Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK
Madeleine Pennington and Nathan Mladin’s report examining emotional responses to death and dying in the UK. 27/11/2023
Yvonne Tulloch, CEO of AtaLoss, shares about her own story of grief and how the Church can be a place of healing. 01/12/2023
It was 15 years ago now, but it stays in my mind as if yesterday. I was an Anglican Church minister when my husband, Simon, died suddenly from a heart attack, and my life fell apart. Even though I had taken funerals and supported many people through such times, I had no idea until I was bereaved myself how much death can affect people, or how little is known about its impact, or how little support is given.
Bereavement is one of the most stressful times of life, affecting potentially every part of a person’s existence, and grief a long journey of adjustment, with help necessary in various ways. At first, most of us are shocked or emotionally numb; we run on adrenaline and we’re in survival mode. At the funeral we, and others, can think we’re doing well, but it’s generally afterwards that the pain tends to hit – when we’ve been confronted with the harsh reality of the loss at the funeral, and the future must be faced. Just as support drops away, many of us experience a roller coaster of changing reactions and responses which we don’t recognise as us or don’t associate with grief.
There are the physical reactions, for instance; I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I was cold, and I shook for months. I had a heavy ‘weight’ in my gut and was taken to hospital three times with suspected heart problems. Our bodies are so in tune with our emotions. Then there are the psychological reactions: we can’t concentrate or remember, or function to do the most basic of tasks, yet we’re faced with a mountain of practical, financial and legal matters, alongside endless unhelpful responses. And we can experience fear, anger and guilt; I kept thinking I was seeing Simon and had a psychosis which made me feel separated from the world. We can think we’re going mad.
For me, life went into free–fall. I had one loss after another, including my job – and I went from being very happy to wanting to end it all in just six months. For others, grief can be suppressed; work or other responsibilities take priority, or we keep busy, not seeing the need to address or be helped with our pain. We can continue for some while thinking we have dealt with grief, but it only waits to surface, affecting our relationships and behaviour or bringing physical or mental ill–health at the time or further down the line. There is an assumption that churches will be good at dealing with death, but they, along with the rest of society, have been affected by ‘death denial’ and need to be trained.
Following my bereavement, I recognised this gap and founded the charity AtaLoss to address these issues. Most people will grieve healthily, without the need for professionals, if timely and understanding support is found. So, we provide a central signposting website and we train and equip churches to offer bereavement support for their communities, in particular The Bereavement Journey course.
Having one central place to direct bereaved people to enables timely, tailored support and choice for holistic help. It also enables information to be comprehensive and up to date and spreads the load. Our service became critical in the pandemic, and we’ve won two awards this year for providing the best bereavement signposting as well as the best support information.
Also excitingly, The Bereavement Journey is taking off through churches. At the start of the pandemic, we put this programme of films and peer group discussion online, and it was so successful we began offering it widely across the UK, recently updating it to include unprocessed loss and ensuring the programme – including its unique, optional session on ‘Faith Questions in bereavement’ – is accessible to all. Feedback has been extraordinary, with participants saying things like “it really helped me to face things I was not facing”, “I can see the light now, the pain is not as bad”, and “it would have cost hundreds of pounds in therapy to get where I am”. Leaders similarly are reporting it is “transforming people’s lives”, “unlocking things inside” and “giving people hope”.
In October last year the UK Commission on Bereavement called for all sectors to work together to address under–capacity in bereavement support across the nation, pointing out the need for signposting and mentioning ataloss.org. Interestingly, they also highlighted the importance of faith communities in providing support, recognising their role in communities and how faith support in bereavement has been neglected. And at the local level, Church of England research in the pandemic showed 90% of the public are open to churches helping them with grief.
This is reflected in our experience of providing bereavement support on the ground. Now, when advertising The Bereavement Journey to the public, churches are beginning to report 80–100% of participants from outside church, with confident referrals from GPs, social prescribers and funeral directors. Furthermore, reports are coming in of over 90% choosing to attend the optional session on faith, of all faiths and none. Theos’ latest research on death and dying suggests that people increasingly do not view death through a ‘transcendent frame’ when asked about grief in advance, and may not expect to be faced with existential questions following the death of a loved one. However, our experience through The Bereavement Journey is that big questions of life, about God and the afterlife, do arise when people are bereaved. As with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they come to the fore once the physiological, emotional and relational needs have been met. In fact, such is The Bereavement Journey‘s effectiveness – in helping people to process grief, as well as engage with the big questions of life – it is already being offered in over 280 locations, in person or online, with a new course pack being purchased on average every day.
After decades of grief being taboo, the landscape is now changing, with Christians providing central signposting and by increasingly reaching out in compassion. However, we have a long way to go, not least in recognising the relationship of unsupported grief to many of society’s problems. Most referrals to ataloss.org, for instance, are currently from mental health services as grief is the underlying problem, and prison chaplains are contacting us saying The Bereavement Journey is just what they need. One prison chaplain recently said inmates are “facing their losses for the first time” and that “most take up the opportunity to explore faith for the first time”.
Isaiah 53:3 describes Jesus as a “Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief” and James 1:27 says authentic religion is “looking after orphans and widows in their distress”.
For years the Church may have seemed irrelevant. Perhaps this is the moment for change?
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See other recent events and articles
Madeleine Pennington unpacks her latest report ‘Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK’. 28/11/2023In Brief
A short animation by Emily Downe, and voiced by Dr Kathryn Mannix, guiding you gently through the process of dying. 25/10/20Podcast
Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.