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Interviewing people who have been bereaved by death from unnatural causes

Posted on 21 August 2018 by Caroline Turley, Head of Crime, Justice & Attitudes .

Today we published our report, 'Personal narratives of serious incidents at sea and on the coast' for the RNLI about the experiences of people who have survived an incident at sea, or witnessed one where someone lost their life.

I’ve done a lot of qualitative research with people who have been bereaved by death from ‘unnatural causes’, including murder, manslaughter and suicide, as well as those with other complications, such as deaths in police custody. Losing someone you love is painful whatever the cause, but death from unnatural causes perhaps comes with additional pressures. These can include feelings of guilt and self-blame as well as media interest. Winston’s Wish (a charity that supports children after the death of a parent or sibling) articulates these pressures well, giving the example of being bereaved by suicide as ‘grief with the volume turned up’.

Here are my reflections of carrying out in-depth interviews with people who have experienced this type of loss.

Structuring the discussion: At the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), our topic guides (the tool we use for in-depth interviews) are usually structured to reflect the chronology of someone’s experience. We also try to ease participants into the more difficult parts of the discussion gradually. For most participants and topics this works well, but in my experience it isn’t always appropriate for people who have suffered a traumatic bereavement. This is because you can inadvertently build the interview to what feels like a crescendo of when the death happened, and you can see the participant become more anxious as they know they’re coming closer to reliving that moment. To avoid this distress, I design topic guides to allow some time at the very start of the interview for the participant to tell me about who they’ve lost and how they died – if they want to. It sounds counterintuitive, but I find it helps.

Interview mode: People often assume that face-to-face interviews are more appropriate than phone interviews when researching a sensitive topic, but it’s much better to give participants the choice. When I’ve interviewed bereaved people over the phone they seem to have preferred the anonymity it offers. Also, depending on where and how their loved one died, a participant’s relationship with their home might have been irreparably damaged and it may no longer feel like a place of comfort or safety, or somewhere they want to invite outsiders into.

The role of the interview: In applied policy research, it’s important that we don’t confuse our role as a researcher or the role of the interview. We’re not therapists and we can’t solve people’s problems, however much we might want to (and to try to, without the necessary knowledge and skills, could do more harm than good). That said, participants can benefit from being listened to, and their experience being acknowledged and understood. Participants have told me how much they valued being able to tell somebody about their loved one - including happy times - without the worry of upsetting someone or making them feel uncomfortable, as they felt was sometimes the case with family and friends. 

I’m hugely grateful to the people that relive some of their most difficult and harrowing moments to take part in our research. In return, I hope that we treat them with care, compassion and respect, and that the research we do ultimately helps make life better for others in similar situations.

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