The dichotomy between the grandiose and the insignificant, and the associated anxieties, also got into the relationship between the various agencies involved in the Bereavement Project, and was reflected in the management committee of the project. The project was initiated in 1979 by a social worker from the local authority and myself, a social worker with the FWA. Our agency was new in the area and there was already some concern about rivalry with the local authority. We were not receiving referrals from them despite the apparent workload pressure on the local authority. They felt that the cases that were appropriate to refer were the rewarding ones which they would want to keep to themselves. Shortly after the initiating of the project, the local authority colleague left the area and for a number of reasons it was not possible to replace him for a few months. The project came increasingly to be seen as an FWA project, and indeed was entered in a local directory of services under the FWA heading. Even though a local authority social worker became closely involved in the training and support of the volunteers, it seemed increasingly difficult for the Social Services Dept to feel responsible for the survival and development of the project through the management committee. Those from other agencies on the management committee had similar difficulty in sharing this management responsibility, adopting a passive role and missing meetings.
This struggle seems to be one that bedevils relationships between professional social workers and volunteers. On the one hand there is the model of the volunteers as handmaidens to the all–seeing professionals. Here the volunteer can experience themselves as powerless and largely peripheral to any work being undertaken. It seems to be easy for professional workers to be frightened off by this fantasy and to take flight into the alternative; this is the model of the volunteers bringing all the desirable qualities of spontaneity, closeness to the client, informality and so on, with a fear that contact with the professionals would somehow deprive them of these qualities. Here the professional experiences him(her)self as having little to offer at best and as destructive at worst.
This issue was reflected in the support group for volunteers, which met with me about once a month. In sharing their experience of their clients, the volunteers were sometimes apologetic about their work. Comments from me would be received with a respect that was I am sure not always appropriate. After several meetings, one volunteer voiced a more general feeling that I was expecting them to be ‘deep therapists’, saying with some sharpness that this was not the job for which they had volunteered. For my part, it had seemed as though I had to choose between making comments about their experience and be heard with inappropriate respect, or holding back thoughts that occurred to me, making only the most bland contributions.
This experience was also part of my work with clients as a social worker. A Spanish woman sought help on three occasions following violent scenes with her husband. She portrayed a picture of an intolerable home life from which she had to escape. She felt she could no longer tolerate her husband’s violence and there was no future to the marriage. However, each time the way out of the marriage seemed equally unacceptable to her. Legal proceedings would only provoke more violence; she could not bear to go to a women’s refuge; she could not return as a separated wife to her family. Every step was impossible and yet it felt I was required to come up with the solution or else be totally useless to her. There seemed no way of helping without being God!
“……..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.
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.
“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.
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.