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Opinion: Fund bereavement support

25 August 2023

It would lead to a healthier society — and save money, writes Yvonne Tulloch


THE lack of government foresight or long-term planning and objectives never ceases to amaze. Ministers, civil servants, and policies change frequently, without the follow-through that would prove their worth.

This is particularly unhelpful when it comes to bereavement support. Decades of death denial have resulted not only in ignorance about the impact of bereavement and how best to help, but also in a lack of appreciation of the cost to society of unresolved grief. As a consequence, vast amounts of taxpayers’ money are being spent on alleviating symptoms of grief rather than dealing with the root cause.

Bereavement is one of the hardest and most stressful times of life. There is a mountain of “sadmin”, with constant red tape, a roller-coaster of changing grief reactions to understand, everyday challenges to navigate, and a new normal to be found.

To have a healthy future, loss needs to be processed. Unsupported, it can lead to many issues, such as behavioural and relationship problems, loss of function, employment issues and job loss, significant financial difficulties, and substance abuse, as well as physical and mental ill-health. Many counsellors say that unresolved grief is the root of their clients’ problem, as it will be with countless of the homeless and prisoners.

MOST people tend to think that counselling is necessary for bereavement support. But this is limited, and is mostly recommended after several months have passed since the death of a loved one. Referrals are often made to oversubscribed organisations. Importantly, most people will navigate their grief healthily without the need of therapists, if they find timely information, peer support, and community understanding.

A few years ago, the National Bereavement Alliance developed a three-tier model of support based on the NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) public-health hierarchy, intended to help address under-capacity. There should be universal signposting to information and services; community support; and specialist interventions, which should be reserved for those with complex needs or prolonged or complicated grief.

The UK Commission on Bereavement, which reported last October, also identified signposting as essential, and emphasised the value of faith groups in providing community support. It called for all sectors to work together to address under-capacity.

Unfortunately, many organisations are now perpetuating problems by offering what they believe is helpful signposting: presenting a short list of well-known and largely oversubscribed services rather than the comprehensive directory of holistic help and choice which bereaved people need.

Our charity, AtaLoss, identified the lack of signposting and community understanding long before its recent recognition. We are Christians who have been providing a UK-wide bereavement signposting website since 2017, and, more recently, training and equipping churches in community support.

Access to our website and the rich resource of information that we provide is free to the user. We receive no formal funding, and seldom qualify for grants or trust funds, even though we have been relied on by the Government, local authorities, the NHS, and other organisations, during the pandemic and since. We provide a vital and cost-effective service that is preventing long-term problems in the UK and taking pressure off the NHS — and yet we struggle for finance to support what we do.

We are not alone. Owing to ignorance over what constitutes effective “bereavement support”, funding is generally going to counselling organisations and to a few big players. The value of the smaller, local, and informal services is missed. Several of the 1500 services to which we signpost have already closed, or are facing closure, at a time when they are needed more than ever.

PROBABLY of the greatest concern is the lack of understanding about the relationship of bereavement to mental ill-health. Grief and bereavement are now being talked about more, but, as a result, many people are turning to the well-funded mental-health services for help, when grief is the root problem.

Sixty-five per cent of referral visitors to our signposting website over the past 12 months have been directed from the mental-health charity MIND, either because they thought that they had a mental-health problem when the symptoms were a grief response, or because unresolved grief was behind the mental ill-health that had developed. Several mental-health crisis teams and organisations have also been in touch, asking whether they could direct clients to our website, or attend the programme “The Bereavement Journey” that we run.

The evidence is stark. MetLife’s report The Last Word says that 36 per cent of UK adults have been bereaved in the past two years, and 23 per cent have had no support. In addition, the Childhood Bereavement Network reports that more than 43,600 children are bereaved annually, often without help; and people bereaved by suicide are at higher risk of taking their own life.

If society is to be healthier in future, there should be public clamour for prevention to be the focus. Grant bodies and the Government (which has a vested interest in the public purse) should prioritise funding for bereavement support. Investment in more grief-support services, and in nationwide quality bereavement signposting, would ultimately save the country millions. If government funding cannot be provided now, parties should make a commitment to it in their manifestos before the next General Election — and in the years to come.

Canon Yvonne Tulloch is the founder and CEO of AtaLoss, a registered charity which helps bereaved people find support and well-being through a UK wide bereavement signposting website (ataloss.org), and by training and equipping churches to provide bereavement support for their communities through their Loss and HOPE project (lossandhope.org). The Bereavement Journey peer group support resource, which is being rolled out across the UK, is now being offered by churches in over 200 locations: thebereavementjourney.org

Listen to an interview with Canon Tulloch on the Church Times podcast 

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