Death in the family in urban Senegal: bereavement, care and family relations

The loss of a close adult relative is a significant life transition that almost everyone experiences at some point in the lifecourse and which may have a range of material, social and emotional consequences for children and families.

Researchers from the University of Reading and the Open University say Britain could actually learn much from the example of less affluent countries in Africa, such as Senegal in dealing with death. Dr. Ruth Evans' and colleagues' research explored people's experiences of a family death, and analysed levels of financial, emotional and practical support offered to bereaved families in urban Senegal. The study, funded by The Leverhulme Trust, provides the first in-depth understanding of responses to death, care and family relations in an urban West African context.

Research aims and methods

The research aimed to investigate the material and emotional significance of a death of a close adult relative for family members of different genders and generations in urban Senegal. It aimed to explore how the death of a close relative impacts on identities, caring relations and responsibilities among families of varying socio-economic status and diverse ethnicities (focusing on the three largest ethnic groups, Wolof, Hal Pulaaren and Serer) in two cities.

A diverse sample of 30 families that had experienced an adult relative's death in the previous five years living in Dakar and Kaolack were selected (15 in in each city). In-depth interviews were conducted with 59 family members and with 20 community leaders and professionals working at local or national levels. The transcripts were analysed thematically using Nvivo. UK and Senegal Advisory Groups, comprised of policymakers, practitioners and researchers, were established to guide the project. The findings were disseminated through a series of policy and community workshops in Senegal in November/December 2015 and are being disseminated in the UK and internationally in 2016.


The researchers found that the material impact on family lives, that might already be precarious, meant the emotional and practical consequences were often bound together. More extensive networks of social and family ties allow some bereaved families to access informal help more easily. The death of a relative, however, could have a major impact on poorer families who often had fewer social ties to draw on. Discussions during the policy workshop in Kaolack, Senegal

Lead author of the report, Dr Ruth Evans, from the University of Reading, said: "As anyone who has experienced the death of a close relative will recognise, it can have a devastating impact on families and children. Our study demonstrates the need for policies to broaden the help available, by supporting not just widowed partners but the whole family affected by the death. This would help to make societies more resilient to the impacts of the death of a loved one.

"Senegal may be less affluent than the UK, but both countries must make the most of limited resources to strengthen networks of support, so they are available when people need them most."

The research suggests more attention should be paid to how family caring roles of both adults and children may shift following a death. Young people in Senegal often find themselves providing emotional support, doing household chores and childcare for siblings following the death of a parent or relative, the researchers found. This sudden change in circumstances could have negative impacts on their education, social and personal development and employment prospects.

Alison Penny, co-ordinator of the UK Childhood Bereavement Network, commenting on the project, said: "This study gives important insights into the ongoing impact thDiscussions during the policy workshop in Kaolack, Senegalat a death in the family has on young people in Senegal and has important messages for us in Britain.

"The findings show how the loss of a key relative brings so many other changes in its wake: changed relationships, responsibilities, expectations and living arrangements. In Senegal, as in the UK, the question is how best to use resources to support those who are most vulnerable following a death in the family."


Further information

Download the Summary or open access Report here. For further information, see our project blog or contact:

Dr. Ruth Evans, email:



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