Over half a million people (525,048) in England and Wales died in 2016 (the last full year we have figures for). In fact, year-on-year the numbers of deaths are generally increasing as our population gets bigger and older (ONS, 2016).
It’s interesting to think about how open we now are about talking about births – or even watching them on TV where shows like One Born Every Minute attracts audiences in their millions – compared with the awkwardness that still surrounds death. Yet even in the recent past birth, like death, was considered private and something not to be talked about (and certainly not broadcast across the nation).
A trend we’ve noticed here at Trajectory is an increase in clients who want us to find out more about peoples’ experiences of death. Whether it’s the experience of making a claim on life insurance after a death, the effect of a death on income, how people went about organising a funeral or their views what’s appropriate after someone has died. For us at Trajectory it’s definitely an issue that we talk about and in great detail with people from all walks of life who have experienced a recent death of a close family member or friend under many different circumstances.
Last summer we traversed the country interviewing people who’d had to sort out the affairs of someone who’d died to help one of our clients, Royal London, design better information and support services for policy holders and their bereaved families.
What came out loud and clear from these in-depth interviews was that people wanted to talk and share their experience and often because they wanted to help other people avoid the problems that they’d faced.
We interviewed people from their 40s to their 90s who’d experienced sudden and expected deaths and were left to sort out the affairs of their spouses, partners, parents and children. Some people were materially better off after a death but far more often, they were worse off finding that salaries, pensions and benefits were suddenly greatly reduced or even cut off immediately.
What was most revealing to me as researcher was that talking in detail about the circumstances of a death rarely upset people. A number of interviewees said it was nice to be able to talk openly about what happened and reflect back – one man said he enjoyed our chat so much that he’d be happy for me to come back and talk about it more. Inevitably there were some tears but bewilderment about what to do it, lack of preparation for the huge administrative task, frustration with the process, and financial impact that can immediately follow a death that shocked and upset people.
From this work we were able to summarise what help and advice people really wanted immediately after a death to help them navigate the complexities of tidying up someone’s affairs. What came out loud and clear was what interviewees said about what all of us needed to do so that when we die, we don’t leave our next of kin wading through heaps of paper trying to track down national insurance numbers, policy numbers, bank account details, online passwords, etc. Using this insight Royal London now send out a pack with every new life insurance policy taken out including a booklet for people to log and keep up to date their key information as well as what to do when somebody dies information for the recently bereaved relatives of their deceased customers.
We’ve discovered that death is a fascinating research area and one that touches on all our lives. It’s also an area where we see our findings leading to immediate changes and improvements – so believe us, it’s good to talk about death. How long will it be before we’re so open about it that there will be a One Dies Every Minute?