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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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