Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Bereavement policy priorities for the next Scottish Government – Suzanne Grahame

In any given year, almost a quarter of a million Scots experience a new bereavement while a majority (72%) have experienced at least one bereavement in the last five years. Tragically, with more than 6,000 people in Scotland having lost their life to coronavirus, the number of grieving Scots is currently rising. Yet, despite bereavement being something that we will all experience, policymakers often overlook the needs of the bereaved.

Political leadership

Part of the challenge for policymakers in Scotland is the fractured policy landscape, with no single Scottish Government directorate holding overall responsibility for bereavement policy. Instead, this is currently a split responsibility between the directorates for health, social security, justice and communities while, in recent years, responsibility for palliative care has transferred from the NHS to local Health and Social Care Partnerships.

While it’s right that different government directorates play their role in supporting bereaved people, without a coordinated, joined-up approach, there is a risk that policymakers will overlook the needs of the bereaved, particularly at the macro level.  To remedy this risk, the next Scottish Government should introduce a named minister with responsibility for bereavement support. The named minister would be able to coordinate strategy across government and ensure that policymakers give bereaved people the priority they deserve at every stage of the grief journey.

Evidence-led policymaking

Given that it’s been ten years since Scottish Government published its Shaping Bereavement Care Framework, one of the first tasks for a named Minister with responsibility for bereavement should be to commission a National Bereavement Review for Scotland, to examine the social and financial impact of bereavement on family life, particularly in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

Following the death of a partner, one in five UK households drops below the official poverty threshold, a quarter experience a substantial decrease in household income, and many more are simply financially worse off. Unemployment can also be a long-term consequence of bereavement. For example, in the UK, bereaved people are significantly less likely to be in work the year following their loss.

Prolonged unemployment is far from the only social consequence of bereavement. People who lose someone close to them are more likely to feel unhappy, even ten years on from their bereavement. Other social consequences can include loneliness, particularly in later life, physical health problems often brought on after prolonged periods of depression and anxiety, and even an increased likelihood of suicide in those bereaved by suicide.  

Despite these financial and social hardships, bereaved people in Scotland can find it difficult to access support. While almost a third of bereaved people in Scotland (31%) say they need additional support beyond family and friends, only six per cent go on to access that support.  A National Bereavement Review would help policymakers understand the barriers bereaved people face in accessing support and provide policymakers with a vital evidence-base for future policy.

Cultural Change

The financial impact of bereavement can begin immediately after a loss. While Funeral Support Payment (FSP) is available to those in receipt of a qualifying DWP benefit, funeral poverty remains a reality for thousands of people each year, often low-wage workers without entitlement to FSP and blindsided by an unexpected bereavement.  Our collective reluctance to talk about death and dying often means that while families will financially plan some unexpected events, planning for death and dying remains almost taboo.    Consequently, almost a quarter of people in Scotland (22%) indicate that they would be unable to cover funeral costs after a sudden bereavement while a fifth (19%) report that they would have to take on debt to make funeral arrangements. While the government can’t legislate for cultural change, it still has a role to play.  The next Scottish Government should consider coordinating a multifaceted public relations campaign encouraging a change in societal culture towards death and dying, from one of reluctance, to open conversation and advanced planning.

A whole-school approach

Using data from the Childhood Bereavement Network, the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care estimates that five per cent of children under 16-years-old, or around 4,600 children, will experience the death of a parent each year in Scotland, with children living in disadvantaged circumstances most likely to experience multiple losses.

We know that health practitioners recognise bereavement as an adverse childhood experience (ACE) that can negatively affect a child’s mental health, physical health and social outcomes – including their educational attainment, employment status later in life, and risk of offending. Despite these high stakes, a 2019 Strathclyde University study concluded that schools’ ability to support bereaved young people remains ‘underdeveloped’.

In November, youth charity Young Scot provided evidence at the Scottish Parliament on the support needs of bereaved young people.  The young people expressed the views that there remains a lack of information around death and bereavement for young people and that there should be more opportunities in school for ‘general conversations’ on death and bereavement at a younger age.

It’s crucial that the next Scottish Government listens to the needs of bereaved young people and equips all schools with the necessary resources to respond to the death of a pupil, staff member, or someone important in a pupil’s life. Beyond access to formal counselling, this would include teachers that are confident in talking about death, dying and bereavement, have knowledge of and access to appropriate resources for all age groups, and a coordinated approach between schools, and the community.

 Collective responsibility

Supporting the bereaved is a collective societal responsibility and we all having a role to play. But this must start at the top. With the first findings from UK-wide study by Cardiff and Bristol universities indicating that those who lose a loved one to coronavirus typically feel their grief more acutely than other types of grief, bereavement support must be at the heart of the 2021 Holyrood elections.

Suzanne Grahame is CEO of Golden Charter.
Golden Charter is a leading provider of pre-paid funeral plans in Scotland, works with 224 independent funeral directors operating 386 branches in villages, towns, and cites across Scotland.