The first week in June each year is Volunteer's Week, when we celebrate the difference our 4.5 thousand volunteers make to Cruse Bereavement Care. In this blog we feature the story of our volunteer Jo, who shares how her own experiences brought her to Cruse and what it's like to support others struggling with grief. A big thank you to Jo and every one of our amazing volunteers!
What led you to become a volunteer for Cruse?
I call it my pre mid-life crisis. I worked in law and then moved into accounting. And then 11 years ago my mother-in-law died by suicide. She had bi-polar and was severely unwell. My partner and I then went through the hardest period of our lives. And it just made me realise that life has to have more meaning.
It was the first significant bereavement that I had had. My grandfather had passed away a few years before that, but it felt natural because he was elderly and unwell for a while. So there was a jarring juxtaposition between a “good” death and a “bad” death. It makes you re-evaluate a lot of assumptions about life. And what things you’ll look back on when you are at the end of your life. So I gave up working in the corporate world and qualified as a counsellor.
I came across Cruse by accident on the internet and just thought that this was exactly what we had needed at the time. We’d gone through years of working through this bereavement and all the stuff that comes out of that, and the trauma. The more I read on the website the more I was convinced it was what I needed. And that the bottom of the page there was a link to volunteer!
What was the reaction from friends and family?
It was split; a lot of friends were not surprised at all and thought it was a really good fit for me. My parents strangely enough do not believe in counselling as a thing. I think it’s a generational thing. So they were confused but they were happy for me!
Did your counselling background prepare you to be a bereavement volunteer?
I think it is daunting, even coming from a therapy background. People’s grief feels unfixable. Counsellors often come with a bit of superman syndrome where you want to help and make change, but none of that is possible in grief. In that sense my counselling skills didn’t bring anything to the table. It’s your humanity that’s important.
Grief is not a mental illness. It’s not a problem. With Cruse we learn to just let this person experience what they are experiencing. Modern life is so opposite to death, we are so removed from it and scared of it. So people who are grieving have to shut it away. There’s a sense of having a small window of “we are sad for you now but don’t mention it again”.
The question I probably get asked the most by clients is “should I be over it by now? Have I had too much time?” They are insecure about their entitlement to feel bad.
It’s so valuable having the space to wallow in it. Because we should, that’s the natural order of things. That’s all people need – the space to wail. You leave counselling at the door, so you never fail, because all you are doing is offering a space for someone to say what they want to say, or cry, or feel what they want to feel.
What did you think of the training?
It was excellent, such good training. There was grief theory, and thinking involved, but there was a lot of just how to be an empathetic human. Which you would think would come naturally but often it doesn’t. You need to get out of your own head and sit in someone else’s. You learn that death is a universal experience but not a universal emotional experience.
What do you like about volunteering for Cruse?
Being a part of Cruse has cemented me in my community. I’m South African, so there have been a lot of cultural things that are missing for me, and I often felt like I was coming in from the outside. But within something like Cruse, they welcome you into the local community. They become friends.
Volunteering is also doing something that is valuable and meaningful. It’s getting but also giving. Our branch has started doing online groups, normally we would do groups in a local community centre. I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by how people can accommodate and adjust, and how the need for connection always triumphs. People have been really brave, often they haven’t used online platforms like Zoom before, but they’ve been so proactive it’s been great.
I’ve done a few now and often what comes up is people sharing photos of a loved one, and now because they are at home they’ll also show other items or favourite ornaments of loved ones. It’s such an intimate moment between these group members because they are inviting each other into their spaces. I didn’t think online groups would work, but every one we have done has been such a success.
What have you learned from being a Cruse volunteer?
The thing I’ve learned the most is just how indomitable the human spirit is. You work with people who have gone through multiple losses. The fact that people keep on keeping on. And every client you meet is always worrying about someone else. They can still care for others despite what they are going through.
There is something so unbreakable about the human spirit. It gives me faith that if you ever go through a really hard time that you’ll get through it. Cruse makes the space for this completely unknown, crazy, jumble of feelings to exist.
What would you say to someone who is thinking about becoming a volunteer?
The only skills you need are being a human being. Everything else Cruse will give you. Cruse is incredibly supportive in terms of supervision and training opportunities. You don’t need any specialised knowledge or skills.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about getting support from Cruse?
It is intimidating, and one of the bravest things someone will ever do. But I’ve never had a client say that they wish they hadn’t done it. It’s such a big ask to expose yourself and your most vulnerable feelings. But when you trust yourself enough to do that, it pays off.