Professionals support bereaved service families

The war in Iraq and the threat of further conflicts has
put the spotlight on bereavement services.
Clive Langmead, of the Navy’s personal and family
service, explains how today’s armed forces go about their
sensitive work.

The days when a bereaved relative stood trembling at the door of
their home clutching a curt, impersonal telegram from the War
Office announcing that their loved one had been killed in battle
are over. All three arms of the military: the Royal Navy, the
British Army and the Royal Air Force are now acutely aware of the
impact on family and friends of such personal loss. Humanity and
consideration are now the watchwords for those on whom the task
falls to inform, and care for, the relatives and loved ones of
those who die fighting.

In the Royal Navy, this is called kinforming. Anyone deployed to
sea, or into an operational battle area, must complete a next of
kin form, which details their closest living relative and also a
personal friend or partner whom they wish to be informed if they
are killed or injured. While away, ships and units (such as Royal
Marine detachments) are required to notify any changes. In wartime
this must be done daily and is known traditionally as
“signalling souls on board”.

In the event of a casualty a kinforming team is alerted and
briefed with the available information, which can be frustratingly
little. This is done quickly, not only out of respect to the
dependants, but also to allay fears in the minds of many hundreds
of others who are closely following news reports.

But there must be no question of bringing such terrible news to
the wrong person. Despite media pressure, everything must be
double-checked. This takes time and can cause problems. Early in
the Iraq conflict a broadcast following an incident stated that
“relatives had been informed”, when not all kinforming
had actually been completed. Some teams still had hundreds of miles
to drive, so when they arrived the shock of their bad news was
amplified because the recipients had relaxed after hearing the

So who makes up these teams? The military has several family
support organisations: including those that provide advice, some
medical services and various charities. But the burden of
kinforming in the navy falls on just two: the Naval Personal and
Family Service (NPFS) and the Naval Chaplaincy Service.

NPFS is the dedicated social work and community support service
for the Royal Navy, its personnel, married and single, and their
families. It is staffed by naval and civilian qualified social
workers, community workers and counsellors who rarely go to sea,
but their service background coupled with professional expertise
makes for a formidable specialist service.

Chaplains, however, spend a large part of their naval careers at
sea; some warships even have small chapels, although they are
appointed to naval bases as well. They have a wider brief than a
typical parish priest because they must care for believer and
non-believer alike, as well as those of different faiths. It is an
unusual role in the tense operational atmosphere of a warship, but
chaplains are greatly valued.

A kinforming team will normally comprise a naval officer, a
shore-based chaplain and a social worker. But this composition is a
fine call. Some recipients may resent the presence of a chaplain,
others may be intimidated by a group on their doorstep. One
compromise is for either the chaplain or social worker to wait
nearby. But teams admit they do not always get it right. There is a
sense among those on a “married patch” (service housing
estate) that the sight of an officer in the company of either
chaplain or social worker is like seeing the angel of death.

People may be visited at home or work, on a day out with their
children, staying with parents, or during an evening out with
friends. Each location provides its own complexities given the
grave news being imparted. Once, a team arranged to visit a
workplace believing that a phone call asking the individual to
“go home and wait” would only serve as a traumatic
warning. In the event the team arrived to find that they had been
spotted walking down the street and that this had already sparked a
violent reaction.

The social worker or chaplain view the first visit as providing
first aid support. They find out what further help will be needed,
then leave. But such is the impact of this visit that a strong bond
is formed with the bereaved person, which is of great value in
delivering the rest of the support package. The navy then sends two
more visitors in as many days – a funeral officer, who
arranges the military funeral, and a business visits officer to
discuss financial matters. The NPFS and Chaplaincy Service will
then make regular visits and phone calls, but only if they are
needed or requested. The dependant must feel supported, not

Anything can be handled, from long-term bereavement counselling
to practical help with shopping or child care. In one situation a
simple phone call by the NPFS case worker once a week has proved
vital to a bereaved fiancee. She has declined visits and finds
talking to someone who represents the navy is all the intervention
she wants for now. In another case legal concerns over inherited
property have been referred to naval legal experts with the NPFS
caseworker acting as both counsellor and legal go-between.

Time and pace are dictated by the bereaved individuals, and NPFS
social workers and chaplains may be involved with them for as long
as two years, even more. It is naturally expected that family and
friends will be involved too, but there are other organisations
that can also be contacted to help such as the RN Widows
Association and the RN Benevolent Trust (the army and airforce have
similar organisations).

Uniquely, the NPFS can also help bereaved people maintain formal
and informal links with the ship or unit the serviceman or woman
belonged to, something that has special significance and holds
valuable reciprocal memories.

Bereaved partners also lose their familiar, military lifestyle.
This, being a very definite kind of life, may have been loved or
hated. It can be dramatic, close knit, energetic, demanding but
also supportive. After the bereavement, however, connections soon
weaken as friends and families are moved because military jobs
change every two years, and loss becomes that much greater.

Recently, all the support services have had their hands full
providing the extra support needed in the wake of conflict. It has
been a particularly tough time for the children, many of whom are
used, in some sense, to having a parent away for long periods. But
for that parent to be in active danger, and that danger to be spelt
out day and night on the television is hard, not least for the
remaining parent, who must exercise a measure of news censorship
and attempt to promote calm while they themselves are constantly on
edge and afraid of the worst. It is not easy.

When the news of a death comes it is always a terrible,
unexpected shock. Today the armed services do their best to inform
dependants as quickly and reliably as possible and to continue to
“be there”, trying, as much as humanly possible, to
soften its impact.

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