With high-profile celebrities lending their voices, 2017 has been a year of awareness-raising and campaigns for better financial, emotional and long-term support for the bereaved.
Bereavement benefit reforms, landmark court cases and moves to bring about change in the law were among the headlines during the year, while hearts-and-minds campaigns have increased awareness of the long-term impact of a bereavement upon the people left behind when someone dies.
Here, we look back some of the major news stories of 2017, with campaigners and bereavement support charities set to continue raising awareness of end-of-life and bereavement care issues in 2018.
Bereavement benefit reforms
The new Bereavement Support Payment came into effect on April 6, replacing the former three-tiered system of Bereavement Payment, Bereavement Allowance and Widowed Parent’s Allowance.
Under the old scheme, widowed parents could claim a Bereavement Benefit payment of £2,000 and Widowed Parent’s Allowance of up to £118 a week to support their children until they left school.
Since April 6, 2017, surviving spouses or civil partners with dependent children receive a one-off lump sum of £3,500 and £350 a month for 18 months. The Childhood Bereavement Network said that as a result, 91 per cent of widowed parents would be supported for a shorter time than under the former system.
The Bereavement Support Payment cannot be claimed by families if the parents were unmarried and not in a civil partnership. Reacting to the changes to bereavement benefits, a coalition of charities led by the Childhood Bereavment Network said: “We strongly recommend that eligibility for bereavement benefits should be extended to unmarried, cohabiting partners with dependent children with the person who died.”
Campaigning for change – Life Matters
With high-profile ambassadors including Jeff Brazier, the Life Matters Taskforce is raising issues that many people will be unaware of, until the unthinkable happens.
The Life Matters Taskforce has set out six key recommendations which could effect change and ensure greater support for the bereaved at home, in schools, the workplace and in law.
Grief Encounter, Cruse Bereavement Care, Widowed and Young, Child Bereavement UK and Winston’s Wish were among the charities to highlight the importance of their work during November’s Children’s Grief Awareness Week, urging members of the public to get behind the ongoing #SupportLifeMatters campaign.
Celebrities in conversation about grief
Jeff Brazier won acclaim for his Grief Survival Guide published in June, a companion book for people journeying through bereavement. It has drawn on his own experiences as a bereavement counsellor and bringing up his own sons since the death of their mum, Jade Goody.
That same month, football star Rio Ferdinand’s moving account of bringing up his three children after the death of their mum, Rebecca Ellison, was charted in a hit TV documentary, Being Mum and Dad. The programme has been followed up by a best-selling book in which Rio frankly talks about the journey he had towards opening up to his own feelings of grief over Rebecca’s death.
“It’s great Rio is raising awareness of how hard it is to cope as a young widowed parent, and particularly acknowledging that it’s difficult for men to know where to turn to and how to deal with their grief,” dad-of- two Stuart Scarbrough told Funeral Zone. He shone a light on how bereavement support network Widowed and Young is there for families coping with loss.
Comedian Robert Webb also won plaudits for his book, How Not to Be a Boy, recounting how pressure on him to ‘man up’ prevented him from him from understanding or expressing his grief over the death of his mum, Pat, from cancer when he was just 17.
Meanwhile, Rio Ferdinand was among a number of high-profile celebrities to urge people to share what they’d say to someone they mourn, if they had #OneMoreMinute to spend with them.
The campaign, which saw stars including Mary Berry, actor Jason Watkins and TV presenter Ben Fogle pay emotional tribute to special people in their lives, was launched by charity Child Bereavement UK.
Its founder patron Julia Samuel’s guide to preparing for loss and coping with bereavement, Grief Works, became a Sunday Times bestseller during 2017.
Bereavement charities in the news
Child Bereavement UK, Winston’s Wish and Grief Encounter are among the charities which have been supporting children and families bereaved or affected by the Grenfell Tower fire.
They have been providing counselling at the Support 4 Grenfell Community Hub, which was visited by Princes William and Harry in September.
Winston’s Wish also provided support for children and those supporting them, in the aftermath of terror attacks in Manchester and London.
Earlier in the year the princes, together with the Duchess of Cambridge, launched young people’s mental health charity Heads Together. Ahead of the 20th anniversary of their mother Princess Diana’s death, they spoke movingly about their own struggles to cope with and talk about their grief.
