As part of our #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re meeting women from across the University of Bristol community who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic, from carrying out world-class research to helping on the frontline of the NHS.
Your research has focussed on Covid-19 recently. Could you tell us a little more and the different Covid research projects you are working on?
I’m a social scientist and for the last 16 years I’ve researched end–of–life care and bereavement. When the pandemic started although I couldn’t help clinically, I wanted to contribute in some way. It has been such a challenging time for people to lose someone, especially when usually they’d be surrounded by support from their family and friends.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I reviewed existing evidence and risk factors for complex or poor bereavement outcomes in hospital settings, and what this could tell us about how to improve experiences for people bereaved due to COVID-19. I also worked with a GP colleague on an evidence synthesis on funeral practices, considering the potential impact of restrictions during the pandemic. We found that the benefit of after-death rituals depends on the ability of the bereaved to shape those rituals and say goodbye in a way which is meaningful for them.
Subsequently, I linked up with Dr Emily Harrop and colleagues at Cardiff University to look at the evidence from previous mass bereavement events like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and terrorist attacks. We identified some key features of positive responses, for example, making sure bereavement services are proactively advertised.
The collaboration worked so well, we successfully applied to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) via the Economic and Social Research Council, to carry out the first UK-wide study exploring bereavement experiences and support needs during the pandemic, and the impact on bereavement services. We are currently analysing the baseline survey results, but our interim findings have highlighted the difficulties and distress experienced by those whose friends or relatives have died during the pandemic, both prior to the death and in their grief.
In 2019 I was awarded funding from the Wellcome Trust to run a public engagement festival about grief, bereavement and loss. Good Grief was due to run last May, but when the pandemic hit, we transformed the festival into an online event. It ran for three days in October and was really successful with 9,000 people attending and 4,000 people signing up to access the content afterwards.
What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic?
As an end-of-life care and bereavement researcher this year has been really busy. One of my biggest challenges has been working from home, trying to retain some kind of work–life balance, and protect time to spend with my kids and partner. That’s been really difficult at times.
One of my biggest triumphs has been collaborating with so many different people and groups. The research with colleagues in Cardiff only came about because of the pandemic. Likewise, Good Grief Festival wouldn’t have been possible without such a collaborative approach.
What is it like being a woman in academia? Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it?
I’m happy to say that Bristol is a very family friendly, flexible place to work, and as someone with children alongside a career I’ve really appreciated that. It’s great to see women who have children in senior positions. But I do think that there are sexist biases and assumptions in academia, some of which I have faced. It can be more difficult for women to be taken seriously, and that’s true in academia, just as in other walks of life. As a senior researcher, for example, I’ve been asked to take minutes at meetings, which I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been asked to do if I was a man. It’s difficult because sexism is often insidious and hidden, and sometimes it’s hard to know whether it’s just somebody being obtuse, or whether there is actually a gender bias. In many ways I’ve been very lucky as I haven’t faced really serious challenges in my career to date, and there are many strong women leading palliative care research. But there is more to be done to break down barriers to women and people from minority ethnic groups accessing the most senior positions.
Which women have inspired you in your career?
The women who have inspired me the most have been collaborative, rather than competitive. They’ve really shown that it’s possible to be supportive, kind and lift people up, but at the same time be academically successful. I’ve got some great mentors, like Professor Fliss Murtagh at Hull York Medical School, who I used to work with at King’s College London, and Dr Becky Barnes, who was at Bristol but is now at Oxford University. They have both been really supportive and inspiring.
What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self?
Believe in yourself and try not to worry too much about what other people think, because I think a lot of 13–year–olds worry about other people’s opinions.
What are you most proud of?
Good Grief is part of a really important public conversation, and I’m honoured and delighted we’ve been able to contribute. I’m very proud to work alongside my colleagues, Dr Lucy Pocock and Dr Charlotte Chamberlain leading the Palliative and End of Life Care Research Group at Bristol. It’s lovely collaborating with them, supporting each other and running the group together, trying to be as inclusive and supportive as we can and nurture more junior colleagues.
For more information on the study of bereavement during COVID-19, see covidbereavement.com.
Good Grief Festival – a virtual free festival exploring the many faces of grief – will take place on Saturday 27 and Sunday 28 March. To register visit goodgrieffest.com. Good Grief is also working with end-of-life charity Marie Curie to host a series of events for the National Day of Reflection on Tuesday 23 March.