Compassionate communities – caring for people through death and loss is everyone’s business

It’s refreshing to hear a speaker who inspires and challenges. Allan Kellehear, Professor of Community Health at Middlesex University, London, did just that when he presented the concept of Health Promoting Palliative Care to an engrossed audience at an end of life masterclass in Warrington last week.

Professor Kellehear argues that death and bereavement are public health issues. This approach calls for greater community involvement in supporting people who are dying, and their carers; redressing the balance of care from professionals; and reigniting a culture where communities support people through dying and loss. It also acknowledges the limited capacity of palliative care services to support the growing demands of an ageing population.

Compassionate communities

Countering misperceptions about death, dying and bereavement is a key element of Health Promoting Palliative Care. ‘Compassionate communities’ involve diverse groups from schools to the local rugby club, employers to pubs. Opening the discussion in cultural activity – in supermarkets, classrooms, on social media and even on beermats – can normalise death. According to Professor Kellehear, grief is a natural process and it’s the social connections that really make a difference to a person’s experience of loss. Bereavement deserves more than a counselling session or a memorial card – people need real support from their friends, families and the wider community. This approach resonates well with Marie Curie’s new strategy to reach more people in different ways, from information and support to our volunteer Helper service, which will be especially important given the rise in older people living in single-person households. There are plenty of challenges ahead for all of us who work in end of life care, but what Professor Kellehear's work tells us is that caring for people through crisis and loss is not just about institutions; it’s everyone’s business.