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UK could learn lessons from Africa in dealing with death

Muslim cemetery, Pikine, Dakar
Muslim cemetery, Pikine, Dakar
British society is not paying enough attention to how a death may risk pushing families into poverty and could learn valuable lessons from West Africa, according to a new report.

In affluent countries like the UK, grief is considered an emotional journey, but which may neglect the financial and material consequences of a family death. As a result, the UK risks sidelining aspects of bereavement that may directly affect children’s life chances, and may have a significant emotional impact, the researchers say.

Researchers from the University of Reading and the Open University say Britain could actually learn much from the example of less affluent countries in Africa, such as Senegal.

The researchers explored people's experiences of a family death, and analysed levels of financial, emotional and practical support offered to bereaved families in Senegal. They found that the material impact on family lives, that might already be precarious, meant the emotional and practical consequences were often bound together.

The researchers concluded that while Senegal’s average incomes are a fraction of those in the UK and it has a very limited welfare support system, more extensive networks of social and family ties allow some bereaved families to access informal help more easily. The death of a relative, however, could have a major impact on poorer families who often had fewer social ties to draw on.

Bereavement benefits are under review in the UK. This research shows the importance of targeting welfare support to those most in need, particularly bereaved families with young children who have fewer family and social ties to draw on. The findings also confirm the importance of encouraging openness about death and raising awareness of the effects of bereavement. For example, the Dying Matters initiative in the UK  aims to help people talk more openly about death, dying and bereavement.

In the UK community support in response to a death is often limited. In contrast, Senegalese people often draw on a much wider circle of support from extended family, neighbours and  local groups in urban neighbourhoods, where death is considered inevitable and sets in motion community responses.

Lead author of the report, Dr Ruth Evans, from the University of Reading, said: “As anyone who has experienced the death of a close relative will recognise, it can have a devastating impact on families and children.Our study demonstrates the need for policies to broaden the help available, by supporting not just widowed partners but the whole family affected by the death. This would help to make societies more resilient to the impacts of the death of a loved one.

“Senegal may be less affluent than the UK, but both countries must make the most of limited resources to strengthen networks of support, so they are available when people need them most.” 

The research suggests more attention should be paid to how family caring roles of both adults and children may shift following a death. Young people in Senegal often find themselves providing emotional support, doing household chores and childcare for siblings following the death of a parent or relative, the researchers found. This sudden change in circumstances could have negative impacts on their education, social and personal development and employment prospects.

Alison Penny, co-ordinator of the UK Childhood Bereavement Network, commenting on the project,  said: “This study gives important insights into the ongoing impact that a death in the family has on young people in Senegal and has important messages for us in Britain.

“The findings show how the loss of a key relative brings so many other changes in its wake: changed relationships, responsibilities, expectations and living arrangements. In Senegal, as in the UK, the question is how best to use resources to support those who are most vulnerable following a death in the family.”

This research project, Death in the family in urban Senegal: bereavement, care and family relations', funded by The Leverhulme Trust (2014-16), was led by Dr Ruth Evans of the University of Reading, in collaboration with Dr Jane Ribbens McCarthy (The Open University), Dr Sophie Bowlby, Dr Joséphine Wouango  (University of Reading) and Ms Fatou Kébé (LARTES-IFAN Research institute, Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar).

Further information, including an executive summary or the full report, is available to download from:

For more details please contact principal investigator Dr Ruth Evans on or +44 (0)118 378 7755.