Bereavement can be devastating. Your world can be turned upside down and suddenly you are on your own, especially if you don't have many friends or family around you. It may appear that their lives continue as normal, whereas yours seems to have slowed down or even stopped.
Volunteering gives you routine and something to do with your time. It gives you something to look forward to each week, a new interest, or perhaps the chance to rekindle an old one. Over time, volunteering builds your confidence and helps you to feel part of something worthwhile. Featured over the next three pages are stories from 4 different volunteers who gradually felt it was something they really wanted to do and some have used their own experience to help others in similar situations.
Deborah Bennett is a Skilled Listener for SE Region. “I’m not sure that I could tell anybody where my interest in becoming a volunteer listener with CBCS began. It just gradually became something that I really wanted to do. Whatever my motivation, when I turned up at Edinburgh Cruse for an interview I had no idea what an important part of my life this work was to become.
"People have always talked to me; complete strangers in a checkout queue will tell me the most intimate details about their lives. I guess I’m just a good listener (or I have ‘that sort of face’) but training and working with Cruse has taught me how to use this ability to help others through some of the most difficult times of their lives – and I love it.
"Thinking back to my first client, I remember the enormity of being in a room alone with a ‘real’ person and their pain and sadness: could I really do this? Gradually I learned that I could hold their grief and give them a safe place to explore
their feelings. I began to see the difference that having somebody who will listen, impartially but sympathetically, can make on the hard journey through bereavement.
"I never know what a client will bring into the counselling room. Every single one is different and I learn something new from each of them. I love the challenge they bring, and consider it a real privilege to be allowed to share their journey until they feel strong enough to carry on by themselves. It isn’t over when they leave me; I can’t ‘fix it’ but I can help them find the tools and the strengths they need to find a comfortable place in their new lives for the person they have lost. When that happens, that is when I know what we do at CBCS is worthwhile.”
Pat volunteered for CBCS in Fife: "Was it always going to be coffee mornings, ladies luncheons, with not much depth to my life? After the initial turmoil of the move back to Scotland, leaving behind my only surviving daughter and my lovely grandson, life was a bit empty. What could I do? What would I be good at? An advertisement in the local paper caught my eye that Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland had obtained some funding to recruit and train new volunteers for counselling work...... Yes!
"The initial training wasn't easy as it was necessary and important for us to delve into our own background; this was an essential part of the learning process. This gave me the opportunity to look at my own sad loss and confront any issues whilst in a safe environment, rather than have them surface in a counselling situation.
"Five years on, I have seen many clients and I am always aware of the courage it takes for people to ask for help with their bereavement. I feel extremely privileged when they share with me their emotional, sometimes raw and almost always very sad stories. My hope is that they too can find something in their lives to bring back some joy again.
"I wish I had embarked on volunteer work sooner, but it might not have been right then, I believe it was through my own major loss of my daughter Shirley, which brought to my notice the need out there, for bereavement counselling. I feel my life has grown since her sudden death over a decade ago. I always remember what a trainer once told me, by using a tree that has lost a branch as an analogy of how new growth is possible after bereavement (akin to losing a limb). I have had new growth; I feel it has made me a much better person; I wouldn't be who I am, or what I am doing today without my past events having taken place.
"PS. As it is voluntary - I still have time for coffees and lunches with my friends .,. and the many trips down south to see my lovely grandsons (there are 2 of them now)."
A chance encounter on a train led Cruse Scotland volunteer Benji Horwell on a life changing path.
Not only did he end up switching his studies and leave behind his civil engineering degree for one in psychology, his role as a bereavement counsellor has helped turn around the lives of many others. At just 23 years old, he is among Cruse Scotland’s youngest volunteers. “I was doing a civil engineering degree but I wasn’t enjoying it at all,” he recalls.
“I was catching a train home to Cornwall for summer when I started speaking to another passenger. “It was a completely random conversation. She was a personal counsellor, she told me about her work and I found it fascinating. “I spoke to her again later, and she mentioned Cruse and the work they do. “
Sadly, Benji had direct experience of loss. Cruse’s work with the bereaved, was a natural fit. “After my second year at university in Sheffield a couple of my friends were killed in a car accident. It hit me really hard,” he says. “I was 20 at the time. I heard what happened while I was travelling home, I was away from everyone else who knew my friends. In terms of talking about it, there was no one to speak to. “I didn’t have any counselling – I didn’t know about Cruse at that point. Had I known, I would have got some help.”
