We need to talk about the 'D word'

Our new research A Better Grief reveals that, as a nation, we have a big issue talking about death – with half of us saying we would be scared of saying the wrong thing to someone recently bereaved.

Sue Ryder has today launched a new research report which shines a spotlight on the UK’s experiences with death and bereavement.  

The report, A Better Grief, is based on an extensive poll of 2,189 UK adults, as well as an examination of the last ten years of bereavement research in the UK.

We found that, although seven out of ten UK adults have suffered at least one bereavement in the last five years, the ‘D word’ remains one of our society’s final taboos, with a veil of silence around the subject.

Fear of "saying the wrong thing"

Over half (51%) of people polled fear "saying the wrong thing" to someone who has been recently bereaved.

This number increases to 63% amongst adults aged 18-34. As a result of this, there is real need for a cultural shift with regards to discussion around death and bereavement – with open and honest, in-person conversations encouraged from an early age.

It is clear from the report’s findings that, in the UK, we find it extremely difficult to engage in conversation around death and grief - whether that’s supporting people who are going through a bereavement or asking for help personally.

Feeling "uncomfortable" prevents seeking of support

The report has found that less than 10% of adults who have experienced a bereavement in the last five years received any support, in addition to that from friends and family, to help them deal with their grief.

According to the findings, feeling "uncomfortable" asking for support is a key reason why people don’t come forward, with one in five (18%) of those who have not received support for their most recent bereavement, but said it would be helpful, stating this as a reason why not.

Our recommendations

Sue Ryder believes the time has come for us to confront this issue as a nation. Losing a loved one not only affects the individuals immediately involved; it has a much wider impact. People who have suffered a bereavement are significantly less likely to be employed, not only in the year of their bereavement, but two years later, and are more likely to suffer health problems*.

Sue Ryder wants to encourage the below practical recommendations, and is urging the government, employers and the general public to start breaking down barriers around the topic of bereavement.

  • Conduct a large-scale piece of quantitative and qualitative research to find out how to better identify people who need bereavement support, what types of bereavement support are most effective, and when and how that support should be made available.
  • Work with UK agencies responsible for health and wellbeing to put in place services and processes which ensure that anyone who needs bereavement support can access it.
  • Engender a cultural shift in the UK, encouraging openness about the topics of dying, death and bereavement, thus giving people the tools to better support each other, and potentially equip people to become ‘bereavement first aiders’.

Sue Ryder's role

“Sue Ryder wants to start a national conversation about bereavement," said Sue Ryder CEO Heidi Travis. “Offering people an outlet to talk about their grief and encouraging open discussion is imperative to reduce the common feelings of isolation that can accompany a bereavement.

"Through the growth of our Online Bereavement Community and the recent introduction of our Online Bereavement Counselling Service, our mission is to ensure that everyone – no matter where they live, or whatever their circumstances – will be able to access flexible bereavement support when they need it.

“Through our research, we know that too many of us, particularly younger people, worry about getting it wrong when speaking to someone who is going through a bereavement – and we would rather say nothing than say the wrong thing.

“Avoiding the subject out of embarrassment is often the worst thing you can do," she continued. "We want to support the idea of ‘compassionate communities’, empowering everybody to feel they can help, rather than assuming it is the preserve of health professionals. The one thing most people who have suffered a bereavement want is to talk about their loved ones and keep their memory alive.

“Each and every one of us – alongside employers, healthcare professionals and the government – have important roles to play in the bereavement arena. It is an often life-changing experience that we will all experience at some point.

"Let us not pretend silence will make it any easier.”

*Birrell et al. (2013) Socio-Economic Costs of Bereavement in Scotland

About the research

  • Research carried out by ComRes, a member of the British Polling Council.
  • ComRes interviewed 2,189 UK adults between 14th and 19th December 2018.
  • Data was weighted to be demographically representative of all British adults by age, gender, region and social grade.