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Dying Matters Awareness Week 2 - 6 May 2022

Dying to talk... by Liz Hall, Coroners, Mortuary & Bereavement Services Manager at BCP Council

Talking about death can be tough for most of us, but it is important to talk about death, dying and grief to prepare ourselves, and those who we love, for dying well.

Since working in bereavement for five years, I am astounded how ill-prepared families are when someone significant to them passes away. Their death, both expected and unexpected, can cause a range of emotions which for many can be overwhelming. Many families are unsure of what to do, where to turn, or how to carry on putting a ‘brave face’ on matters while struggling to come to terms with loss. In order to live well, we need to consider dying well, and that’s why talking and sharing is so important.

Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind. The problem is that in the past we have been conditioned to believe that feelings of grief are abnormal and unnatural. It is natural for each and every one of us to grieve for the loss of someone or something that mattered to us in life. Grief is a powerful emotion and is often neglected and misunderstood, which can be perpetuated by families, friends and communities not willing to open-up and talk about death and dying.

I have been unfortunate to observe the breakdown in some family relationships as a result of this reluctance to talk about death – in most cases when making the funeral arrangements for their loved one. This can lead to strongly worded arguments, and sadly our Bereavement Care staff have even had to intervene and separate feuding family members in the past. This in turn can lead to estrangement and bitterness and affects the mental wellbeing of those who are grieving and those who care for them.

There are many support groups that do great work to support and provide comfort to those who have suffered a bereavement and help them to regain some sense of new ‘normal’ in their life. However, research has shown that those who openly talk about death while living, are better equipped to recover from grief following a bereavement.

The global pandemic re-focused our perception on living and death. Bereavement and grief is difficult enough without added complications like social distancing, whilst managing a guest list due to reduced numbers of mourners that could physically attend a service. It was upsetting for the BCP Council Bereavement Care Team to see families hurting and unable to comfort each other during an emotional and distressing time, whilst we were also unable to provide the full support we would normally give. The power of touch - a hug, a kiss, with words of comfort expressed in person - should never be underestimated. Those restrictions will have undoubtedly compounded that sense of loss and may well have hindered the grief recovery phase for so many.

Dying Matters Awareness Week has made me think back to the ‘Death Cafe’ event that we held at Poole Crematorium in 2019. The Death Café movement began in the UK in 2011 by council worker Jon Underwood who held the first official British Death Café in his home at East Hackney, London. He got the idea from the Swiss model, Café Mortel, which gained momentum and has since spread to various European countries. The objective of this movement is to ‘increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their ‘finite’ lives’.

The feedback after BCP Council’s first Death Café event was hugely positive with particular emphasis made on the dignity and respect attendees felt was shown to the deceased when they came into our care – something they never really believed would be the case, which I found both surprising and disappointing. I think the event was reassuring for those who attended and paved the way to ask questions they felt they would never be brave enough to ask normally and led to some very interesting discussions afterwards. I believe it was important for everyone to know that they would be treated with the utmost respect, which dispelled some myths surrounding cremation and death in general.

A lot of the discussion focused on the importance of having conversations with family about what they wanted for themselves when the time comes. The message that came through abundantly clear at the end of the event was that talking about death should be viewed as a positive thing and that as many people as possible should be encouraged to having those conversations with family about what they wanted in order to ‘die well’. This could simply take a few minutes, confirming whether burial or cremation was their preferred choice, what type of service they would like, the music they wish to have played and where they wanted their ashes to be scattered. Talking about death and your own wishes also shows how much you care for those left with the burden of making the arrangements. Your wishes clearly expressed helps those mourning your loss to make the arrangements knowing that they are doing ‘the right thing’ by you, without uncertainty, pressure and arguments with other family members who, like you, are also grieving for their loss.

Many people have a particular problem talking about death. As a child I recall occasions in my own family even to this day where ‘death’ was very much a taboo subject and anyone daring to talk about the subject would invariably get shouted down with ‘don’t talk like that!” or “if you say it, you’ll make it happen”. You can imagine the thoughts and feelings of some of my family members when I decided to take a sudden career change by working within the bereavement industry. My mother still can’t quite fathom out where she went wrong!

A survey by the charity Dying Matters reveals that more than 70% of us are uncomfortable talking about death and that less than a third of us have spoken to family members about end of life wishes. Despite this reluctance there are encouraging signs of interest from people who are keen to explore death.

The BCP Council Bereavement Care Team shares a commitment to the death management process that makes up part of our day-to-day role. We view our position as being uniquely privileged in that we are there to provide a service that makes a difference to the family of those that come into our care. We are also acutely aware that the service we provide to our families is important in paving the way for those starting their bereavement journey, and beyond.

Let’s keep the conversation going… let us help you to have those difficult conversations in your family, with friends and in the community. BCP Council Bereavement Care will be organising a number of ‘Dying to Talk’ events across the conurbation in the months to come. Details of the events will be published on our website in due course.

Further information on the charity Dying Matters can be found at: Homepage | Hospice UK To mark Dying Matters Awareness Week – there are a number of events taking place across the country. Further details can be found at: Dying matters awareness week |

If you need support with grief or loss, there are some wonderful charities focusing on bereavement, where you can find out more about planning for a loss, coping with a loss, or just simply talking through feelings – even years after the bereavement has occurred.

It would be impossible for us to list everyone doing such fantastic support work but here are a few useful sites, to point you in the right direction:

Signposting - Cruse Bereavement Support

Signposting Bereaved People to Support. (ataloss.org)

Home – The Good Grief Trust

Finding support local to you (childhoodbereavementnetwork.org.uk)

 

For more information on services provided by BCP Council Bereavement Care please contact our customer enquiries on 01202 123111 / 128111 (Monday to Friday 11am to 3pm) or go online at: www.bcpcouncil.gov.uk/bereavement