After my father died of cancer in 2008, my family and I struggled to find the support we needed. The help there was, if any was available at all, seemed to be time-limited and dictated by where we lived. It was also disappointing that we didn’t have the opportunity to meet others who were going through a similar experience.
I’ve worked as a psychologist for over 10 years and it was evident to me how important adequate bereavement support could be to people’s mental health. In 2010, I founded The Loss Foundation, the UK’s only bereavement charity supporting people who lose a loved one to cancer.
I’m proud of the work The Loss Foundation has done since our inception. However, our support is largely London-based, so in some ways we have contributed to the varying levels of support available to people depending on where they live.
In 2017, we made plans to roll out our services across the UK. Expanding our organisation is a challenge that feels both exciting and terrifying, so it seemed like a good time to seek out inspiration from other organisations offering bereavement support.
Last year, I travelled to the USA on a Churchill Fellowship to spend time with like-minded organisations. I visited child and adult support organisations, bereavement camps, community outreach programmes, retreat centres, hospices, grass-roots organisations, support groups and more. I learned a whole host of information about different grief support models, which you can read about in my Fellowship report.
One particularly inspiring person I met on my travels was Dr Joanne Cacciatore. In 1994, Joanne experienced the loss of her daughter, who was stillborn. She was desperate for help, but she struggled to find support or to access information about what she was going through.
Joanne’s response to her situation was to create the MISS Foundation, an organisation offering bereavement support to families who have experienced a stillbirth. However, that’s not all she did – with five children in tow, one of them just two months old, Joanne went back to school. She gained a Bachelor’s degree, followed by a Doctorate, and is now a Professor at the University of Arizona and a leading researcher in grief. She inspired me to continue paving the way for support services in the UK that are much needed but don’t exist, and to continue striving to provide support that is backed up by research.
My Fellowship confirmed to me how important it is to have services available that support people experiencing a particular type of loss – from stillbirth or cancer, for example. The MISS Foundation, which only provides support for people who have experienced loss through stillbirth, is a good example of this service-specificity. It can be hard for some people to seek help for their grief, but speaking with people who have had a similar loss can make this easier – feeling understood and having your experiences normalised can be hugely cathartic.
Since I’ve returned from my travels, The Loss Foundation’s plans to reach people across the country have gathered pace. We are piloting a new digital support service, which will help us to move closer to supporting the 6,900 people bereaved by cancer in the UK every day. I would not have been able to sow these seeds of progress without my Churchill Fellowship. The trip was a highlight of my career.
Dr Erin Hope Thompson
Photo: Therapeutic exercise at a children’s bereavement camp, Florida