Belonging and detachment 1

“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.

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Internal Development v External Activity 5

There were also ‘political’ issues to be managed to bring a range of interests into a common endeavour. Our group contained or worked with organisations for those coming to terms with the death of a child, for people suffering as a result of a violent death of a loved one, and with the mainstream national organisation, CRUSE. It was necessary for us to put these special interests into a common effort if the group was to be financially sustainable, whilst retaining a respect for the separate identities of the different groups.

We have tried to include some of what I am terming ‘political’ issues in the training and educational activities in the project. This part of the work not only enabled us to try and establish the right relationship between volunteers and professional skills in both the style and the content of the training (maximum use of workshop learning and minimal teaching of theory for example), but wider training with professional groups across the city enabled volunteers in the project to provide leadership, and established a positive and supportive relationship between the project and all kinds of professionals from social workers, to nurses, teachers, health visitors etc.

Internal Development v External Activity 4

Working with the bereaved did face me with a number of important ‘political’ issues.

First of all, and central to the notion of the project, we asserted that the effective care of the bereaved could not and should not be provided primarily by professionals. The counselling was provided by volunteers from various walks of life. Anyone concerned with the bereaved will soon encounter the power of the professionals and the way in the experience of the bereaved can be readily defined for them by professionals. When is grief mental illness? How far should grief be treated by sleeping pills, anti depressants etc? How will grieving adolescents’ behaviour be defined and labelled?

That said, there is of course a role for professional skills both in direct work with some bereaved people and in supporting and informing the volunteers and the creation of the right partnership between volunteer and professional required a kind of political skill.

Internal Development v External Activity 3

Having defined the task as holding together the two aspects of external activity – the ‘politics’ / practical service delivery, and the internal development – the learning and management of emotions, how did this apply to the Bereavement Project itself. The care of the bereaved would seem to invite us to concentrate on the individual experience of the mourner as if it were of purely personal impact, and to collude with a wish to flee from the world of practicalities. The fantasy is perhaps that the counsellor can create for the bereaved an idealised comforting relationship, based on the clients’ dependence on the warm caring being provided. The disgust of some critics suggests an incestuous quality to the relationship, with the client being used as an object to satisfy the needs of the all powerful parent-figure counsellor. Social work seems to set against this extreme an alternative notion of the worker eschewing intimate personal relationships, but acting as a change agent either in the outside world of the client, concerning benefits, debts, insurance, housing etc or in the attitudinal world of the client.

The reality of the experience with the project is that I had to take responsibility for managing the ‘politics’ of the project, just as the initiation of the work sprang from taking responsibility for the political task of the FWA. We created a structure that reflected the tension between the vivid, emotionally stirring experience of the volunteers and their support group, and the external less emotionally engaging issues owned by the project steering committee. The tendency of each to split off from the other has been a constant feature of the work as I have already implied. The need for management committees to remain in touch with the creative and emotional nature of the task is not just important for the Bereavement Project but is important in all kinds of voluntary endeavour, just as the ‘workforce’ needs to understand the realities of funding, accountability, procedural integrity etc.

Internal Development v External Activity 2

For me the project was something of a paradox. A large part of the conscious motivation for initiating the project related to the political reality of a new agency trying to establish itself amongst existing social work and caring agencies. FWA was funded by the MK Development Corporation (MKDC), a temporary body, and so had to set its sights on alternative sources of funding for when MKDC ‘withered away’. The key relationship would be with the County Council through their Social Services Department and the early experience had not been encouraging. The project provided an opportunity for cooperative working in contrast to a sense of defensive rivalry. My first piece of work in relation to bereavement also had a political context. The agency’s contract with MKDC required the FWA not only to offer a social work service to individuals and families, but to provide consultation for other workers and voluntary agencies in the area. When we made contact with the clergy, therefore, we began examining ways in which we might form a working relationship. The notion of a study day on bereavement was proposed by a clergyman as a way of introducing the agency to his colleagues with an eye to future work together.

This is of course politics with a small ’p’. In grappling with these issues, I took up a subject where the political content was minimal. Death is one of the few things wherein all people are equal, and the attraction of the subject for social workers and other caring professions is surely not unconnected with the universality of the experience, the way in which the bereaved are somehow ‘above’ politics, spared from conflict, apparently engaged in an explicitly emotional struggle. The bereaved are the survivors for whom for a while only the survival has any significance. Interestingly enough, the concern of social workers with bereavement counselling has attracted criticism and even scorn, as if it represented a retreat from the cold hard world into soft self indulgence. We are not paid to offer comfort in response to the unchanging world; rather we are to seek cost effective ways of altering behaviour or attitudes, to achieve greater potency in changing an unjust world, in implementing solutions to social problems.

Internal Development v External Activity 1

“We are carried so far out to sea that we lose sight of the quiet haven where we set forth” Gregory the Great

“Seated alone in silence undisturbed

Within my heart a shaded light I see.

How futile the activity of man.” Natsume Soseki

When first employed by FWA in the new city, two colleagues and myself set out to ‘plough the virgin land’ with some vigour and no doubt considerable naivety. It was with some frustration therefore that we found ourselves required by the agency to journey to London every fortnight for a meeting of ‘new’ workers. The air in the car was warmed by mutterings about navel gazing. How could such self-indulgent introspection be justified when there was so much work to do? This debate must be echoed in every social work agency – how much time can be spent on meetings, supervision etc., and how much on the ‘real work’? I’m put in mind by the Japanese quotation, of the academic content of social work courses, where much energy is spent in showing us that one method of intervention with clients appears to have no more effect than any other.

The Bereavement Project had the same balance between the volunteers’ and my personal development, the time for reflection and attention to our own needs, and on the other hand the external activity, delivering the service to clients and community. In particular, with many of the volunteers brought to the project by their own experience of bereavement, we had to assess how far people had learnt from and were coping with their own unhappiness. The preparation course was designed to prepare people for visiting the bereaved, but more than one participant spoke of how it had helped them with their own loss. It could be said that the continuing task of the project in supporting the volunteers was to hold together these two aspects of the experience of volunteering; the internal development of the volunteers and the external reality of providing a service. Where they become split, the volunteers either felt their private experience to be intruded on or to be unsupported because of the emotions that providing a service brought up.

Grandiose v Insignificant 6

One lady, Mrs W., for example, poured out her troubles to the volunteer on the first visit. She had been referred by a neighbourhood worker who had some fears that she may become suicidal. The volunteer found her distressed, lonely and tearful. It appeared Mrs W had moved recently to Milton Keynes having lived for some time in Lancashire. She spoke to the volunteer about a close friend in Lancashire who had invited her to stay. She did not know what to do. On the second visit, the volunteer found the house empty. She left a note and called again. The welcome she received seemed stiff and Mrs W was more brightly dressed and apparently less depressed. Further visits were offered and whilst Mrs W did not refuse them she again mentioned her friend in Lancashire. When the volunteer called again, she learnt that Mrs W had indeed gone to Lancashire.

This also illustrates the chronic uncertainty about results and effectiveness which volunteers and social workers have to tolerate. This volunteer had to contend with the fear that she had done something wrong during the first visit, and yet Mrs W was apparently functioning more effectively at least, well enough to make the decision to go away. We have to draw conclusions as best we can. When social workers close cases, they are often asked to record some kind of prediction or assessment of the effectiveness of their work. To prophesy that the client will cope successfully is felt to be tempting fate and commonly the worker collapses into some vague disclaimers about his or her usefulness. To claim responsibility for change can seem presumptuous, but the alternative feels to be uselessness and ineffectiveness.