How a Bereavement Café is empowering the local community

Categories: Care, Community Engagement, and Featured.

Bianca Neumann-May is a Psychologist and Family Support Team Leader at St Nicholas Hospice Care in Bury St Edmunds. Here she tells ehospice about starting a Bereavement Café and the difference it’s making to the local community.

We started the Bereavement Café because during therapy sessions people reported feeling as if no one understood them except for those who had experienced loss themselves. They would commonly ask the therapist ‘have you lost someone?’ or ‘you wouldn’t know what that’s like, would you?’ As a result, and having run successful groups in the community in previous roles, we decided to set up the group.

People also said that they often had to cross over to the other side of the road to avoid people ‘being happy’ and ‘asking questions, expecting me to feel better’. This perception and consequent behavioural adaptation meant people were crying and dealing with their bereavement in a very private ‘behind closed doors’ kind of way. The inability and perceived lack of opportunity to share and talk about their feelings and thoughts meant an increase in isolation, a deterioration in mood, and a societal disconnect.

The most highly weighted factors that influence the likelihood of becoming socially isolated are being aged 65 and over, being widowed, being single, having feelings of depression, and earning a low income. All these can become an issue following a bereavement.

It was very daunting to start the Café, as we didn’t know how the community would perceive it. We set it up on a market day to make sure there was a higher chance of people attending, with higher volumes of public transport and people more likely to go into town.

It started very slowly with just three people, but over two months the numbers went up to 12, and by six months had grown to the high 20s. We raised the group’s profile with social media and created a good rapport with GP surgeries, but ultimately it was word of mouth that increased the group’s size.

In the beginning there was a lot of resistance from the outside about ‘exposing people’ to others when they were ‘vulnerable’. We fully endorse the idea that people are not totally vulnerable when they are bereaved, and understand that people bring a lot of skills and strength with them. Criticism that came from outside the group was managed by the loud and clear message from the attendees themselves that they felt safe and wanted to come back (as their weekly, anonymous feedback forms stated).

The Café is very nurturing towards new people, and as healing progresses many people feel capable of giving something back. Friendships and even couples have developed, and spin-off groups have started. The group has become a big part of their weekly structure, around which their lives have started to blossom again.

We’ve found it is having an impact not just on the group members themselves, but also on the people in the surrounding areas. Exposure to the poster and banner, the chatter, and the obvious emotions in a public space, educate the community and its members concurrently. It is making a difference as it helps create a community that addresses contemporary issues shaped by society and trends. Death and dying are becoming less stigmatised and taboo. Service providers may need to focus on groups embedded in the local community to help create a network of support formed by its members.

These groups enable people to support each other (peer support), offer an alternative to one-to-one therapy, and give people an opportunity to talk about their grief with others openly, creating a society that is more inclusive of death talk and addresses this in a normalised way. They help to combat social isolation by getting people out to attend the group, which in turn makes people more likely to connect with others and other groups outside of this session.

Additionally, staff are learning from service users, nurturing their listening skills and enriching the movement to a normalised conversation around death. They are also value for money – a three hour session requires one paid member of staff, unpaid volunteers and parking costs to support an average of 24 people per session compared to a one-to-one which would be more costly per session per person, plus costs for a room (electricity, water, overheads).

We currently have 25-30 people attending each week, with new people joining each session. Those who frequently attend know that they can miss a week or so, but return when they want – the group provides them with a safety net and an opportunity for self-exploration, attachment and detachment.

People have often said they wouldn’t have had any support other than from the people they’ve met in the group. They’ve also told us the Café has enabled them to have a laugh with lovely people, cry if they want to, and have the freedom to talk about their grief.

For more information visit St Nicholas Hospice Care