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Coffee Break with Bereavement Support Team Volunteer, Michael

18th November 2021

Take a break and get to know Bereavement Support Team Volunteer, Michael.

Q.1 – What do you do and why do you do it?
As a volunteer on the Belfast Trust Bereavement Support Team, I offer bereavement support to those, whose loved ones have died in any of the Trust’s hospitals.
I do it because I think that it’s just as much of a healing service as all the other medical help that our NHS offers and an acknowledgement of grief as a painful condition in a very natural response to loss. I personally feel that volunteering in the health service is a means of showing my appreciation and complementing the work of all those, who make a lifetime career of being there when my health weakens.

Q.2 – How do families benefit from your role?
The listed next of kin receives an initial phone call with the offer of a further two calls. They are also offered an information pack containing practical guides to procedures to be followed in the event of a death and a personal guide on supporting themselves and others in grief. Other booklets and emblems and referrals to other support services (if considered to be advisable) are offered during the course of the calls.

I believe that in their vulnerable state, they feel valued, because someone, whom they have never met, has contacted them, understands and wants to listen with empathy – verbally walk with them and genuinely respond to their feelings of loss.

They benefit from talking to someone and being able to fully vent their feelings, independently of family and siblings who are, themselves, processing their own grief.

They take comfort in knowing that all the emotions and reactions, which they are experiencing, are perfectly natural and they have the prospect of another chat to help further manage them.

Q.3 – Tell us about a typical day at work?
The day usually starts with a quick cuppa and chat with Heather Russell, our Trust Bereavement Support Coordinator and other professionals and volunteers, who may be on shift. It’s a chance to catch up socially, update on workload and helps me to move into support mode for the tasks ahead.

I then go to my individual room with a number of files, each containing contact information and the relevant details of deceased patients, which I read before commencing the call.
With the current trend of scamming on social media and contact centres, opening the call professionally is essential, particularly when it’s from a total stranger on a withheld number. I would introduce myself on behalf of the team and offer condolences.
Once rapport is established, a very gentle opening question such as “How are things with you – are you coping o.k.?” can set off an outpouring of all manner of emotions in an account of the illness, or events and circumstances leading up to the death and of course, the hurt and pain after.
This is where the vital part of the team’s training comes into play – listening with empathy. To use an old cliché, not only to imagine what walking in their shoes is like, but feeling where they pinch and trying to ease the discomfort and pain.
We’re not counsellors and it may be that referral to a professional counselling team would help, so I would encourage the person to consider it.
After offering an information pack and further follow up calls from the team the call is concluded and I do a brief write-up to enable continuity from the next team member to contact the family.
The team meet again over lunch and there is always an exchange of mutual support as we often share the type of situations that we have met during the morning calls.

Q.4. – If one of your families was sitting with you right now what is the best piece of advice you could give them?
There is no standard advice for anyone, who is grieving. The important thing is to listen and offer totally bespoke support and assurance, depending on the feelings and hurt that they have expressed

Q.5. – Tell us about the satisfaction you get from your job?
As a volunteer, I’m in the role because I want to be, so some of the satisfaction comes from the fact that I have the ability and have been able to enhance and share my skills through the fellowship on our team.
There is no “fix” for the pain of bereavement, but it’s satisfying to know that I’ve helped total strangers on the road to coping with loss just through a phone call.

Q.6. –Tell us a little about your life outside of work?

I’m a volunteer Lay Chaplain assigned to M.I.H., but due to COVID restrictions, I was unable to continue my ward visits, which I enjoyed.

I thoroughly enjoy walking and I’m fortunate to live in the shadow of the Cavehill and near Belfast Castle. I would take frequent walks in and around the Castle grounds and occasionally venture through the woods towards the Cavehill. I find it very relaxing and I would reminisce about my younger years, having been born and raised near to where I live now.
I enjoy footering about on my computer, mostly with photography and movie programmes, restoring old photos and compiling photo books for the family.
As the years fly by, family becomes more precious, more so when I reflect on calls that I have made. The best moments are in the evenings at home with my wife, Mary. We look forward to Facetime calls most evenings, from our son and his family, particularly our two grandsons and hope that our frequent trips to visit them in Scotland will resume soon.
I have volunteered in many roles for most of my working life and kept to my dad’s philosophy:- “Know your place, give everyone theirs and always pay your forfeit”.