Explainer
Comment
Life & Death
4 min read

What they don’t tell you about when someone you love dies

Sharing her experience of her husband’s death, Yvonne Tulloch charts grief’s journey and shares signposts to help. Part of the How to Die Well series.

Yvonne Tulloch is Founder and CEO of AtaLoss, helping bereaved people find support and wellbeing. 

A group of grieving friends with their hands on each others backs.
The Good Funeral Guide on Unsplash.

Turn on the news and death is all around us. Yet somehow, we think it will never happen to us.  In one sense that’s good. We have a child-like innocence that protects us from the harsh realities of life.   

A few years ago, as a church minister, I thought I knew about death.  I’d been trained to take funerals and had supported families when a loved one had died.  But it wasn’t until I was bereaved myself - when my husband died suddenly of a heart attack - that I realised how little even I knew.  

Although busy, life had been good until then.  My husband had a successful job, my own work was going well and our three children were flying the nest and finding their feet in university.  Little did I know that in one, short phone call from a colleague, our lives would change forever.   

Simon had been found dead in his hotel in Spain, and I was faced with telling each of the children and his mother, the worst news anyone could convey.  Concerned about social media the news was embargoed until all family members knew, then I had to go to Spain to find, as well as identify the body, and bring him home.  I had to work out our finances – no one knew what we had to live off – close accounts and put things in my name.  I discovered our house wasn’t insured, nor our car for me to drive, that bank accounts were frozen, and that no organisation is geared up to help.  Everyone insists on speaking to the account holder or seeing the actual death certificate before being willing to oblige.  I had a funeral and thanksgiving to organise – two big occasions in just 3 weeks - and a mountain of admin to deal with, which would be difficult at any time.  

Grief is a journey of adjustment of who we are to a new existence – one that takes a long time and never comes at a convenient time.

We’ve been a death-denying culture, I now realise, for many years. With death invariably happening in hospices or hospitals, we’ve pushed death away and pretended it doesn’t happen.  Consequently, we’ve lost knowledge of bereavement and the art of support.  We’ve tended only to think about preparing for funerals and then counselling if the person isn’t doing well.  But what about all the other help that’s needed?  Understanding and support is necessary in all manner of ways.  Bereavement is one of the most stressful times of life, affecting everyone sooner or later and every part of their life.  Grief is a journey of adjustment of who we are to a new existence – one that takes a long time and never comes at a convenient time.    

At first most of us are shocked or emotionally numb; we run on adrenaline and we’re in survival mode.  At the funeral others can think we’re doing well, and we can too.  But it’s after, when the real sadness tends to hit, when the future must be faced and by then support has dropped away.   

Many of us experience a roller coaster of changing reactions and responses which we don’t recognise as us or don’t associate with grief.  

There are the physical reactions, for instance. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I was cold and I shook for months, I had a heavy ‘weight’ in my gut and was taken to hospital three times with suspected heart problems - our bodies are always in tune with our emotions.   

And there are the psychological reactions.  We can experience anxiety, anger and guilt; we can’t concentrate or remember, or function to do the most basic of tasks.  I kept thinking I was seeing Simon and had a psychosis which made me feel separated from the world.  We can think we’re going mad.  

Grief is a natural response to loss which we need to work through for our future wellbeing.

For me help came from two initiatives I was fortunate to find: Care for the Family’s Widowed Young Support and The Bereavement Journey course run by a church in London.  In each of these I discovered others who had been bereaved, who understood what I was going through and who helped me to navigate the alien territory I found myself in.  They also helped me to understand my spiritual responses which had been the biggest surprise.  I had never doubted my Christian faith but with bereavement, that too was challenged, and God, who had always felt present, suddenly disappeared.  I realize now that this is natural.  Grieving is a process of deconstruction and reconstruction of meaning, and therefore some of whatever meaning we had before the person died, will deconstruct as we grieve. 

Roll on a few years and I’m on the other side, running a charity helping people to understand that in our death-denying society bereavement impacts greatly, and that grief is a natural response to loss which we need to work through for our future wellbeing.  Support is needed in various ways which we direct to through our signposting website ataloss.org.  And I’m helping people myself through The Bereavement Journey course to find healing and hope, offering also spiritual support for the faith questioning I find most people have.  Unfortunately, though, because we’ve neglected death, many haven’t been supported through a bereavement in the past and are carrying loss which is unresolved.   

Essay
Belief
Comment
1 min read

Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.