“On the shore of the wide world”

It is said that social workers enter the profession to heal some inner conflict. I am going to write about my experience of conflicts arising from the work of establishing a Bereavement Counselling and training project. I was involved in this as a social worker with the Family Welfare Association, a new arrival as an agency in the new city of Milton Keynes. My aim is not to suggest how such a project should be formed, but rather to reflect more personally on my experience in the role of social worker.

I’ve identified four areas of personal struggle which have helped me to grasp and make sense of the work of the last two or three years. The first I have called ‘achievement v resignation’; the need to achieve and yet also to accept limitations. This seems to be at the heart of our encounter with death and has been of particular relevance to my work with the project. The tension has had its significance for the bereaved and the counsellors as it has for me. The second dimension I have entitled ‘the grandiose v the insignificant’. Working with the bereaved has involved the counsellors and myself in momentous experiences in people’s lives, and sometimes brought us to a special place in their hearts. The work has also required us to face the indifference and inevitability of death, and the powerful rage of impotent mortals. This conflict has made itself felt as I have tried to write this paper, seeking a language that will communicate my feeling about the work, without descending to grandiose banality or dull commonplace. Writing prompted a fear of exposure that seems not unconnected to the anxiety that often locks the pain of loss away inside many grief stricken people. This tension has had its significance for the inter-agency nature of the project, and for the efforts to forge a working partnership of professionals and volunteers.

I shall then discuss the tension between external activity and internal development. All of us attempt to cope with and develop through the personal experiences aroused within us, whilst at the same time acting in the world. The attempt to hold both aspects of experience within a professional focus is perhaps a distinctive feature of social work. Lastly I come to the tension between belonging and detachment. Like many social workers, I come from a middle class home to work with a predominantly working class clientele. This is one aspect of this conflict that seems to preoccupy social workers. We fear being out of touch with the feelings and needs of our clients, and yet fear ‘over-involvement’ with the inadequate, greedy, aggressive and empty parts of the people we serve. This tension can be paralysing.

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