As a new Dying Matters Coalition report is released showing that almost half of Britons would feel uncomfortable talking to someone who has been recently bereaved, Professor Tony Walter, Director of our Centre for Death & Society, has spoken about the importance of talking about death, dying and grief.
Listen again to Tony talking about death and dying on BBC 5Live's phone-in on Wednesday morning.
Today's report, based on new ComRes research and released to coincide with the launch of 'Being there' Dying Matters campaign, finds that talking about bereavement remains a taboo for many people in Britain.
Although the majority of people surveyed (72 per cent) knew someone who had been recently bereaved, one in four (26 per cent) reported that they had not known what to say to them, and 40 per cent only talked about it if the person who had been bereaved mentioned it first. One in ten (9 per cent) said they had avoided talking about it with them and 4 per cent said they had deliberately avoided seeing them.
Commenting, Tony Walter said: "I don't know of any evidence that talking about bereavement is taboo, but it certainly is something that many people feel uncomfortable about and often do not know what to say to the bereaved person. This, in part, reflects anomie, a lack of clarity about social norms, which in turn reflects our changing values about how to cope with loss, sadness and grief. The Churchillian stiff-upper lip, crucial for getting us through the Second World War, began to be challenged in the 1960s with the idea that it's good to express feelings, summarised a couple of decades later in the BT ad 'It's good to talk'.
"The conflict between stoicism and being more expressive, and changing ideas about how private grief should be, mean that a lot of people are uncertain how best to respond to bereavement. Even within a couple, each partner may have learnt different norms from childhood. In addition, thankfully, witnessing death and loss is no longer a normal part of childhood, so many of us grow up without having learnt first-hand about how to respond to grief.
"Learning to talk about death and grief is certainly needed. But this is not because it is/was taboo, but because times are changing, as they always have done, and as a community we need to develop new norms - and norms for handling the hurt feelings when norms are not agreed."
To find out more about the Centre for Death & Society see www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/.