On Thursday 30 April 2020, we hosted our first virtual Research and Policy Hub meeting on the topic of loneliness and bereavement. In this blog, we look at some of the key findings, evidence, and ideas from the event.

What is grief?

Does bereavement increase the risk of loneliness? We heard from a range of speakers, from academics and researchers, to service providers, at our latest Research and Policy Hub to help us explore this further.

I opened the meeting with an overview of previous research on grief and bereavement, defining grief as ‘the emotional response to the loss of a loved one through death’. I outlined how grief is a natural reaction to loss, but how going through the grieving process can increase your risk of depression and anxiety, and can affect your appetite, sleep and general well-being.

I outlined the link between bereavement and emotional loneliness – the loss of someone close who is irreplaceable, like a spouse – emphasizing that the permanence of this loss is what can heighten feelings of loneliness. One study shows loneliness as the single most difficult aspect to cope with on a day to day basis for those widowed at an older age.

I finished by adding that this can just be an adjustment period, and feelings of loneliness may lessen over time. But having someone to share your thoughts with and making a new friend who is also widowed have been shown to help to prevent feelings of loneliness.

Losing a loved one

Our Campaign Manager, Andy Nazer, spoke next, having kindly agreed to speak about how losing his partner gave him a new connection with loneliness, a personal one.

Andy began by reflecting on how grief brings people together, sharing memories of his own wife’s funeral, full of flowers and friends. He then spoke about the stark contrast with today, when we’re not only robbed of our loved ones, but of our ability to honour them in a fitting way.

“We need to talk, we need to listen, and we need to learn more about death.”

He touched upon the importance of end of life care, questioning why it is neglected. He spoke about initially struggling to find a hospice bed for his wife, but how when they did, they found peace, calm, and compassion. So, when her time came, he was able to say a proper goodbye. “If there was a good end,” he reflected, “we were able to achieve it.”

Contrasting this with today, Andy recognised how many people’s greatest fears: to die alone in a hospital bed, are being realised. He acknowledged the huge responsibility for the staff supporting them in those final moments, and the terrible situation for those families– being denied the ability to grieve together.

Finally, he spoke about the importance of engaging with death and acknowledging that dying is part of life: “When the time comes,” he reflected, “we’re often poorly prepared to support those living through bereavement.”

He finished with a call to action for all of us to reach out, and to support each other through bereavement: “We need to talk, we need to listen, and we need to learn more about death.”

The rituals of grieving

Andy was followed by Caroline Pearce, a researcher from Cambridge University. She gave an overview of bereavement research, including recovery from grief following bereavement, and spoke about her current research on complicated grief.

Grief has always been presented in the research as stages of grief, most popularly by Kubler Ross’ ‘5 stages of grief’. However, more current thinking suggests this is outdated and, while helpful for some, most find it an unhelpful measure of comparison that doesn’t reflect the reality of grief.

“Being widowed can leave you feeling desperate and on your own. And not everyone has the support that they need.”

More contemporary theories suggest it is normal for mourners to stay connected to the deceased, through formal and informal rituals: anniversaries, visiting graves, keeping belongings and looking at photographs. Other theories challenge the notion that grief is linear.

Pearce also reflected on interviews she had conducted, noting how grief can be exacerbated by social isolation due to feeling misunderstood, or from others distancing themselves from the grieving person.

She also spoke about how loneliness was particularly present for those who had lost a long-term partner. And how some coped by imagining their partners continued presence, helping them to feel less alone.

Finding your support network

Oyovwe Kigho from Widows Empowerment Trust spoke next. Her organisation aims to provide opportunities for widows to socialize together. They run arts and crafts wellbeing session, organise meals out and day trips, and have a befriending service.

Kigho spoke of how being widowed can leave you feeling desperate and on your own. Even if the death of your spouse was expected, you still go through a period of shock, grief and loss.

Not everyone has the support that they need, whether physically, emotionally or in terms of practical adjustments to their lives. That’s why their befriending programme aims to help fill this gap by providing a supporting relationship, helping to build trust, raise confidence, and combat loneliness.

More than words

Andy Langford from Cruse Bereavement Care followed this. He began by comparing Cruse to the Widows Empowerment Trust, as they were both started by a group of widows seeking support through shared experience.

“Peer support is particularly valuable because it is genuine. If someone is genuinely listening to you, you can tell.”

He continued by emphasizing the importance of peer support, and how it can help reduce feelings of loneliness following a bereavement. Peer support is particularly valuable because it is genuine. If someone is genuinely listening to you, you can tell.

Andy also spoke about the importance of contact, access to online registration, and telephone support. He also addressed the impact of stigma around bereavement, and how this can amplify loneliness.

Bereavement across the life course

Dr. Brian Beach from the International Longevity Centre spoke next about his research. His focus was on bereaved older people. He found that the health and wellbeing of those who were bereaved was consistently worse, especially with respect to depression and loneliness.

He also noted that bereavement in later life may take a different shape than bereavement earlier in the life course, as it has a different impact on people’s ability to cope and the kinds of support needed.

Having someone to turn to

Finally, Jeremy Bushnell from Independent Age presented his research. During the interviews he conducted with bereaved older people he found that for those with family and close friends, they were usually the route to avoiding loneliness. However, those without family often felt they had nowhere to turn.

Finally, he noted how many found loneliness particularly difficult to address because of a loss of confidence following the bereavement, meaning they were less able to be proactive about their social networks. Some found great solace with access to grief counselling, whilst others needed more practical support with things including passwords and bills.