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Can we talk? Co-op’s taboo-breaking death survey reveals unspoken fears

Nine out of ten of us have contemplated our own mortality, but a third of adults in the UK say they are uncomfortable talking about death.

A new report, unveiled as part of a campaign to break the wall of silence that can make people feel hidden and lonely after a bereavement, has revealed that the subject of death is so discomfiting that almost five million Brits prefer not to talk about it at all.

The Co-op says its Making Peace With Death findings underline how opening up conversations about dying matters is a “huge opportunity” to reduce the emotional burden, social isolation and unspoken fears of people who are bereaved, facing death, or the loss of someone they love.

Co-op logo

With support from a nationwide coalition of grief support charities, the Co-op’s YouGov survey addressed dying matters with 30,000 adults from across the UK.

It found that the death of a close family member prompted thoughts among 28% of people about their own mortality, while reaching a milestone age, a medical diagnosis, the death of a friend and news reports all factored among triggers that can make people think about their own eventual death.

Yet while a third of people revealed they reflect on their own mortality once a week or more, almost 18 million people said they’d feel uncomfortable talking about it with other people, along with the five million who don’t want to talk about it at all.

The findings revealed the average person is aged just 20 when they first experience a bereavement through the death of a relative or friend they are close to. This suggests that societal taboos could be preventing many people from openly talking about their grief and reaching out – or expressing their fears and worries when someone is dying.

A compassionate gesture

The study of national attitudes to death, dying and bereavement is part of a wider campaign by the Co-op to address loneliness in communities across the UK and, with bereavement charities, to have a national conversation about death.

Along with the Red Cross, the Co-op is supporting charity Cruse Bereavement Care’s newly-launched More Than Words initiative, a UK-wide network of peer-to-peer bereavement social groups aimed at combating the loneliness felt by many people whose lives have been completely changed by the death of someone close to them.

Grief psychotherapist Julia Samuel, the founder patron of charity Child Bereavement UK is among the Co-op campaign’s supporters.

She said the Making Peace With Death survey provides “concrete evidence” of the extent to which death is unvoiced in our society and how we need to find a way to bring those thoughts and fears out into the open.

Julia Samuel portrait and Grief Works book cover

“The fear of talking about death, both their own, and of those they love, means that people are not receiving the support they most need at the time, and following their bereavement,” said Julia.

“When someone dies it is the love and support of others that enables us to heal and find a way of living again.”

Broadcaster Carol McGiffin, who underwent chemotherapy after a breast cancer diagnosis and lost her sister to the disease in 2017, is also supporting the campaign.

She said: “’Death, dying and bereavement are unavoidable experiences that impact all of us, so it’s incredibly eye-opening to see how many of us are still uncomfortable talking about it. Having experienced a life threatening illness myself, I now have a completely different perspective on mortality and have realised how important it is to come to terms with it.

“It’s so important that these conversations become more of a norm and that it doesn’t take something drastic to trigger them.”

Robert MacLachlan, managing director of Co-op Funeralcare and Life Planning, said: “It’s overwhelming that the survey led to 30,000 people sharing their views.

“Now that we have such a wealth of insight on what stops the nation engaging with death and bereavement, we can start to address these areas and work with others to drive genuine social change.”

  • Visit our Help & Resources pages for information about bereavement support, supporting someone through bereavement and details of organisations providing grief counselling, listening services and peer-to-peer support.
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