So I came to understand that loss and change are inextricably linked or rather that real change always involves loss, and losses are the opportunities to change. With this discovery, the bereavement work became a foundation for how I understood all my work with distressed and troubled people, and it became a core idea for making sense of my own life experience. It is of course no accident that this was the point in my career when attachment theory and the work of John Bowlby really made sense to me.
Attachment theory brought together these two ideas or psychological truths – the facilitative environment, and loss as drivers of change. The work with the bereaved was a wonderful opportunity. Where things went well, you would see the best in people. Courage to change, discovery of new experiences and possibilities, deeper sympathies and understanding were all generated through people’s struggles with loss, and all were the more inspiring to see because they co-existed with deep pain and sadness. The volunteers talked about how much they were able to laugh together, knowing that they all understood how this laughter sat alongside their grief, how they all had to contend with guilt about their laughter through intense pangs of sadness when they found themselves back home alone.
The Bereavement group also operated on another key principle – that the volunteers were just that. They were not trained counsellors; they were not offering the clients of the Group some kind of skilled therapy; they were just offering a willingness to accompany the clients on a journey through grief to some sort of changed way of living. The service was based on the principle that the clients were active beings, full of potential to develop, growing and developing organisms. Help for them was not for the volunteer to produce the growth or determine its direction but rather to help the bereaved to find how that growth and development that was within their potential, could find expression, or to help them remove barriers that were getting in the way, be that sorting out the bureaucracy of death or relieving them of the isolation of grief. Bereaved people are not ill and they do not ‘get better’; they are in distress and recovery comes through change.