Loss and Meaning

And so when the idea of a Bereavement Service came up, it seemed just the right thing to do, especially in this city of new life. I remember feeling that the group, which attracted a fascinating collection of volunteers, represented a deeper emotional life to the city than the public version. Certainly, those early meetings with bereaved people who wanted to use their experience to help others, were inspiring and seemed to bring an enriching depth of living to the seeming superficiality of newness, of a manufactured place. My first thoughts were therefore about the way in which these people’s experience of loss seemed to have opened up a doorway to a kind of living that had meaning and value outside the trappings of materialism in a city whose centre comprised a shopping mall.

This wonderful group of people, for whom their profound losses of loved ones snatched away at all stages of life – a lost child, a young husband, a lifelong companion – seemed in a way to blossom, drawing warm human qualities from their bereavement. I guess as I look back at this time, I probably sentimentalise this picture of them, projecting some of my own wishes and beliefs on to them. Certainly this positive view of the bereaved drew on my religious faith, if it can be so called.



Finding Loss

When I moved to my second job as a family social worker in the new city of Milton Keynes, it seems now a step that reflected this belief in new growing organisms. The city was only just coming to be – the shopping centre was a building site when we arrived and was opened a few months later. It created the first real city centre and housing estates were growing fast. The Development Corporation who were building the city employed ‘arrivals workers’ – all was now fresh and full of promise.

I cannot now fully recall how it was that I became involved in setting up a Bereavement Service, but it did seem to strike a chord in all this optimistic youthfulness. There were some obvious barely spoken truths about this new city – it was filled with people who had left some kind of life behind. Loss was the most widely shared experience in the city.

The importance of loss grew on me gradually. I was not really aware of it in my own life in some of the places that were most obvious, though the desolation of leaving Sheffield at 13 years old and moving home was something I recalled vividly enough. My friend’s death at university in a way came too early in my emotional life to seem like a loss – a shock and a hurt but not fully experienced as a loss. My supervisor at my new job seemed more struck by my leaving my home and life in Sheffield to take the job in Milton Keynes than I was. It was one of a number of examples of how we seem to know what we don’t know – I clearly had enough experience of loss for the issue to seem intellectually significant, but it was too unexamined and unconscious for me to realise the personal emotional significance of the engagement with this issue. That insight came later as a series of discoveries.

Youthful Optimism

At this early stage in my career, the idea that change could be ‘enabled’ by the creation of a ‘facilitative environment’ was very appealing. It drew on an optimistic view of human nature, seeing the human being as a growing and developing organism that only required  the right ‘soil’ to achieve a full flowering. The facilitative environment also supported people’s resilience in the face of trauma, loss and damage.

It may seem naive to put one’s faith simply in the maturational process in the face of the destructive forces in human nature, the corruption of power, the damage of property etc. It also seems an understanding suited to youth when life spreads out before us with seemingly endless possibilities, when ‘growing up’ has always been our task. It is harder to believe in as our lives progress, as we encounter the reality of death, the indifference of natural forces, the times of being stuck, the experience of failure etc. That it is harder to believe, that we tend to become grumpy old men and women, does not of course mean that there is no truth to this youthful optimism. Its loss as a freshness, a sort of Spring song, may be painful and hard to endure but it merits more attention than world weary dismissal in the name of realism, or than sentimental yearning for lost good times. At its simplest, we are growing and developing organisms, continuing to create cells even through old age.

Dependency and Maturation

For all of us, what we see as independence is hard won, fragile and in some sense impermanent. It is also a culturally defined phenomenon – valued differently in different cultures, communities and even families. The Americanised west probably has a more extreme view of independence than most cultures, captured in the movies by a series of heroes from the wild west of John Wayne to Cool Hand Luke and Spiderman. This is a harsh and unreal standard to measure ourselves against and in this environment, anxiety about being unable to achieve such independence is unsurprising.

However, no-one achieves even a modest level of emotional independence without experiencing emotional dependence on the way. Furthermore, if you want to create real problems for a child in achieving independence, trying to prevent them being dependent on you is a very effective strategy.

As with all complex problems, I think it is important to establish a few clear fixed points:

  • It is clearly not healthy for a service user to become emotionally dependent on their worker as if this were a long term personal relationship
  • In so far as the maturational model of change is accepted, some degree of emotional dependence on the worker can be a necessary and healthy part of the change process
  • This dependence can be healthily managed if it is framed by clear and consistent boundaries – such as set appointments for contact, and the maintenance of a clear boundary by the worker between the personal and the professional.

