Almost 18 million people are uncomfortable talking about death, according to the Co-op Group’s survey into death, dying and bereavement.
The survey – the UK’s biggest to date with 30,000 respondents – forms part of the report Making Peace with Death, which says more action is needed to tackle the nation’s taboo around death.
Five million people are too uncomfortable to talk about their own death at all, the survey adds; but 91% of Brits have thought about their own mortality, with women (93%) more likely to consider their own death than men (90%).
According to the research, 26 is the average age people first think about their own mortality while a third (35%) think about their own mortality once a week or more.
The study also touched upon the difficulty of coping with a bereavement of someone close, which most British people first experience at the age of 20.
Recently bereaved people taking part in the survey said the period immediately after the death (52%) or during the funeral (46%) were among the most difficult. However, birthdays (26%), the anniversary of the death (25%), Christmas or religious festivals (21%) and the return to work (12%) were also difficult times for coping with grief.
The Co-op Group has used the findings to produce a guide highlighting the most and least helpful things people have done for the bereaved following a loss.
Among the most helpful actions are asking bereaved people if they are OK, asking whether anything could be done to help them, having friends and family spend time with them, asking if they want to talk about their loved one and giving them time off work.
Some of the least helpful things are avoiding the subject, people equating their grief with their own, avoiding people who lost someone, telling them to cheer up or treating them differently.
One result of the taboo around death is a failure to plan ahead; more than four million adults in the UK may have experienced financial hardship as a result of someone’s death. Figures reveal that 81% of people have not saved anything towards a funeral while only over a quarter (27%) have written a will.
The Group is now working with charities such as British Red Cross, Child Bereavement UK, Cruse Bereavement Care, Dying Matters, Remember a Charity and Sue Ryder to address some of the issues identified in the survey. It wants to create a greater support network and draw up guidance for employers to help them support workers following a bereavement.
The retailer hopes to drive a shift in the national language used to talk about death towards more direct conversations, with a national campaign for a more open culture that breaks the taboo. It is exploring the idea of new networks for bereaved families and individuals.
Robert MacLachlan, managing director of Co-op Funeralcare and Life Planning, said: “Failure to properly deal with death has a knock-on impact for the bereaved, affecting mental health and also triggering financial hardship. We’re committed to doing right by our clients and more needs to be done nationally to tackle this.
“It’s overwhelming that the survey led to 30,000 people sharing their views. Now that we have such a wealth of insight on what stops the nation engaging with death and bereavement, we can start to address these areas and work with others to drive genuine social change.”
Julia Samuel, author of the bestselling book Grief Works, said: “This Co-op survey being on such a large scale is both convincing and fascinating. It gives us concrete evidence of the extent that death is unvoiced in our society and shows that we need to find a way to bring those thoughts and fears out into the open.
“The fear of talking about death, both their own, and of those they love, means that people are not receiving the support they most need at the time, and following their bereavement. When someone dies it is the love and support of others that enables us to heal and find a way of living again.”
Carol McGiffin, television broadcaster, said: “Death, dying and bereavement are unavoidable experiences that impact all of us, so it’s incredibly eye-opening to see how many of us are still uncomfortable talking about it. Having experienced a life threatening illness myself, I now have a completely different perspective on mortality and have realised how important it is to come to terms with it.
“I’m sure that the work the Co-op is doing and the findings of its survey will help to drive positive change.”