Grandiose v Insignificant

“……..moments in the being of the eternal silence”

This dynamic is a close relation to the last – a different dimension of the same. It reminds me of a personal experience, when a friend committed suicide whilst we were at college. Amidst the somewhat chaotic feelings of shock and grief, I remember the guilty awareness of some pride. The act of suicide itself seemed a mixture of the grand gesture of the tragic hero, and the miserable self absorbed expression of pathetic need. The twin poles of the memorial service for me were the performance of Schubert’s Frauenliebe und Leben – timeless music about the tragic beauty of love and death, and the shocking lack of substance of the physical human remains, the ashes, when they were scattered.

The encounter with death brings these contrasts and tensions into sharper focus. The volunteers have had to contend with this conflict. Death for example brings out aggressive fantasies that can be taken nowhere, are often hard to express or justify to the bereaved person themselves – such violent feelings can be paralysing. The first meeting with the bereaved client, as I have said, involved facing feelings of loss that are so grand and powerful that no response seems at all relevant. However, as the volunteers began to demonstrate a capacity to survive these feelings, they found themselves sometimes endowed with almost super-human powers. One widow, for example, would spend much of her time away from home with her family, but on return to the loneliness of her home, she would immediately phone the volunteer as if the contact would banish the pain. The volunteer became increasingly anxious that she was becoming indispensable to the widow and that her private life would be threatened by the demands of the relationship. She appeared at the same time vitally important, but wholly neglected as a person with needs of her own.

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Achievement v Resignation 2

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.

Achievement v Resignation 1

“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall frightened, sheer, no-man fathomed.” (G.M. Hopkins)

There was a recent (not quite so recent! Recent in 1980…..) headline in the local newspapers about a young girl who had been diagnosed as suffering from a form of cancer. She was not expected to recover. The parents in their anguish were appealing for funds towards a body scanner. Faced with the awful reality of premature death, there was a desperate attempt to mitigate that reality – to achieve some positive benefit from the loss of the child. It is a story that could be repeated a hundred times.

This human struggle between achievement – some sort of measurable positive contributions – and despair in the face of the finality and destructive force of death, has been an important theme in the development of the bereavement project. Two of our first volunteers expressed this struggle for me. One was a young woman, highly active, socially and politically committed, and working in one of the poorer areas of the city. She seemed to represent the sense of success, the confident expectation of a future in which she would play an active part, and the fight necessary for achievement. Her own bereavement seemed almost a springboard for more energetic creative action. Another volunteer was the widow of a man who had recently retired. The bereavement had been a cruel blow, snatching away a hope for shared leisure time. The volunteer often felt there was nothing left in life for her, and that she would merely await her own end in grief and loneliness. Her children had their own life and seemed to have left her behind, unable to listen to her despair and desolation. The volunteers themselves felt each other to be opposites, in tension with each other, impatient and awed.

“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.

Reflecting the client groups

The dominant emotional cultures of organisations then seemed to reflect the anxieties of the customer group with whom they were working. Probation struggled with authority and father figures, young people services tried to distance themselves from the adult world, hospitals struggled with the fear of death, physiotherapy and addiction services in different ways worried about over dependant clients and so on. Reduced to these few lines, the point is too banal and prescriptive – these thoughts led me not so much to label each service with a preconceived idea about their organisational life, but rather to try and understand the extent to which such unconscious or semi conscious anxieties were impacting on the groups with whom I worked.

I will return to Partnership working later on. For now, the great opportunity provided by my time in the FWA was the space to listen to the experience and issues of people working in a range of voluntary sector organisations. In particular, the approach of FWA led me to see how to apply what I had learned as a practitioner to working with organisations and later to management.

I have already spoken about working to set up a Bereavement Support agency. When I left the FWA, I was asked to write up an account of my experience. What follows in the next few posts is taken from that account.

Fantasy of managerial power

I recall a particularly vivid example of this belief about power and authority being made overt. When I was a senior probation officer, our Service had monthly management meetings at a conference centre. They inevitably adopted a characteristic agenda and patterns of behaviour in all concerned.

On one occasion, we were discussing our conduct of these meetings, and in the course of this one of my senior probation colleagues began to speak. This colleague was normally very quiet indeed – his few comments in meetings I remember as largely task oriented rather than reflective, but on this occasion, to all our surprise, he spoke for 10 minutes or so about how he saw the management group operating.

He used the image of a swimming pool and said he saw us all as having set roles in this pool. I don’t recall all the details except most remarkably, he saw the chief officer as a sort of Colossus figure, standing in the deep end of the pool with the water only coming up to his waist. This was astonishing to some of us, since we saw the chief officer as a kind man coming to the end of his career, from a school of probation management that then seemed well past its sell by date. Many of us would have seen him as benevolent and broadly supportive but relatively insignificant in driving the Service forward or in requiring things of staff. By and large, I got on with my work without any direction from senior management at that time. Yet my colleague seemed to have this sense of him as an all powerful figure.

Of course there were chief officers who were less benevolent and I have seen bullying behaviour in some. The anxiety driven choice about authority figures seemed to be between potent hostile figures and impotent benevolence – in this culture there was rarely a middle way. In this respect, as in many others, the probation service seemed to reflect the emotional world of its clientele, many of whose experience of fathering involved exactly this apparent dichotomy.

Power and control

This belief about power and control was not just an ideology that informed policy and management, but it was bought into by staff at all levels. Probation officers themselves started to believe that they were simply functionaries administering centrally determined processes. Even though the evidence was that the Service found it almost impossible to dismiss even the most obviously incompetent or inadequate staff, it was generally believed that to assert professional judgement was impossible and would render your career at risk. Thus the probation officers’ anxiety became a self fulfilling prophecy. On the introduction of national standards, I tried to encourage staff to approach them not so much as inflexible rules that replaced judgement, but as a framework within which professional judgement could be effectively exercised. This turned out to be a largely unsuccessful exhortation.

Many staff therefore ‘bought in’ to the controlling nature of national standards. It should not have surprised me and was the other side of the same coin that had led officers to be bewildered when trying to implement supervision orders with juveniles without the support of rules that could be enforced.