So if the worker is not frightened of the service user’s dependence, and consistently maintains a professional structure to the contact, the user will be able to develop. They may and often do, test out whether the professional boundaries will hold. This could involve persistent demands for attention, intrusive aggression, or even seductive behaviour – all the techniques that can be observed in children or adolescents in normal development.

Fears about dependency

There is a considerable level of anxiety in helping professions about the dangers of ‘creating dependency’, even in probation where you would have thought that failure to engage with and turn up to appointments at all would be a more pressing anxiety. There seems to be wish that change can be something that goes on in the client, prompted only by a piece of advice here or a cognitive behaviour programme there, with no real emotional engagement between client and worker. Faced with a real emotional person, anxiety immediately comes to the fore.

As with all anxieties, there is some real basis for it, but I always felt that dependence was not something to be avoided so much as part of the process of change that has to be grown through. This first articulation of change as maturation takes us back to how people develop through infancy. We do not in these circumstances describe dependency as a problem to be avoided – we see it as a natural and necessary part of childhood and only start to see it as a problem if the dependency remains after adolescence should the individual fail to achieve a functioning independence.

Actually, although dependency in childhood we would not describe as a problem in itself, we do recognise it as problematic and it is source of anxiety as is obvious if you watch a clinging child and the frustrated worried response of the parent to that clinging behaviour.

The Cost of Listening

Listening is such an underrated skill and there are so many ways in which the helper can go wrong. You have to immerse yourself in the world of the person with whom you are working, not just the words and content of what is said, but the tone, the physical characteristics and movements, the relationship between these aspects of communication etc. Just as for the growing child, the transitional object creates an imaginative space for development between the child’s emotion and the external world , so the good listener has to try and create a similar thinking space in which the client can discover new ways of being. In doing this, the helper tries to put their needs to one side – we are only able to do this because we are protected by the professional role and the time boundaries to the contact with the client. Some clients can get angry about this and suggest that there is some kind of inherent hypocrisy to the helper’s role. With adolescent purity, they can imply either you are committed to their needs wholly and without these boundaries, or your help is worthless and dishonest. Workers can sometimes be drawn into this and find the work impossible or become personally embroiled with the client.

The most talented listeners in my experience can put themselves to one side almost to the point of losing themselves altogether. One of my first team when I started out as a manager described this feeling of ‘not being there’ and the anxiety this caused her – she was of course one of the team members most able to create the sense of secure and concentrated attention for those with whom she worked.

Those who have concentrated on describing listening skills use the term ‘active listening’. This refers to the fact that it is not much use listening intently if the client has no idea that you have ‘heard’. Active listening also refers to the need for listening to be more than factual and accurate – it needs to be an engagement with the imagination and emotions. A client who is telling you something whilst also showing some strong emotion, is not going to feel heard if you simply demonstrate that you have heard the words they have spoken. In intense interviews, in responding to the whole of a person’s communication, you can sometimes find that you can respond to something about the client that they have not yet found words for, and may find you are regarded as having remarkable powers of insight. This takes us to another set of anxieties that merit some discussion.

Active Listening

Active listening is perhaps the idea that I have discussed the least. It is one of a number of features of effective work that can easily be taken for granted. Certainly, when I trained, relatively little attention was paid to active listening unless one happened to benefit from a good practice supervisor. It was conventional to take an interest in what you heard as a worker – process recording was commonly used to try and evidence that, and theoretically could be used to look at the worker’s responses to what they heard. In practice, these records were hardly reviewed and gave little insight into what I provided as an active listener. They were not irrelevant – the truth is that good listening does produce richer material from the client. Good listening provides the facilitative environment that gives clients the confidence to think and explore their experience.

One of the strange features of much social work and probation practice then, and I suspect now, was that much of it took place in private, that is in a confidential space where only client and worker were present. As a result, managers seeking to help staff develop their skills relied on elaborate and relatively ineffective mechanisms such as process recording. Process records that attempted to record all the details of an interview could reveal how much the client was able to share, but they were a very elaborate way of evading the obvious – if you want to know how good a listener a worker is, it is best to watch them at work. It seems to me that of all that might be done to improve social work practice, the most likely to be effective would be to establish a culture in which the norm was for interviews to be observed or conducted in pairs. I had one experience of this in Family Court work and it seemed to me to lead to much better work and with much less wasted time.