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Bereavement Support: How it helps

Thanks to a partnership between The ExtraCare Charitable Trust and Cruse Bereavement Care, residents across our villages and schemes are being trained on how to help someone after bereavement. And now, with the project having recently met its mid-way point, the interim results have proved hugely successful, with 86% of the trained residents now feel more comfortable helping somebody with grief, adding that they had felt increasingly confident in supporting bereaved people.

As such, who better to catch up with than Bereavement Support Project Manager at Cruse Bereavement Care, Eve Wilson, who has reflected on the project so far.


Why did you think it was important to introduce this bereavement help project to residents?

Bereavement affects us all and is sadly something we all have in common, regardless of age or background. We know that older people experience loss and bereavement as a more frequent occurrence, often at a time when they have fewer support networks. Research also tells us that older people are less likely to be aware of support/services available, may not know how to deal with loss, and could be unaware they are grieving. Residents often tell me that they have moved into ExtraCare because they’ve had a bereavement, or that they’ve had a bereavement whilst living there. Although it’s a positive change, for some residents moving into ExtraCare means they are initially grieving losses such as leaving behind a family home, neighbours and community.

Why is it important for people to talk about death, dying and bereavement?

I always describe grief as being unique like a fingerprint, as everyone grieves in their own way, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. By raising awareness about how grief can affect us, we are aiming to create an environment where residents and staff can talk about bereavement and death and have an understanding and compassion for each other’s losses, and know how they can support someone.

The information sessions have also allowed us to challenge some myths, such as, ‘there is a time limit on grief’ and ‘grief only affects us emotionally’. Some residents and staff are surprised to hear that grief can affect all elements of our life and can include a very physical reaction. Equally it’s been important to explain that how long someone grieves is entirely individual, and often the bereaved person learns to live with the loss, as opposed to ‘gets over it’.

How do you feel about the interim results?

We are really pleased with the results of the interim evaluation and the number of people the project has reached so far.I think the results highlight the value of a preventative approach and how communities can support each other at what can be the most difficult time in someone’s life. Staff and residents have really benefitted from the awareness sessions and training that has been delivered. There are some areas of learning and recommendations so the next step will be to work with residents, volunteers and staff to take these forward.

How did residents and staff react to the project, when they first heard about it?

There was a mixed response but mainly positive. I found that most residents want to talk about bereavement and things like their funeral wishes but sometimes staff do not feel comfortable or confident raising this with residents. Some residents have chosen not to engage with the project at this point because of their personal bereavements, and that’s ok because timing is so important, and maybe they will engage in the future when the time is right. Staff have told me that the training we’ve provided has definitely helped them know what to say to a bereaved resident or family member, and also has helped them in their personal life.

Has the project come with any challenges?

One of the main challenges has been collecting feedback from residents who have benefitted from support from a Bereavement Supporter volunteer. Most of the support has been informal and at a community level, which creates some difficulties in terms of data collection.

We are working with residents and volunteers to explore different ways of collecting feedback including feedback cards, focus groups and surveys.

How have people’s attitude towards talking about death, dying and bereavement changed since the project began?

I have found that staff have reported feeling more comfortable listening to and supporting bereaved residents and family members after the training. Through the delivery of the information sessions and support from Bereavement Supporter volunteers, staff and residents are more aware that you can grieve for a number of losses, as well as bereavement, such as breakdown in relationships, change in health etc. and that often a person is grieving multiple losses.

Bereavement is a normal part of every life, although can still be a taboo topic. We are equipping residents to have better conversations about death, being open to the prospect of talking about death and preparation for this, which ties in well with the work being done around the Gold Standards Framework (GSF).

Where did the need to support staff, as well as residents, come from?

Staff often support residents and families who have had a bereavement, and tell me that sometimes they experience grief themselves after the loss of a resident, particularly if they have known that person for a long time. It was important that this was acknowledged and we raised awareness and understanding with staff, to help them in their professional and personal lives.

A bereavement in a staff member’s personal life is a major life stress and can therefore have an impact on their working life, and so we’ve recently delivered training to the HR team to ensure all staff groups understand the impact.

Can you talk about the importance of peer-to-peer support?

Peer-to-peer support is at the heart of project. This approach has been so important as it gives the resident Bereavement Supporter volunteer opportunity to use their lived experience (both personal and professional) to give back to other residents in the community.

For a resident who has had a loss or bereavement it means they can access some support from someone in similar circumstances, and in the right time and right place. For some residents the only way they feel able to access bereavement support is informally, in their village, at a time when they need it which ultimately helps their wellbeing.

As one of the volunteers described, “the informal is actually more important (..) they’re almost taking the top off the pain and upset and they get rid of that by chatting to us and then they can go about their daily lives.”

Residents do not always want to talk to their family about their loss, especially if the family is grieving too, so having a ‘listening ear’ in the village can give the resident someone non-judgmental to talk to about how they are feeling.

Has anything surprised you over the past three years? Perhaps the way residents have embraced the project?

I’ve found that a large number of residents, but not all, do want to talk about loss and bereavement and have the opportunity to remember a loved one who has died. As professionals we sometimes don’t open up these conversations because we feel this protects residents. Residents tell me that death and bereavement are visible in the village and their lives, so they feel a service is needed to help support experiences of grief.

Residents have responded well to attending a bereavement information session, and in some villages we’ve used alternative methods to deliver the same messages. For example in December 2018, I delivered a session “Decorate a Christmas bauble in memory of loved one” at Pannel Croft Village which was attended by over 25 residents, day service clients and members of the Stroke Association Group. This was a really positive way to remember a loved one, and generated conversations about loss and bereavement.

Have you heard of anyone who has particularly benefitted from the project?

As well as providing immediate support and reducing isolation, Bereavement Supporters have been able to signpost residents to further help. For example, a Bereavement Supporter recognised that a resident’s symptoms went beyond an expected grief reaction, and encouraged them to book a GP appointment which revealed an undiagnosed condition.

Bereaved residents have welcomed having someone trained, caring and non-judgemental to talk to in their community. One resident who received support from a Bereavement Supporter following a loss reported she has returned to activities she previously enjoyed: “I’m startin’ to go back now. My life is now better than it was before.”

We’ve developed a number of resources relating to bereavement and dementia. A person living with dementia can grieve, although how someone understands the bereavement can be complicated by their thinking. The project aims to increase understanding in this area, to better support the person living with dementia and their family.

Carers and families also tell us they can experience grief from their loved one’s diagnosis, or even as symptoms start to appear. We have worked with carers to develop a resource which captures the carers’ experience of ‘loss along the dementia journey’, including advice from carers themselves.

What are your hopes for the duration of the project?

Next steps will be to continue roll out to ExtraCare locations and head office teams.

My hopes are that we will create a culture where residents and staff are able to support each other through loss and bereavement, and that by creating a ‘bereavement friendly’ environment the support is at the right time and in the right place for each individual.