Joan’s parents died with 10 days of each other. Joan’s father died the day before his 67th birthday in January 1997. Two days after his funeral her mother died. Both deaths were unexpected.
“Organising the funeral was strange. I remember thinking that I needed to wear different clothes, just so that the two events didn’t merge into one”.
Joan received support from Cruse twice following the death of her parents. Her first sessions with Cruse took place a few months after the deaths, but she returned to Cruse a few years later, after realising there were aspects of her grief that she hadn’t yet addressed. Joan later joined Cruse as a Bereavement Volunteer and has been supporting other bereaved people since 2004.
How did you first come across Cruse?
I think that because it was the first time someone had asked me that question, I was forced to ask myself – how was I? Now it was just my sister and me. She had gone back to teaching and I had gone back to working – and back onto autopilot.
It was an external consultant that I was working with at the time that recommended Cruse to me.
What do you remember thinking when Cruse was first recommended to you?
I remember trusting the person who had recommended Cruse, and her professional and personal care for me. I didn’t even know that these sorts of things existed.
So I called, and that’s where I met Heather. Heather came to the house, which I valued. For me it was personal, she stepped into my world. It would have been different if I had had to go into an office.
How did Cruse support you?
Through work I knew a lot about personal development, so I knew a bit about supporting people, about supporting people to say the unsayable. Helping people face into something they might not want to, without making assumptions or making them feel bad, or guilty, so I appreciated this greatly with Heather. For example, I remember she asked me whether I was holding anything back about my sister. I thought that was a great question because it hadn’t crossed my mind. It made me think back to when my Dad used to say when we argued ‘when we are gone, there is only going to be you two'.
I was in a busy job, but that time in my diary was precious, really precious. When it came to my last session, I remember Heather said to me ‘Joan you’ve done some really good work – but you need to continue to give time to thinking about your Mum and Dad, your relationship with them and talking to your children about it’.
After my last session I felt I understood, and that I had normalised my responses and behaviours. I felt I was on a journey, a long journey, but that this is normal. I felt resourced to face whatever came to me during the journey.
What led you to come to Cruse a second time?
Three years later, my workplace was going through a redundancy process, and several people talked to me about how they were feeling. People felt “bereaved” and “orphaned”. I decided to talk to my boss about how we might support these people better as they left the business and how we could also support their managers in their process. Whilst in conversation with my boss, I burst out crying with tears jumping out of my eyes like never before. I realised that my colleagues’ feelings of loss and bereavement connected with my unfinished personal bereavement. Heather was with me, on my shoulder, in that moment. That is what we do – we carry these really amazing people, and they become that voice in our ear saying, ‘it’s okay for you to sit and cry’.
I went back to Cruse and was assigned Phoebe. I was back to travelling a lot with work at this point, with 75% of my time away from home – I wasn’t spending time thinking about Mum and Dad. What Phoebe did so well was separate my Mum and Dad’s death. She got me to spend time on each of them. That was powerful. One of the things she picked up was that I spoke more about my Dad than my Mum. She suggested that I wrote a letter to Mum. I realised that at the time, I did not appreciate her for the reliable, steady, loving person she was. I felt I was seeing her for the first time as a Mum, a woman, a daughter… It was almost like I got to know her better through writing this letter.
I was therefore open to trying what Phoebe was suggesting. There was that bond of trust – she wasn’t telling me; she was suggesting that I give it a go. The act of reading it out to her, which I volunteered to do, was tearful, powerful – very emotional.
After that I made sure to mark the significant dates, birthdays, anniversaries etc. I started sending flowers to my sister. That only started after having my sessions with Phoebe.
How did you become a Cruse Bereavement Volunteer, and what do you like about volunteering for Cruse?
I was brought up around volunteering; it’s always been part of my life, and when I left full time corporate life I wrote to Cruse about becoming a bereavement volunteer.
I was impressed with the training – there were various speakers including from other charities, as well as professors and doctors. I was then put forward for the interview for my local branch. I remember Pat, who founded the local branch, saying to me ‘we are a volunteer organisation, but that does not mean unprofessional’. That resonated with me.
For me it’s the person-centred approach. Putting the client first is a powerful way of supporting people.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about volunteering for Cruse?
I would say go back to the moment when you first thought about doing this work and spend a little bit of time there. Loss is all around us. In everything we do in life there are things dying; things we need to let go of. You’re probably already competent at supporting yourself and others in many ways so, follow your instinct and bring yourself to Cruse. Cruse will support you in becoming more of who you are already.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about coming to Cruse for support?
I would say if you’ve got as far as considering it, just make the call. Also, trust who has suggested it to you, whether that is a friend or a doctor, or whoever.
Bereavement is a personal journey and our natural human response to the loss of anything; no two bereavements are the same. Some people do not need support to go through it, and some people do. What Cruse volunteers can do is listen to your unique journey, and walk with you, until such time as you can walk alone. It is a privilege to work alongside you in your darkest, most painful moments and a joy to be alongside you as you start to find joy in your life again.