The experience led Benji to rethink his degree choice and to follow his passion for learning more about mental health and psychology. He is now studying psychology conversion at St Andrews University. It also prompted him to look into volunteering as a bereavement counsellor for Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland’s English sister organisation, Cruse. "I completed a course with Cruse which covered a lot of subjects that you don’t consider before you begin,” adds Benji, “such as how to deal with the death of a child or a suicide and different cultural expectations surrounding death. “I found out a lot – such as how challenging it can be for people of Muslim faith who want to bury their loved one within the first 24 hours of death, but whose relatives are abroad and can’t make the journey to pay their respects in time. “The training opened my eyes to so much.”
When Benji came to Scotland to study in autumn 2015, he quickly contacted Cruse Scotland to find out if he could join their list of around 350 volunteers. Since then Benji has helped many people going through the stress of bereavement. “I love it,” he says. “I actually look forward to seeing clients every week and I get lot of satisfaction from knowing I’m helping them. “it’s about building a rapport with someone and finding out about their lives and being able to help. “Some cases are harrowing, but the work is so rewarding that it’s not as emotionally taxing as it sounds and I can easily fit it in around my studies. “Being younger, I’ve got a good understanding of where other young people are in their lives, how bereavement affects them and why they often turn to social media to express their feelings.
“I’m due to finish my course at St Andrews soon and hope to start work, but I’ll keep volunteering as long as I can.”
The pain and upset of a close bereavement set Helen Holden on a route towards one of the most fulfilling roles of her life.
Today her passion for her work with Cruse Scotland shines through, even though her clients are often people who have suffered the worst kind of loss.
She is one of the charity’s trauma and ‘high end grief’ expert volunteers, often dealing with families struggling to come to terms with a very sudden or violent loss. “Some grief is what you might term ‘normal grief’,” explains Helen, a retired administrator at Dundee University. “Of course no one would be complacent about any loss. But there can be different issues surrounding the loss of, say, a parent in their 80s and the very sudden loss of a child. “As volunteers we have to gradually build up to a stage where we are working with families who, for example, are going through loss as a result of suicide.” It sounds particularly challenging – especially as Helen has direct experience of what she refers to as a ‘life changing loss’.
Yet she insists she finds the work she does with Cruse Scotland incredibly satisfying. “I love seeing people arrive at a stage where they are coming through their grief. They may enter the session sobbing their heart out and afterwards they are arriving with a big bunch of flowers to say ‘thank you’. “We do the journey together and it’s a humbling experience.”
Helen found herself struggling to come to terms with a major loss in her life when she was in her early 40s. With a busy home and work life, it took time for her to recognise that her feelings were linked to bereavement. “It was around six months later and I just felt I wasn’t right. You get caught up in a lot at that age, between home and work and it can hard to see exactly why you feel the way you do,” she says. With the help of her local minister and church friends, Helen worked through her feelings. It prompted her to set up a small church group to help others deal with bereavement which, in turn, led her to join a Cruse Scotland training course. “It was excellent. I really connected with people. At the end of the training, someone suggested I might like to give some time back to Cruse Scotland – and it felt like the natural thing to do.”
That was in March 1996. Since then Helen, one of around 350 Cruse Scotland volunteers, has helped hundreds of people through grief and loss. “Even a ‘normal’ bereavement can be different for different people,” she says. “I have now dealt with every type of bereavement, every single one is different. “It can be hard when the loss involves a young person or the circumstances are particularly tragic, but we have excellent training and support.”
Volunteers have the support of supervisors like Helen to talk through complex and challenging cases in confidence. And they are taught techniques to help them deal with what could be distressing conversations with relatives as they journey through their grief.
“Cruse Scotland is a great charity to work with,” she adds. “As well as regular training, we are supported all the way through in all we do. “