One hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War, which contributed to a major shift in cultural attitudes and practices relating to death and mourning, with discussing dying increasingly becoming a taboo, many British people remain deeply uneasy talking about bereavement.
A new ComRes survey for the Dying Matters Coalition, finds that almost half of Britons (47%) say they would feel uncomfortable talking to someone who has been recently bereaved and significant numbers of bereaved people have experienced negative reactions to their grief including people avoiding them and the loss of friendships.
Although the majority of people surveyed knew someone who had been recently bereaved, one in four (26%) reported that they had not known what to say to them, and 40% only talked about it if the person who had been bereaved mentioned it first. One in ten (9%) said they had avoided talking about it with them and 4% said they had deliberately avoided seeing them.
The survey also found that the vast majority of those who have been bereaved in the past five years thought that people in Britain are uncomfortable talking to those who have recently been bereaved. Of Britons who have been bereaved in the past five years a third said people changed the subject rather than talk about their loss, one in four said people avoided talking to them after they were bereaved, one in four experienced someone saying something insensitive about their loss and one in ten lost a friend because of how they reacted to them following their bereavement.
The findings come at what for many bereaved people can be an especially upsetting time. Almost half of those who have been bereaved in the past five years said that since somebody close to them died, Christmas has been a particularly difficult time of year.
As Jane Harris, whose son Joshua died in 2011 aged 22 has so powerfully said,
We discovered that whenever we talked about our son Josh to friends and family there were awkward silences and people just didn't know what to say or do for the best or even avoided us altogether. The first Christmas after Josh's death was particularly upsetting, especially when we received Christmas cards that didn't even acknowledge his death.
It can be very difficult to know what to say or do for the best when someone you know has lost a loved one, and many people often long to offer support but don't know how best to. That's why the Dying Matters Coalition, which is led by the National Council for Palliative Care, has launched its new 'Being there' campaign. Supported by organisations including Cruse Bereavement Care and Hospice UK, the campaign is aimed at helping people to be there for friends, family, neighbours and colleagues who have been bereaved. As part of this we've produced a new guide, written by people who have been bereaved. This has top tips of things to say and do - and not to say and do.
Whether it's by going the extra mile to keep in regular contact, being open and talking about the person who died unless someone has made clear they don't want to, making practical offers of help, allowing people to grieve in their own way and avoiding platitudes such as "everything happens for a reason", there are a range of ways to help. You may not be able to take away someone's grief but by being there you can make a real and lasting difference.