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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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.