Death is not the end
We all die eventually but, before we do, most of us encounter death many times. Not all of us handle it well. Additional support could help.
Grief comes for us all. When a close friend or family member dies, we mourn.
For those left behind, death is the end of a loved one’s life and the beginning of our own lives without them.
There might not be a right way or wrong way to grieve – but that doesn’t mean we all do it well.
How do we respond to loved ones dying?
Grief tends to be both an individual and a collective experience. Families can be brought together but, at the same time, the departure of someone you love can make you feel very isolated.
Just because there is no rigidly correct procedure for mourning does not mean good support isn’t possible, which is why a recent announcement from the Department of Health (DoH) is so welcome.
The Northern Ireland Bereavement Network is a project aiming to “support dying people and their loved ones around the time of and after death.”
At the end of last month, the DoH announced that the network is developing a new bereavement-support website.
The new website, set to launch later this year, will “bring together in one place, easily accessible information and support to the public at whatever point in the bereavement journey they may be on.”
It will also include pre-bereavement support, as well as tools for staff support and training for organisations where this could be useful.
This is important. We, as a species, can learn to be better at almost anything. This includes grieving.
You might think that seems like a silly thing to say but, if so, you’re probably part of the problem. Death is taboo.
Losing people we care about is both something we almost all have to do and one of the hardest things any of us have to do. This makes it one of the defining experiences of being human.
Look at literature, cinema and television. How many of the stories we tell each other hinge on death? How many have death as the culmination of some journey? How many stories begin with death, and grieving?
Those stories are very important. The reason they are so compelling is because we all understand that death means so much, and not just for the person who dies.
Surely then it is obvious that we should be able to discuss our own experiences of death, and that such discussions can be very useful? Surely some of us – and perhaps all – can learn to grieve better?
Scope wrote last year about the UK’s low levels of “death literacy”, as laid out in a report by Marie Curie.
The organisation defines death literacy as “the knowledge, skills and awareness of issues concerning death, dying, end of life care and bereavement.”
The report found that far too many people are wholly unprepared for death and bereavement. They can lack practical knowledge (how to get a death certificate, plan a funeral, organise a will, what palliative care entails, and more), and the personal confidence to death with death both as an individual or as part of a family or circle of friends.
People lack this knowledge because it’s something we don’t talk about, and perhaps don’t like to talk about.
Have most people even heard of “complicated grief”, the psychiatric term for cases when the immense, acute grief that normally follows in the days immediately following loss persists, which can lead to people neglecting their own wellbeing or being beset with dread about the future? Or, to put it a more clinical way, an emotional state defined as “being distinct from bereavement-related depression and anxiety, and to predict long-term functional impairments.”
All this provides a great illustration of how useful the upcoming bereavement website – and the Bereavement Network in general – could be, both practically and in profoundly human terms.
The Chair of the Bereavement Network is Patricia Donnelly.
Ms Donnelly previously oversaw NI’s vaccine distribution programme and was a clinical psychologist by profession. That combination of skills indicates that there is a clear (and good) vision for what the network should be.
When plans for the new website were launched, she said: ““We know that death during normal times is tough to cope with and for those bereaved during the pandemic it was perhaps even more difficult.
“Therefore the experiences and learnings from the pandemic, as well as the latest evidence based research is helping to shape the support we are providing to the bereaved population.”
Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Michael McBride, said: “While most bereaved individuals normally adjust to the death of a loved one without requiring professional help, a significant minority continue to experience ongoing intensive grief reactions, commonly termed complicated or prolonged grief.
“But it all begins with a compassionate society that recognises and supports individuals and families in their grief.
“Moving forward the development of the new website will assist in signposting individuals to the necessary support as it is required.”
DoH Permanent Secretary Peter May said: ““Although grief is a normal part of the recovery process from bereavement and loss – we know it is experienced very differently by those affected. Therefore the work that is being taken forward by the Bereavement Network is very important for society as a whole.”
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