Why are we failing to support bereaved people?

Published on Friday, 24 January 2014 11:16
Written by Joe Levenson

Every minute someone in Britain dies, and almost half of us say we've been bereaved in the last five years. Yet society's response before and after a death often falls short, which can make dealing with loss so much more difficult.

All too frequently people who have been bereaved report feeling unsupported. There are sadly countless stories of people who have lost a loved one and who have been treated unsympathetically, including in the workplace.

A new report from the National Council for Palliative Care, published with the Dying Matters Coalition which it leads and the National Bereavement Alliance, reveals that significant numbers of bereaved people say they felt let down by their employer.

Almost a third of people who had in a job when someone close to them died, according to a new ComRes survey, did not feel their employer treated them with compassion. Moreover, despite job insecurities and an uncertain economy, more than half of us say we would consider leaving our job if our employer did not provide proper support when someone close to us died.

While some employers have excellent compassionate employment policies and are sympathetic and flexible to staff who have been bereaved, many others appear to be failing to provide the right support. People who are self-employed can also find it hard to access support and may find juggling work and the practical and emotional fallout of the death of a loved one impossible, at least in the short-term.

Since the publication of our report, I've heard about yet more heartbreaking and heart-warming stories of people's treatment from employers after having been bereaved. I was particularly struck by one BBC interviewer, who the moment we went off air told me that her husband who worked elsewhere had not been able to get any time off work to attend her mum's funeral, causing enormous upset.

The challenge now is to learn from good and bad experiences alike, so that more bereaved people can receive the support they need from their employer, when they need it.

That's why we are calling for a national review of employment practice relating to bereavement, to improve the way people are treated at work. This review should look at the feasibility of minimum statutory paid bereavement leave, something which doesn't exist at present. The introduction of paid time off work for parents following bereavement is something which Lucy Herd has been passionately campaigning for, since her young son Jack died in August 2010. 

Whatever the outcome of Lucy's campaign and our calls for a national review, there's no excuse for employers not to go ahead immediately with ensuring they have an updated bereavement policy. To support employers with this, the Dying Matters Coalition, which aims to raise awareness about the importance of talking more openly about dying, death and bereavement, has announced the launch of 'Compassionate employers'.

It's not just in the workplace where bereaved people face a lack of support. There also appear to be real problems with how the welfare system is operating: we're especially concerned that the introduction of universal credit may lead to bereaved people facing losing their homes just three months after the loss of a loved one.

With an ageing population and the number of people dying each year set to increase, there's never been a more important time to get bereavement support and end of life care right.

It was Iris Murdoch who so powerfully wrote: "Bereavement is a darkness impenetrable to the imagination of the unbereaved". Whilst this rings true for many, we mustn't let difficulties in understanding individual experiences of grief or a lack of confidence in discussing dying and death get in the way of helping to shine light where there is darkness. We need a more compassionate approach to bereavement so that we can all get on with life after death.

Follow Dying Matters on Twitter @DyingMatters

Add comment