Death, Dying and Social work under COVID-19

Dr Denise Turner, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, examines some of the pressures now put on social workers as people around the world lose loved ones to coronavirus.

Date: 06 April 2020

The Prime Minister’s stark warning only a few short weeks ago, that ‘many more people will lose loved ones to coronavirus,’ signalled an increase in fatalities that is now a grim daily reality and personal nightmare for many.  Whilst media reporting and public support has understandably focussed on the work of NHS staff, social workers nationally are under pressure as they grapple with people who have experienced the sudden, unexpected death of someone close to them. These daily struggles are set within an already stretched Health and Social Care sector, where the average retention rate for social workers prior to the COVID-19 outbreak was the lowest in the public sector (ONS, 2019).  

Deaths from coronavirus are also set within a national context where dying and bereavement remain largely sequestered from public discourse. A major national survey, carried out by YouGov in 2018 on behalf of the Co-op, found that 18 million people in the UK are very uncomfortable talking about death, whilst 5 million would not talk about their own deaths. 

Amongst the recommendations of this research were the need for more opportunities for talking about death, increased education on death and training, and greater support following bereavement. A parallel study, undertaken by the Royal College of Physicians in 2018, titled ‘Talking about Dying’, also showed that many medical staff struggle to have honest conversations about death and dying.

Amidst this public and professional context, a collaborative study carried out by the Social Work department at London Metropolitan University and the University of Chichester, during 2019, investigated bereavement support and training for social work students and those in their first year of practice. Findings from the study further demonstrate a lack of training on death and bereavement within initial social work education and continuing professional development, leaving a pervasive gap in the knowledge available to social workers. Participants in the study also reported an extensive deficit in bereavement support, leading to a social work student who experienced the death of a service user being told simply: You have to be more resilient about death.’

Funerals and mourning customs

Additionally, the study found a similar deficit in culturally specific bereavement training, for example, funeral and other mourning customs which are crucial for aiding the bereavement process. This is highly significant during the current outbreak of COVID-19, where the restriction on numbers of mourners at funerals has led to an increase in live streaming, with restricted access to the body, and an absence of the physical proximity and comfort often associated with mourning. 

In these circumstances, traditional bereavement rituals such as the Muslim practice of washing the body may be impossible, creating potentially major repercussions for those experiencing a difficult and unexpected death.  Bereaved people in these circumstances will often turn to social workers who may lack both the expertise and the professional support to offer effective assistance.  

At a time when death and dying are confronting everyone through the news media and personal or professional experience, findings from this 2019 study and other major national research indicate a critical need for education and training to equip social workers, members of the public and other practitioners, with the language, knowledge and resilience needed to manage both the immediate and longer-term outcomes of death, dying and bereavement.

Photograph of Dr Denise Turner