Supporting bereaved older people

Our Cruse project shows how grieving older people can be supported in their community.

By Eve Wilson · December 7, 2021

Recent research shows that older people are half as likely as younger generations to seek bereavement support. This comes as no surprise to us at Cruse, where we know about the unique challenges grieving older people face, and the need to support them better.

A community approach to supporting grieving older people

To start to address this need, in 2017 Cruse got together with The ExtraCare Charitable Trust to develop the Bereavement Supporter Project. We wanted to help retirement communities support themselves following loss and bereavement, as well as opening up more conversations about death, dying and bereavement with the older generations.

Peer support

The model is based on a peer support structure, where ExtraCare residents are trained to be Bereavement Supporters who provide listening support to bereaved people in their retirement village. This in turn means bereaved older people can access the support they need, at the right time and from within their own community.

Since the start of the initiative, over 1290 individuals – both residents and family members – have accessed bereavement support from the Bereavement Supporters trained by Cruse volunteers.

Most of the support provided by the newly trained Bereavement Supporters was informal and self-organised – sometimes simply a one-off conversation…

……People in here that knew me put people forward to me “that she could do with a bit of counselling” or sometimes it was just that I met someone in the hall who had lost their partner and they needed support and felt that they were isolated so I just asked them their apartment number and asked if they didn’t mind me coming to visit them, and then I did.

Cathleen, Bereavement Supporter

What we’ve learnt from the programme

Talking about death

Sometimes the hardest part of helping someone is starting the conversation. Cruse training has helped ExtraCare staff and Bereavement Supporter volunteers overcome anxieties about talking to residents about death, dying and bereavement. As a result of this, over 1500 residents and members of the wider village community have engaged with Loss and Bereavement Information and Awareness activities (such as workshops or talks). We’ve also seen a huge change in comfort levels around talking about death, with staff and Bereavement volunteers feeling much more able to support someone grieving:

I speak more confidently more about bereavement I’ve listened more (quietly) instead of trying to fix. Reassured resident that bereavement is normal and different for everyone.

Extracare staff member

Support during Covid-19

Bereavement Supporter volunteers have provided a vital source of support to residents during the Covid-19 pandemic, both relating to bereavement and other losses. In many ways, the Covid-19 pandemic has further proven the need for the project whilst also shining a light on the value and importance of the Bereavement Supporters.


My friend Eunice, I told you her grandson was very ill [with Covid-19]. Well, he died. I did go round and see her. I didn’t break the rules. She was in the bedroom and I was in the passage just talking to her. I spent quite a few hours with her, because she was absolutely down, absolutely, absolutely devastated.

Bereavement supporter

We asked some of our volunteers to keep diaries, to help us understand the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on grief and you can read about what we found in our previous blog.

Shared culture of loss

Since the project started we’ve seen and heard that there have been many more opportunities to talk about loss and grief, and therefore build grief literacy in the community.

It’s also clear that staff and Bereavement Supporter volunteers have received a greater understanding and higher level of empathy around the impact of loss and bereavement. We’re delighted that the recent project evaluation report showcases the valuable peer support that ExtraCare residents have provided to fellow bereaved residents, especially during such a challenging 18 months. Working together with ExtraCare has allowed us to shift the culture regarding talking about loss, dying and bereavement, as well as helping to build supportive communities for ExtraCare residents.

The report provides a series of recommendations based on the findings. We hope these will help Cruse and other organisations learn more about community based bereavement support.

Find out more

This partnership is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund and has recently been independently evaluated by researchers from the University of Bristol and Aston University.

The report can be read in full, along with an executive summary, and is available to download here.

I’d like to thank everyone who participated in the research and gave generously of their time.

Eve Wilson is the Cruse project manager for the Bereavement Supporter Project