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

A chance to reshape our approach to bereavement – Donald Macaskill

Since the start of the pandemic, I have filled 26 notebooks with the stories and reflections of people who have told me about their experiences during this difficult time. As the Chief Executive of Scottish Care, which represents the independent care sector in Scotland, I speak virtually daily to those who deliver care and support and many of those who use services. These 26 diaries detail the many hardships that those people have endured throughout this time. Their stories are often heart-wrenching and sometimes life-affirming, but the accounts which are most painful to read are from those who struggled to cope when someone close to them died. Bereavement runs like a stick of rock through all these accounts, and it is evident that, as a society, we do not support people who have been bereaved as they need us to.

Reading through each of those diaries, I think of the model which describes bereavement like a whirlpool or waterfall. It attempts to portray the chaotic, contradictory nature of grieving and bereavement both as an individual process and a collective societal experience. It does not presuppose that one goes through life gently and smoothly along a river and then suddenly over the edge, crashing into uncertainty and turmoil. Life is much more complicated than that. But what it does capture is the uncertainty of loss, one moment you are bashed against the rocks without hope and direction, the next in the shallows coming to some sort of restoration and calm, only for the river of grieving to pick you up again and make you feel as if you are drowning.

The reason I mention that metaphor is that when I was first asked to join the UK Commission on Bereavement, I had a considerable degree of uncertainty. The Commission was established this year to consider experiences of bereavement in the four countries of the United Kingdom, and to make recommendations for change. The Commission is independent of government and is made up of a group of 15 commissioners who were appointed by a steering group of charities including Marie Curie, Independent Age, the National Bereavement Alliance and Childhood Bereavement Network, Cruse Bereavement Care and the Centre for Mental Health. It is an evidence-based review, and is currently inviting people with personal experience of bereavement to share their stories.

Before I joined the Commission, I had to be reassured that, firstly, this was not just about the experience of bereavement during the pandemic. I am convinced that the stories of those who shared their lives with me in the last 20 months were deeply influenced by longer term failures in our society to adequately support people who had been bereaved before the pandemic.  For this reason, even before the pandemic, a group was working to establish and launch the National Bereavement Charter for Adults and Children in Scotland.

I also had to be reassured that the Commission can and will tell the story of four different nations in a way which rings true for each nation.

There are commonalities, of course. Lack of, prioritisation, resource, strategic orientation. But I am convinced that it is only through listening to the experience of people from distinctive communities, nations and regions that we will paint a full, rich, and deep picture of the issues facing bereavement support across these islands.

Every one of us can expect to be bereaved at some point in our lives, but we cannot be as sure that we will receive support that matches our individual needs. If we want to create a society where all those who are touched by death have access to the support that they deserve, it will not happen by accident. The UK Commission on Bereavement offers a unique opportunity to make a real difference to the way we approach bereavement in Scotland, each of us are taking part because we want to see change. It will be a report that strives to effect real change, because, having read the stories of the hundreds of adults and children who have shared their lives with me in the last 20 months and in recent weeks, I am not going to let them down.

But, for the Commission to truly reflect the diversity of experiences across the four islands of the UK, before and throughout the pandemic, we rely on the involvement of people and organisations from across the country. In other words, we need you to not merely be present, but take part in the process.

Help shape the UK Commission on Bereavement by completing our survey before Friday 31st December, either as an individual or on behalf of your organisation. With your help we can ensure that we learn from these experiences, change the conversation and better support bereaved people.

Donald Macaskill is the Chief Executive of Scottish Care and one of the fifteen Commissioners who make up the UK Commission on Bereavement