Covid bereavement in UK has affected prospects of tens of thousands – report

Covid-19 has left tens of thousands of bereaved people in the UK facing serious consequences for their health, education and economic prospects because they missed out on formal support, a nationwide study of bereavement in the pandemic has found.

The virus left about 750,000 more people bereaved than would usually have been the case and 40% of those who wanted formal help did not get it, according to the UK Commission on Bereavement. It examined the impact of the period of missed funerals, lockdowns that prevented families grieving together and remote schooling that may have left bereaved children without help from teachers.

The group’s chair, Dame Sarah Mullally, the bishop of London, said there were “significant shortcomings in the provision of emotional support”, and said: “Many people are not getting the right support at the right time, with potentially serious consequences in all areas, from health and wellbeing to education and employment and even long-term economic outcomes.”

A total of 1.2 million people died in England and Wales during 2020 and 2021, along with a further 130,000 in Scotland and 35,000 in Northern Ireland. This left an estimated 6.8 million people bereaved – three-quarters of a million more than expected based on the five-year average from 2015-19.

More than a quarter of adult respondents to the commission’s consultation received no support from family and almost half received no support from friends following bereavement.

The most common difficulty cited by a survey of 757 adults bereaved in the pandemic was not being able to have a funeral as desired, followed by social isolation and loneliness, limited contact with loved ones before they died and being unable to say goodbye.

The commission’s members include Julia Neuberger, the chair of University College London Hospitals, the former care minister Paul Burstow and the political scientist Anand Menon. It is calling for more funding for bereavement support from all governments in the UK, as well as for all schools to have a bereavement policy including staff training, and a process for supporting a bereaved child or young person and their family.

Support by schools for bereaved children was less forthcoming than that offered by employers to adults, the research found. Just under half of children and young people the commission heard from felt not at all or only a little supported by their school or college. This was especially the case among those aged 13-18.

“We will never cure grief,” said Mullally. “Grief naturally follows the love we have for the people we lose. But it is clear that more must be done to get extra care to those who need it. We believe that governments could transform people’s experiences of bereavement by investing just 79p per person in statutory funding.”

“There was no support, no guidance,” Tiffany Jones, 42, from Winchester, told the commission after her father died just before Christmas in 2020. “Nothing was clear and there was no step-by-step guide of what to do. Even searching online was murky and minimal. There are aspects now that we struggle with. The bereavement was bad enough but not knowing what to do and where to go for support just added to our distress.”

Hannah Moloney, 17, from Birmingham, said: “My dad passed away whilst I was in year 7 and the thought of even going to school and having to put on this fake persona made me feel nervous. I am extremely grateful for all the support I was given but I needed more. Schools should all implement a bereavement policy to support children. No child should ever suffer alone.”