No one likes talking about death and it's still a taboo topic in the UK and much of the western world. We tip toe around it because life is hard enough as it is, without thinking about how it all might end – or how we'd cope losing someone close to us.
We hear about it on the news and watch it on TV and can talk about it in the abstract, but we're seriously uncomfortable confronting about the reality of death, as a new survey of 30,000 British people shows.
The survey, the largest to ever be carried out in the UK, provides a unique insight into the way we deal with loss and the behaviours we find most – and least – helpful during bereavement.
Almost 18 million of us are uncomfortable talking about death, according to 'Making peace with death: National attitudes to death, dying and bereavement,' the research conducted by YouGov on behalf of Co-op. That's despite the fact that the average Brit first loses someone close to them aged 20, and that we are actually mulling it over in our own minds.
26 is the average age people first think about their own mortality, the research found, and the vast majority of us have thought about our own mortality (91%), with women (93%) slightly more likely to do so than men (90%). Over a third (35%) even think about it once a week or more.
The research explored the reasons why we're most likely to consider our mortality and unsurprisingly, the death of a family member is the biggest trigger, with 28% citing this life-changing event as key, followed by reaching a milestone age (22%), a medical diagnosis of someone they know (17%) and news reports about death (16%).
Losing a friend, making a will, terrorism, hearing about a celebrity dying, receiving a personal medical diagnosis and hearing about an acquaintance's death were also cited as causing people to think about their own mortality.
Evidently we're surrounded by it every day and yet, we're not talking about it to each other – a sixth (16%) of those who had been bereaved in the last five years kept it to themselves, while one in seven (14%) said nobody knew what to say or do in the aftermath of their loss, possibly as a result of the lack of dialogue and openness on the topic.
So, what is the most sensitive and effective way to support someone grieving? This is what to do and what to avoid doing, according to the 30,000 people questioned.
Avoid the subject. This is one of the worst thing you can do, 17% of people said it was the least helpful thing anyone can do.
Equate your own grief with theirs. While it may seem like a good idea to refer to your own experience of loss when comforting someone, the same proportion of respondents (17%) said doing so actually exacerbated the situation.
Avoid them (15% said this was unhelpful), tell them to cheer up (15%) or treat them differently.
It takes virtually zero effort and you'd probably do it anyway but the most helpful thing to do, according to 41% of those asked, is to ask if they're ok, followed by asking if there's anything you can do to help, which 32% said they appreciated.
Other simple behaviours are also appreciated. Around a fifth (19%) were grateful to have friends and family sit with them, and to be asked if they wanted to talk about their loved one (18%).
Get given time off work is also helpful to cope with death, according to 16% of those surveyed, with 6% also saying the least beneficial thing after their loss was being pushed to go back to work too soon. In the UK there's no statutory right to receive paid leave after a death, but bereavement leave is offered by some companies.
If you are going through a bereavement and need support or more information, visit Cruse Bereavement Care online or call its free helpline on 0808 808 1677.