, the 16 year old, who I had worked with for 12 months, had a profound effect upon me.

Peter was an extremely likeable, bright and funny young man, and I genuinely enjoyed working with him.  On the morning that I learnt of his death, I was directed by my manager that all my recording and files would need to be immediately reviewed. There was no time to reflect upon the gravity of what had happened, to send my condolences to Peter’s parents, or just to take stock. Rather, I was to immediately respond to the required corporate process in relation to my own involvement and practice in the case; and prepare for the inevitable review and scrutiny that would follow. This was a thoroughly hollowing experience.

I have heard it said that to cope with death and make meaning from it, you should take the best of the experience of knowing the person who lived, and apply that to enhance your continuing life.  Both experiences of loss were bitterly sobering, and shaped my practice; and in a broader sense, my approach to life, for the better.

This year for the first time I experienced my own significant loss: my mother died very suddenly and unexpectedly in June, following an aortic aneurism.  For the first time I experienced for myself the crippling pain, grief and anguish of losing someone who has always been the most central in my life. It has made me reflect upon the importance of loss and my understanding of it in the work that I do. 

My mother lived through a life not much different from many of the people I have worked with and yet my predominant memory of her is how she overcame those personal losses – how she survived and raised me, and kept on going, however imperfectly.

The reason I became a social worker is purely born from my mother’s nature and drive. My mother’s gift to me was inspiration and that is something that I will never ‘lose’. It is also the reason that I will never take the multiple losses suffered by the people I work with, and the losses I encounter myself through the process of working with them, as a reason to give up. Thanks to her, and in spite of her own traumatic life experiences, I have had the privilege of a ‘non-problematic’ experience of grief.

I strongly welcome the review’s recognition of the correlation between multiple bereavements, complicated grief and incarceration, as I have spent much of my career drawing the same links.

The importance of hope even amidst the sharpest loss...


It would be easy to despair. A predominant feature of the young people and families I have worked with over thirty years, is loss, whether something has been lost, denied or deprived. Working in a city such as Birmingham, the contrast of wealth and poverty is all too stark to see, and this is perhaps the most haunting, toxic and pervasive loss of all. What has made it be possible to survive the professional world of social work for over thirty years, so mired in the world of deficits and loss and inequalities, has been the experience of working with people that despite such traumatising experiences have the capacity to keep on going and derive hope, often amidst the bleakest of personal circumstances.  Even the most ‘challenging’ of young people I have worked with, have possessed such redeeming qualities and displayed such resilience and strength, that as a worker you cannot fail to be both awed and humbled, and this has on many occasions sharply put my own problems into perspective. Since my mother’s death I can see more clearly the impact of her life on me, and I understand my own vocation more clearly. But I also understand the importance that as workers we do not forget the strength, agency and potential of our clients, even in the direst circumstances.

Losing my mom this year has been the hardest thing, and yet it has also been transformative.

I can now see more clearly the love, strength (stubbornness), joy and laughter that my mother gave to me, but have begun to crystallise my own understanding of the lives of the people I work with.

I feel thankful to be able to look forward to the future with a better understanding of how loss and despair can be galvanised into hope and transformation.

A literature review on loss and bereavement

We set out to better understand the impact and prevalence of a wider range of losses in the lives of people facing multiple disadvantage. The available literature has meant this review focuses primarily on bereavement through death and the role this experience may play in the lives of those who come into contact with the criminal justice system.