Project 25 - Emotional support for bereavement

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Key findings

Photo of a woman with her hand on her face

Hampshire Perspectives is the County Council's residents' forum

This report summarises key findings from the 25th Hampshire Perspectives survey, which was conducted as part of a wider project to understand the triggers and barriers to seeking, or providing, emotional support around bereavement.

The survey was completed by 279 Hampshire Perspectives members in June 2023, forming a substantial part of a wider research programme that included views from other members of the public, partner organisation stakeholders, and Hampshire County Council employees.

The findings will help guide strategy around emotional bereavement support going forwards, and have already been used to inform the development of social media ads designed to help people feel more confident in offering emotional support to people they know who have been affected by bereavement.

Key findings were as follows:

Everyone’s experience of bereavement is different, and very personal.

Despite some common themes to the barriers to seeking help, it is important to recognise that the circumstances around bereavement feel unique to each person.

Death is a subject people would rather avoid.

Because death is an emotional, morbid topic surrounded by societal taboos, most people don’t talk about it unless they have to, and even then conversations are focused on specific situations of bereavement as opposed to the topic in general. However, people do want to talk about their lost loved one – rather than about death in general (and in some ethnic communities this is part of established tradition), which can provide a way of starting to share and talk about feelings with others.

Not everyone seeks help, even from friends and family.

Even amongst survey respondents who were, by definition, more open to talking about their views on bereavement, only 2 in 3 spoke about their feelings, and only 1 in 3 asked for specific help for ways of coping. Moreover, there are some groups (e.g. those with no support network nearby, health limitations, those in ethnic communities where seeking emotional support is less usual) who rate themselves as coping less well with bereavement and may therefore have more need of support.

There are multiple barriers that make people uncomfortable seeking emotional support.

The most common themes were:

  • A sense that ‘you should just get on with it’ (the main barrier for most people)
  • Emotional aspects – low mental wellbeing, worry about showing emotion
  • Concern for others (not wanting to be a burden, especially if someone else is suffering from the same loss, needing to be strong for others)
  • Lack of awareness of available help, its benefits, or how to access it
  • Poor ‘supporter’ listening skills and their lack of close relationship with the bereaved

There are some differences in the overall willingness to seek support

There are also differences in the extent to which these barriers may be present between different genders and ethnicities (and between generations within some ethnic communities).

In most ethnic communities, death is surrounded by cultural traditions

For example, there may be periods of mourning, burial traditions, ritual changes to eating or drinking. These have additional implications for how and whether emotional support is sought. It is common for friends, family and wider community to come together to visit / support the bereaved in the immediate term after a death, but external emotional support from GPs or other services does not feature in the cultural way of dealing with death. This context poses additional barriers to seeking help within ethnic communities:

  • A sense that help has already been provided - seeking further emotional support beyond this is not the norm, even within the community.
  • Concern that external sources of support will not understand the importance of cultural traditions. There may also be potential language barriers in the signposting to support, or with support provision itself.
  • Especially low awareness of external services available, and of their benefits.

Even for those seeking emotional support, there are certain periods when it feels even less acceptable to do so.

There are lower levels of people seeking help before a bereavement, or beyond the immediate period after bereavement, for several reasons:

  • A common belief that it is wrong to be focused on one's own feelings when a loved one is dying.
  • Perceived society expectations that it is only appropriate to seek help immediately after a bereavement (and not in the longer term).
  • Traditions (especially in some ethnic communities) where the coming together of families or the community after a bereavement can be time-bound, after which there is a sense that the grieving period is ‘over’.

People often only seek help when they feel they have reached a crisis point or such poor mental wellbeing that they feel forced to reach out.

People do not see those around them routinely seeking support (it is not normalised), reinforcing the perception that support is only for those in more extreme need of it. There is lack of realisation for some that even talking about their feelings to someone they know can have benefits.

As well as barriers to seeking support, there are also barriers to giving support.

  • Lack of confidence: not knowing what to say to someone who has been bereaved, worry about saying the wrong thing.
  • Low awareness of expert services / organisations to signpost to.
  • Situations where there is no close relationship with the bereaved person, making someone more hesitant to offer support.

From the perspective of someone who has been bereaved, it is also important that someone they choose to talk to about their feelings is a good listener, is empathetic, has been through a similar experience, and that they don’t judge or try to ‘fix’ them.