Dr. Kate Woodthorpe on the future of grief

Categories: Opinion.
Part of Life spoke to Dr. Kate Woodthorpe, Co-Director of the Centre for Death and Society (CDAS) at Bath University, about how she came to work in death studies and where she believes the future of grief is heading.

How a tragic accident shaped Kate’s career

“In my experience, most academics who work on the end of life and bereavement have a formative exposure to death and dying beforehand. Mine was four friends dying in a car crash just before we left secondary school.

As you could imagine, it was utterly shocking in every way. I remember looking around my circle of friends and observing how differently everyone was reacting. Some were on their knees sobbing, others stunned and silent. It hit me right then, age 17, that there were no guarantees in life and since then I’ve imagined that everyone has an invisible hourglass on their forehand, with grains of sand slipping through. Very few know how much sand is still there, and I guess it was from that moment onwards that I’ve been very attuned to the precariousness of life.

It is probably inevitable therefore that I’ve ended up spending much of my life to date focused on death and dying. I’ve talked about this and how it has shaped my research and career on The Death Studies podcast, and written about it in a paper (Woodthorpe, 2009).”

Future trends in grief and grieving

“In 2022, the American Psychiatric Association added ‘prolonged grief disorder’ to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. One of the most profound results of the pathologising of grief that I see is the risk that this further problematises death, dying and bereavement – all of which are natural parts of life.

I think a critical issue that enables this to happen is that there is a lack of familiarity with death, dying and bereavement across the population. With three, if not four, generations living at once, most people do not encounter significant bereavement until mid-life or even later.

At the same time we are seeing an explosion in mental health awareness, and combined, this is leading to an over-medicalisation of emotion and specifically grief.

Over-medicalising grief risks demonising strong and continued emotional reactions and responses to loss, identifying those as somehow not normal.

It also risks individualising loss so it becomes a person’s personal problem, rather than it being something that is inevitable, normal and part of everyday life, relational and negotiated, expressed and performed between people.

I also think it will promote ideas of what constitutes a ‘normal’ reaction that overlooks the massive inequalities that exist in life and death. The experience of dying and bereavement will be very, very different according to your income, ethnicity, gender, education, geographical location, and so on.”

The future of funerals

“Direct cremation is already very well established in North America and Australia, and a few years before the pandemic UK funeral directors began to actively market direct cremation packages to their customers.

What these constitute varies between firms, but typically mean that there is no funeral service at the time of the body’s cremation. At the instigation of Simon Cox (then at Dignity Funerals and now Funeral Solution Expert) we did a study pre-Covid where we interviewed people who had opted for a direct cremation, and found that control, compromise and consistency were the drivers, rather than cost.

The pandemic accelerated demand for direct cremation due to restrictions on funeral attendance, and recent evidence suggests that the number of people opting for a direct cremation post-pandemic are growing.

It is inevitable that finances will be playing a factor in this, as funeral costs rise due to the cost of living crisis, at the same time as disposable income and savings are declining for many. I do wonder whether direct cremation will plateau or keeping growing, as the baby boomers come to the end of their lives and they and Generation X become the funeral consumers of tomorrow.”

Social inequalities in death

“In my view, there has been much needed recognition from the recent Lancet Commission on the Value of Death and the UK Commission on Bereavement, among others, that inequalities in life impact on inequalities in death.

As a sociologist all my working life, it was drummed in to me from the outset that social differences exist between people along the lines of socio-economic status, education, gender, ethnicity and ‘race’, health, disability, class background, geographical location and so on. These don’t exist in isolation either; people are simultaneously inhabiting multiple identities and positions that shape their expectations, obligations and sense of duty, attitudes and values.

All of these influence people’s outlook and experience of – for example – who cares for whom, and why, what they get in return from others, what they spend their money on, the value of money, who they interact with, how they get around, what they eat and drink, the environments in which they live, the type of work they do, who they regard as family, their style of communication, their engagement with health services and so on. The list is endless.

All of this shapes the experience of life and death – but until recently I haven’t really seen much (in academia anyway) about these social contexts and their influence on dying and bereavement. So it has been very welcome to me to see more conversation about, and recognition of, the influence of the social conditions in which people live on death and dying.”

How society could shape the future of grief

“We need to stop homogenising people, talking about dying and bereavement as a singular shared experience. Rather, we – and when I say ‘we’, I mean policymakers, practitioners and professionals, academics and anyone who is involved in the delivery of support, services and research – need to acknowledge that there is massive variation across any given population and the challenge is to openly recognise and incorporate that in all that we do.

A recent and very powerful paper that illuminated how different life experiences can be came from Hansford et al (2023) on the experience of dying in low income families. I’d highly recommend anyone to read it.

Hopefully the future of grief will be more inclusive, where loss and grief are regarded as a normal part of everyday life.”


Written by Anna McGrail

ehospice is proud to work in partnership with Part of Life and this article is republished with their permission.

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