Bringing better support for bereaved people - Ellie Wagstaff

For thousands of people across Scotland, bereavement has become an exhausting addition to daily life since March 2020. The last 21 months have been relentless, with many trapped living with their grief after the death of someone they knew with few places or people to share those feelings with.

Thousands of family, friends and health and social care staff are grieving for those lost during the pandemic.
Thousands of family, friends and health and social care staff are grieving for those lost during the pandemic.

Over 9,500 people in Scotland have died of Covid-19, putting into sharp focus the thousands of family, friends and health and social care staff grieving for those lost. With the festive period underway, those absences will have a greater presence around dinner tables and at social occasions which are usually a highlight of the winter season.

Isolation and loneliness will undoubtedly be at a peak during this time and accessing the right support is a vital aspect of being able to process grief and learning to live with loss. But many services rely on people coming forward proactively, and from existing research we know that groups which are seldom heard such as Travellers and rural communities among others, have traditionally faced barriers accessing bereavement, health and social care support. This means that some of the most vulnerable populations with complex needs are not accessing the support they need.

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Recent research by Marie Curie’s Palliative Care Research Centre at Cardiff University found that over 50 per cent of bereaved people in the UK were experiencing high or severe vulnerability in their grief during Covid-19, and three quarters of those were not accessing bereavement services or mental health support. Of the 40 per cent who tried to get support, just over half experienced either long waiting lists, lack of appropriate support or not being eligible.

The UK Commission on Bereavement (UKCB), which was established earlier this year to explore issues and make recommendations on how to better support people who have been bereaved, is currently collecting views of people with lived experience of bereavement including individuals, young people and children, and professionals and organisations. Although the UKCB is interested in bereavement experienced during Covid-19, it is also keen to hear from any bereaved person no matter how long ago or the circumstances.

The UKCB recently met with Scottish health and social care experts, academics and policy makers, among others, to discuss key issues which have affected people’s bereavement in recent years including the pandemic, and what should happen in the future and how support must meet those needs.

They found that the pandemic has increased conversations about dying, death and bereavement through being part of daily life in some form, but for many this has not been out of choice or in the right circumstances. There is still a long way to go in normalising those conversations in the right way, as there have been significant challenges in the way this shift has taken place, including how people have experienced grief as part of their professional life as well as personal.

Experiences of bereavement also vary massively depending on circumstances. Someone grieving for a person who has died suddenly, and someone coming to terms with the death of a terminally ill person after a long-term illness will have very different bereavement support needs, and experiences in referral to those services.

There is a huge risk that grief has become too circumstantial and less compassionate because of such high numbers of deaths over the last 21 months. Many are not getting the opportunity to process their grief both personally or professionally, meaning they are more likely to experience delayed trauma. This could start to resurface as socialisation increases, but how ready are services to cope with this imminent wave both in terms of volume but also complexity of grief? Third sector organisations are expected to provide some of this support, so must be appropriately funded by the Government to ensure services can fully meet bereaved people’s needs.

The UKCB is seeking views of people affected by bereavement, to share your views, visit www.bereavementcommission.org.uk/taking-part/ to submit by 31st December.

Ellie Wagstaff, Policy & Public Affairs Manager, Marie Curie

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