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31 March 2009

Faith and bereavement

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

By Debbie Kerslake

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.

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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