“We must give people permission to grieve in their own way”

Categories: Care, Featured, and People & Places.

What are the challenges to delivering bereavement support that is truly beneficial? ehospice finds out from Liz Hancock, chief executive, and Gill Hancock, former chaplain and director of family services at Mary Ann Evans Hospice in Nuneaton.

Gill Hancock joined Mary Ann Evans Hospice seven years ago with two roles in her job description – as chaplain and to expand their bereavement service. “When I first started we had five volunteers, we’ve now got nearly 80” she explains. Part of my job is encouraging, enabling and supervising quite a considerable number of volunteers, and when people come to us for assessment one of the most important roles for me is matching that person with the right volunteer, who has the right expertise and personality. That relationship has to work.”

To date they have worked with around thousand adults and nearly 200 children. A number of people who have used their bereavement support later come on board as volunteers.

In 2013 the hospice was awarded a government grant which made a bespoke building possible that is predominately used for bereavement services.

“One of our strands of work is called Sanctuary” Gill explains. “When grief hits, for a certain percentage of people it can provoke a deeper crisis. What’s life about, is there meaning to life now my loved one has died, and the deeper questions of where is God in my grief. We’re not too good at giving people space to work through some of those more difficult concerns. We set Sanctuary up five years ago, it’s a quiet reflective space, and the room leads onto the hospice gardens, so it’s a very gentle and calm environment, which adds an extra element, as people are working through some of these more difficult things.

“It’s been amazing to see how people have used it, people who have normally never stepped foot inside a church, may not even profess to have a “faith” but are searching for something deeper within themselves. Sanctuary, I think, honours that process, without any of us throwing God at them because that’s not what it’s about at all.”

The biggest challenge to delivering bereavement support, Gill explains, is giving people permission to grieve in their own way. “There’s not one model which fits everybody, so it’s about looking at people individually, letting them aim their grief in the way they want to without us trying to find solutions or answers for them. For quite a lot of people it’s about us keeping our mouths shut. We don’t have the answers, we shouldn’t tell people how to do this stuff.”

“What we enable through the building we have and the team we have is the space and the permission for people to grieve as they need to without feeling they’ve got to protect anybody, and then knowing we’re not being impatient with them. This country is not great with grief, it gives people about three months and then says, haven’t you got over it yet? Haven’t you moved on? Those are awful clichés and it doesn’t work like that. We don’t talk about how much love costs, and when love is taken away through the death of a relationship with somebody over 30, 40 or 50 years, are we really saying three months equates to that length of love? People are impatient with grief.”

Liz Hancock, chief executive of Mary Ann Evans, says that while bereavement support is part of the provision of palliative care it is often ignored and subsequently underfunded. “A major challenge is getting commissioners to recognise the positive impact good quality bereavement support can have on an individual” she says. “It is important to also recognise the differences between bereavement support and counselling, and therefore another challenge is the over complication of bereavement support.”

“The NHS and the government don’t see bereavement as a medical concern, therefore they don’t give enough financial resources for there to be adequate bereavement support” Gil says. “The medical solution to grief is antidepressants and sleeping tablets, but all that happens is that emotions get masked.”

“There are not enough resources out there. We would not have a bereavement service without our volunteers, and when you think 80 people are coming together to form an amazing team at the hospice, and what they give out to all those people who come for support, that’s phenomenal.”

The hospice accepts referrals from anyone, regardless of whether or not their loved one received care from them, but Liz explains often there are restrictions on who can access bereavement services. “It is important that people understand the type of support bereavement services offer – many may be wary about asking for help. The location of may also be adding to people’s concerns – either the geographical location or where it is housed. Providers need to be more creative about where they hold their services – go to the community rather than inviting the community to come to you.”

Gill would like to see organisations take more note of people’s specific needs. “What works here won’t necessarily work in London, or Edinburgh, because everybody’s different. It’s having that ability and freedom to think, right, let’s listen to what the people who are grieving say, and how we can best equip organisations to meet that need in an adequate and safe way. For us, we don’t have counselling but we offer people one-to-one sessions and we also have a social model we call jigsaw tea parties, because you give somebody a piece of cake and a cup of tea and they relax.”

While it has become easier to talk about death and bereavement over the last decade, Liz says there is still a long way to go. “Dying Matters, Death Cafes, etc, have started the conversation but many are still not listening” she says. “Gill transformed Mary Ann’s Bereavement services by keeping it simple – people talking to other people and seeking a listening ear!”

Having retired at the end of last year, what does Gill see as the most rewarding part of her work? “When I see people coming in to our building with grief on their faces, and I watch over the months as they begin to heal, as they begin to recognise they can live again. That’s a phenomenal gift to be a part of, and a privilege that they have let us into that depth of pain and vulnerability.”

For more information visit Mary Ann Evans