Faith and bereavement

In the first of our series on the role of faith in bereavement, the Chief Executive of Cruse Bereave

When Cruse, the bereavement support charity, was founded 50 years ago, the name was taken from an Old Testament story in which Elijah asked a widow to give him some oil from her cruse (vessel). Because she generously shared the little she had, the prophet ensured that her cruse would never run dry. As Cruse Bereavement Care celebrates its golden jubilee, the story is a reminder of the reliance on religious faith which was then the foundation of society’s response to death and bereavement.

Although Cruse is a non-religious organisation providing free and confidential support to people of all faiths and none, there is still a strong recognition of the importance of religious faith for many who are coping with the anguish of having lost a loved one.

The death of someone close disrupts the grieving person’s inner world of meaning. Faith may provide a way of living hopefully and finding the things which give life a new sense.

During the process of bereavement faith can help to acknowledge the reality of the loss experienced and to reconstruct life, valuing the things of the past and reaching out for new meaning in the future.

Belief in an afterlife and in eventual reunion with those who have gone before can bring comfort and the view that death has a purpose and is not a random, meaningless event, can be reassuring. Spiritual advisors can be an important source of support.

The strong religious beliefs that some people have may however, do little to ease their pain and grief.

Whether beliefs are mature and intellectually robust or less well-defined they will almost certainly be challenged.

Bereavement may strengthen or undermine religious beliefs. In the latter case, loss of faith may cut people off from support networks previously important to them.

In an increasingly secular society, those who are bereaved may turn to counselling or therapists as a way of coping with their bereavement.

In the multi-cultural society in which we now live, there is a diversity of communities and religious traditions, with differing expectations and beliefs surrounding death and bereavement. How people cope with this most challenging life event will depend on a combination of factors including beliefs, the circumstances of the bereavement, their own vulnerabilities and the support available.

Various religious traditions offer resources for facing the experience of death and bereavement, upheld by their rituals and customs.

Death is a fact of life, which is being increasingly recognised in government, caring agencies and faith groups.

A number of recent government initiatives aim to address the experience of bereaved people. The reform of the coroner system will mean that the standards of service that bereaved people can expect will be set out for the first time. The government’s End of Life Care Strategy recognises not only the importance of care at each stage as the end of life approaches, but of appropriate care and support to those who have been bereaved.

A critical issue in the successful resolution of bereavement is the availability of a support network provided by, for example, family, a faith community and bereavement care agencies such as Cruse. Cruse is optimistic that, as we look more carefully as a society at the full spectrum of services needed to ensure health and well-being, the needs of those affected by the 500,000 deaths a year in the UK – one a minute – will increasingly be recognised and met. As an organisation with nearly 6,000 volunteers and unrivalled experience in the field, Cruse remains uniquely well–placed to deliver the support and services needed.

Debbie Kerslake is Chief Executive of Cruse Bereavement Care

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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.