Many societies have developed the notion that for every birth there must be a corresponding death. One of the implications of undertaking the Bereavement Project was that other work had to be given up. I have been interested in the reluctance of many social workers to specialise, where the need to relinquish other work feels too great a demand. Just as the community to which one belongs can feel like a trap, a restraint, to be escaped, so undertaking a particular social work task can feel stifling and constraining. The tendency in the new town setting, as probably in other places, for new projects to be started with enthusiasm but then to decline and disintegrate, seems to arise in part from the depression that comes from commitment to a task. To achieve something seems to involve a heightened awareness of what cannot be done. I suppose those older and wiser than me will nod at this, but it remains a personal discovery with which I still struggle. For some of our clients, the death of a loved one seems like the first time they have faced the limits of what they can achieve and their impotence in the face of death comes as a profound and frightening shock.
The importance of the boundary between belonging and detachment also shed light on the consultation work we began in the FWA. An early consultation with a group of physiotherapists found me endeavouring to act out the fantasy of omniscient detachment. Our review of the work revealed how inadequately we had assessed the problem the physiotherapists brought to us. We were ready to tell them how to do their job – unready to help them with the anxiety and discomfort of their job. To help, we had to allow ourselves to be drawn into a relationship with them where we could become confused, uncertain and sometimes inadequate, but where we could know and feel something of their experience of their work. I imagine it was no coincidence that my first effective consultation work was with the clergy, where my personal involvement in the work was most evident.
Those who believe that social work is more of an art than a science may be interested in Ruskin’s account of this boundary. He distinguishes three classes of perception: “the man who perceives rightly, because he does not feel, and to whom the primrose is very accurately the primrose, because he does not love it. Secondly, the man who perceives wrongly because he feels, and to whom the primrose is anything else but a primrose; a star, or a sun, or a fairy’s shield or a forsaken maiden. Lastly there is the man who perceives rightly in spite of his feelings, and to whom a primrose is forever nothing more than itself – a little flower apprehended in the very plain and leafy fact of it, whatever and howmanysoever the associations and passions may be that crowd around it.”
For some this vested interest in the bereaved is a source of worry. We do not wish to live off them. For me, it is also a source of comfort. Disinterested help in such matters seems patronising. Was any effective social work help given where the social worker did not grow through, learn from their client? The need to distinguish between one’s life struggles and those of the clients is ever present, and in the project, we seek volunteers who have sufficiently recovered from their own bereavement to achieve this. Total detachment is useless, however; impersonal acuteness sets up an unachievable ideal which the client has to relinquish before real growth is possible.
Where do these reflections lead in considering the bereavement project? First of all, if this experience of mobility and detachment is common to many social workers and clergy, it suggests why bereavement counselling has such an appeal to these professions. The mobile lifestyle involves repeated experiences of loss of friendships, work settings and material goods – homes, gardens etc., and the expectation of and preparation for these changes can lead to a sense of restlessness, of not belonging anywhere, of life being unreal. Relationships can feel trivial and temporary, unrounded, one dimensional. We know neighbours as they are now, but not where they came from, not what they have been through. We don’t know their parents, aunts, schoolteachers, doctors. We stand aloof, ‘on the shore of the wide world’, and in work with loss and bereavement, we see something that unites us with our fellow men. Through the vulnerability and the need to reckon with what we are rather than what we can be next, we can share a common humanity, we can feel we do ‘belong’. The bereaved can also express for us something of our own pain about losses that arise from our mobility, and from our leaving behind of parents who have to give up mobility as their careers come to an end, and who have to face ‘being’ instead of ‘becoming’.
It’s a personal struggle too. I was reminded of this by a recent family wedding. My father is the son of a miner, the oldest of nine children. The remaining children continued to live in Yorkshire, largely in working class communities. Only my father ‘escaped’ to university and a mobile lifestyle as a clergyman, a professional trade that involved the exercise of leadership. He became different, and at family occasions this difference is demonstrated. At the wedding, he took part not just as a family member, but also as a professional, responsible for the conduct of the ceremony. The combination of participant and observer characterised family life and life in the Church. As a minister’s son, I was never an ordinary participant in the community life, any more than was my father. Now I re-enact the role in my professional life in social work; a mobile lifestyle, and a separateness from the local community characterises many social workers. None of my present team has parents living within 30 miles of the new city. Instinctual neighbourhood community life is readily idealised in social work, perhaps because the reality of it is lost from the personal experience of most social workers.
The combination of intensity and separateness can lead to a kind of ghostliness about the social work relationships. I am haunted by the first relationship I formed with a client when I was a student. Some 11 years later, (this was written in the 1980’s!) this young man still makes contact from time to time, seeking nothing from me it appears other than to talk to me and visit me. This wish to maintain such a temporary relationship is both touching and pathetic, profound and illusory. We also attempt to keep intense relationships within the boundary of our professional life, and not to take work home with us, to maintain a working distance between ourselves and our clients. We can be pulled into the client’s world or kept rigidly away from it.
“So I am found on Ingpen Beacon or on Wylle Neck to the west,
Or else on homely Bulbarrow, or little Pilsdon Crest,
Where men have never cared to haunt, nor women have walked with me,
And ghosts keep their distance; and I know some liberty.” (T. Hardy)
The social work task takes us into intimate and private areas of the lives of our clients, without the protection of visible or measurable disorders that can shelter the medical profession from too close involvement with the whole person of patients. The intensity and confusion of this experience is such that social work has to be preoccupied with issues about closeness and separateness. The struggles are reflected in the fashions in social work e.g. community involvement and neighbourhood work as against a more clinical task centred model, or debates about decentralised or centralised social work offices etc. A constant preoccupation concerns the implication of a middle class, often university trained profession helping a largely working class or pauper class clientele. When I was trained, there was a good deal of discussion about whether social workers should live in the areas they serve in order to understand and indeed to some extent share the social context of their clients’ lives.