The volunteers also experienced this tension in relation to their work as counsellors. For example, in preparation for starting work, the volunteers had talked together about the crucial importance of listening in caring for the bereaved. The bereaved can often be surrounded by people who would gladly do things for them rather than listen to the pain. Even so, when starting to visit the bereaved, the first meeting was often felt to be overwhelming, and the volunteers found themselves feeling and saying ‘there was nothing I could do’, wondering whether there was any purpose in further visits. Finding something to do came as a relief. For the bereaved themselves, it was hard to ask for help without setting some apparently unachievable aim for the helper. A couple of times, this took the form of asking if we knew of anyone who could become a lodger with the bereaved person, to remove the fear of being left alone with the feelings of loss.
This dynamic was familiar to me as a social worker. The swinging from feelings of achievement to hopelessness and despair could be compressed into two hours on reporting night as a probation officer. In the voluntary agency, there was the anxiety to achieve something positive in the first interview with a new client so that the client would feel it was worth returning for more help. In the bereavement group, the anxiety about achievement was focussed into the effort to create a successful project. I found the role of chairman of the project left me with a sense of responsibility for its survival as though it were my survival. The sense was that the project would only survive if I were good enough, and the need for other agencies in the community to take responsibility for the work of caring for the bereaved, and to share that responsibility with each other and with the project, was almost overlooked in my drive for achievement. In fact, only when I could no longer cope with sole responsibility, did it appear that other agencies could begin to reconsider their contribution to the project. After the committee meeting that faced this problem for the first time, one member commented ‘this project is dying’, making an apt connection with the reality of death faced continually by the clients of the project.
There was a frightening quality to this experience that derived I think, from the black and white nature of the apparent choice – achievement and success or despair and failure. The mountain to be climbed in setting up the project involved not merely steep slopes, but also rock climbing – up cliffs of fall. The higher the mountain, the wider yawned the depths beneath.