Funerals, bereavement and legislation
July saw Scotland’s first ever Inspector of Funeral Directors, Natalie McKail, step into her new role. In an exclusive interview with Funeral Zone she explained how she has begun a two-year appraisal of the funeral industry in Scotland, with a view to informing Scottish ministers with a view to shaping regulations and the potential licensing of the profession.
In August, the Scottish Government unveiled plans to tackle funeral poverty. The 10-point plan includes a new Funeral Expense Assistance benefit to help struggling bereaved families, to be introduced by summer 2019.
Also in September, a coalition of charities, academics and funeral professionals highlighted a postcode lottery in the UK when it comes to care for the dying and the bereaved.
Their wide-ranging report published by the Institute for Policy Research and University of Bath revealed that a quarter of all terminally-ill people who need palliative care cannot access the support they need.
These findings chimed with an alert from Marie Curie that many homeless people with a terminal illness are spending the end of their lives shuttling between the streets, hostels and hospitals, while charity Hospice UK also called for better access to hospice care for everyone in the UK, no matter what their background or personal circumstances.
Financial help for funerals
In the Bath University report, statutory support provided by the Government to the bereaved, such as the Social Fund Funeral Payment and Bereavement Support Payment was deemed inadequate. The report warned, too, of other serious issues, including a looming burial shortage crisis.
In November, the Welsh Government announced it had scrapped child burial and cremation fees across the country, on the back of MP Carolyn Harris’s ongoing campaign bring an end to child funeral charges across the entire UK. Yet despite calls, Chancellor Philip Hammond did not address child funeral costs in his March and November Budgets.
Earlier in the month, the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) responded to the Department of Work and Pensions’ proposed changes to the Social Fund Funeral Payment. It expressed extreme disappointment that the Government’s proposals avoided tackling what the NAFD described as some of the benefit’s biggest failings, including a long called-for increase in the statutory payment. The benefit, which can be claimed by struggling at-need families to cover the main costs of a funeral, has been set at £700 since 2003.
The Government proposed some changes, including an extension of the period in which bereaved families can make a claim to recoup funeral costs from three to six months. But the NAFD said the moves fell far short of addressing the “fundamental shortcomings” of the Social Fund Funeral Payment and failed to address other key issues – including uncertainty faced by families who have no choice but to arrange a funeral, before they know whether they will receive the benefit at all.
The NAFD’s president Alison Crake described the proposed benefit reforms as a “sticking plaster on a broken bone.”
Bereavement after the loss of a child
Meanwhile, MP Kevin Hollinrake won cross-party support for his Parental Bereavement (Pay and Leave) Bill, anticipated to become law by 2020 and which will entitle parents to two weeks’ statutory paid leave from work after the death of their child. It’s currently up to the discretion of employers to allow grieving parents time off work, whether paid or unpaid.
Grieving parents may also now be able to get some of the answers they need when their baby is miscarried or stillborn. The Government announced that parents will be offered an independent investigation by a coroner to find out how and why their baby died. It’s also hoped that the lessons learned from the investigations could help prevent the deaths of 4,000 babies by 2025.
Bereavement rights for long-term partners
Jakki Smith and John Bulloch
Two landmark court cases in 2017 have highlighted the impact of bereavement upon parents and partners in long-term relationships. These could help to bring about legal reform over bereavement benefit claims.
In November, Jakki Smith won a legal battle arguing the case for unmarried people to receive the statutory bereavement damages awarded to spouses and civil partners when their partner dies.
Jakki, who was with her partner John Bulloch for 16 years before his death, could set a legal precedent for future court claims brought by the bereaved, thanks to her Court of Appeal win. It’s hoped it will also bring about a change in legislation to enable long-term partners to claim bereavement damages, in the future.
In December, mum of four Siobhan McLaughlin won the right to take her case for bereavement benefits to the Supreme Court in Belfast, in April 2018. Siobhan, who lived with her children’s dad, John Adams, for more than 23 years, was denied Widowed Parents Allowance to help bring up her children.
After bringing the case to the High Court, she was awarded the welfare payment, but this decision was later overturned by the Court of Appeal. Siobhan will be challenging this move in the Supreme Court.
Her solicitor Laura Banks said: “This case is extremely significant because it impacts not only Siobhan’s family but many others throughout Northern Ireland and the UK who have lost a parent.”