Bereavement Counselling Service members Kathryn Taylor, Julie Griffin and Mary Fensom
Inevitably, everyone will experience the loss of a loved one during their life. For some it’s too much to bear and finding any kind of solace feels impossible.
If the grieving process remains unresolved or a loss is traumatic the Bereavement Counselling Service (BCS) help to manage a mourner’s emotions and provide therapy.
Mary Fensom, the BCS clinical lead and referrals co-ordinator, has been counselling with the Service for 24 years. She explains the difference between the grief people often experience and a more complicated case.
“What we would class as “normal” grief would be intense sadness, crying; a very painful experience. “Normal” feels like the wrong word to use because it never seems appropriate – “understandable” perhaps is better.
“The person left behind usually begins to manage their life and get on without their loved one in a certain time frame whereas complex grief takes a long time to show itself. There could be bouts of intense crying and weeping two years down the line – that would be an indication of complication.
“If someone cannot find a new normality, if they can’t function on a day-to-day basis, that’s when we come in.”
A five year study, funded by Cancer Research UK, in Plymouth and South Devon demonstrated the benefits the BCS could provide and it was established as a registered charity in 1992.
The Service is partially funded by the NHS’ Clinical Commissioning Groups and the 18 counsellors working for the Service do so on a voluntary basis.
“All of us are unpaid,” Mary says.
“We do it for the love of it. Everyone has a paid job outside of this.”
Last year the BCS was able to move from premises on North Hill to a new office in Falcon House at Langage Business Centre.
Julie Griffin, a counsellor and head of the service’s supervision team, has been volunteering for the charity for 20 years.
She says the social attitudes to death have remained much the same since the charity was founded.
“Most people don’t want to work with death – it’s a small sub-group interested in this type of work. In general there’s a lack of awareness about what grief really is, and that was the same 20 years ago.
“It’s still a taboo subject – people would rather cross the road to avoid someone or talk about anything else rather than deal with fact that a person has died.
“People often think grief is done and dusted quite quickly but even “normal” grief can continue for a lifetime – anniversary reactions, for example, are very common.
“Someone is never the same when they lose a person they love but they can find hope for the future.
“Sometimes we can hear intensely tragic details that a person has held for so long. We help some remarkable people.
“As well as complex grief cases we also deal with traumatic loss. We have clients who have lost loved ones as a result of suicide, murder, drowning, in the military, and violent deaths.
“In fact, a lot of the people related to tragic stories which sadly feature on The Herald front pages end up here with us,” she says.
Grief counselling isn’t for everyone but Kathryn Taylor, a BCS counsellor, says the process can be a rewarding one for both sides.
“There’s a sense that people are initially unsure about grief counselling, but for me it’s a much more rewarding and surprisingly uplifting area of counselling.
“Yes we are volunteers, but what you get back is fantastic and it’s a very humbling process to be with a person at their lowest point. It puts my own life in perspective.
“Counselling training is very honest training, if you can’t be honest with your peers how can you be compatible with your clients?”
Mary says that while every counsellor is naturally caring, it’s important not to feel personally involved with a client’s grief.
“Sometimes I’ll do a session and feel like crying by myself, but it’s no good allowing yourself to feel sad. The person you’re talking to is in a deep hole and if you get in there with them you can’t help them out of it.
“I still feel intensely sad for people but I can never let it show in a session.
“We have a supervision and peer support system, so if a counsellor ever finds it difficult to cope they have somewhere to go.”
Kathryn adds: “The difference is that although you can empathise – and sometimes you can really feel that person’s grief and sadness – ultimately you’re detached and you don’t know the person. That’s what allows the counselling to work so well.”
People are referred to the BCS via their GP or a mental health team and an assessment is then carried out by the Service to determine if they can help or if another agency can step in. If the assessment confirms a person is a potential client they’ll go on a waiting list and have a counsellor allocated to them.
“They’re with us for as long as they need,” Mary says.
“I never like to put a number on it, but on average people find 10 sessions help but a lot of the time just six might be enough. Our job is to get people on a “normal” grieving path. They might leave us still intensely sad but as long as they’re moving forward that’s a positive sign.”
Kathryn says the Service becomes a safe space for many to speak out without fear of causing offence.
“When you’re grieving it’s difficult to permit yourself to feel because you’re trying to keep everything going – either in work, for your family, or for your children. Clients are often very angry towards the dead person, but because of that taboo of not speaking ill of the dead they tend to bottle it all up.”
View the story on the Plymouth Herald website here.