Liz Ibberson, 69, has been a volunteer at Compton Hospice for over 10 years. Liz is a bereavement visitor and helps the relatives and family members of those who have died as a result of an incurable illness to come to terms with their loss. Here Liz tells us about her experience as a bereavement visitor:
My name is Liz Ibberson and I am a bereavement visitor at Compton Hospice. I am originally from Yorkshire and Derbyshire but have been living in Pattingham for the past 18 years, prior to that in Cheshire and the Lake District.
I followed a career in music and taught the piano for many years before retiring a few years ago. I also used to work for Age Concern and was a Samaritan for many years.
I first became aware of Compton Hospice after one of my piano students mentioned the opportunity to become a volunteer. I initially volunteered on the Inpatient Unit where I served drinks and generally chatted to patients and relatives and tried to give support where needed. I then joined the chaplaincy team seeking to offer emotional and spiritual support to patients and their relatives.
Whilst volunteering on the Inpatient Unit I met Dodie Graves, Compton’s Bereavement Service Coordinator. I asked if I could be considered for an interview, and the rest is history. That was 10 years ago and I was one of Dodie’s first bereavement visitor volunteers to follow her training course.
As a bereavement visitor, we are there to support relatives who have lost loved ones, whether it be a parent, grandparent or spouse, child or close relative, as a result of an incurable illness.
Bereavement visitors are not counsellors; we are trained listeners, and all of the support we offer is strictly confidential. We explain that we can’t take the pain way, but that we are there to listen. Usually the first time you see someone it is an opportunity for them to tell you their story. They tell you about their loved one, their illness and their death. You let them talk, and express how they are feeling. They may tell you about certain problems they feel they cannot come to terms with, issues they may be having with other family members, or how they are struggling to cope. We are there to listen rather than give advice. Then, gradually over time, people realise that they have an opportunity to open up and talk freely about things that sometimes they feel they can’t talk to anyone else about. They can talk without being interrupted and without others offering their opinion and being judgemental.
We can see clients for varying amounts of time. Some people may only wish to see you two or three times, others may need more long term support. Initially I will usually see a client once a week or fortnight. Then gradually this may reduce to once a month, or once every other month, and then eventually they will no longer need our support. How often we visit depends entirely on the client and their needs.
As you spend time with these clients, and they invite you into their home, you get to know about them and their lives, and I always think that is such a great privilege.
I am also a bereavement group leader, which I love doing. It is a wonderful opportunity for people who are bereaved to come together and meet with each other. It is particularly rewarding to see the groups gel and help each other. The comments we get back from the group sessions are very encouraging and many say how comforting it is to know that they are not alone and how valuable it is to have been introduced to others who ‘are in the same boat’.
There have been quite a few stand-out moments from my time as a bereavement volunteer. Whilst clearly I cannot mention specific clients, it has been wonderful to help people re-connect with other family members and help people come to terms with, and interpret, their feelings towards losing their loved one.
You are often unaware of the impact you have on your clients’ lives. It is very humbling sometimes to receive letters from clients saying how much they have appreciated our visits and how helpful they have been.
Naturally enough, there have been some difficult, challenging and testing times. However, all of us undergo intensive training to become a bereavement visitor, and I still remember how tough the initial training was. At the time I remember wondering if I could I really do this, but then I realised who I was doing it for. It was hard, but ultimately I was doing this to help other people. So I stuck it out, and I am so glad I did.
There have also been times when I have left a client’s home wondering ‘did I do that right’ or ‘I should have done this / I should have done that.’ But we have incredible support from Dodie, the Bereavement Service Coordinator, who unstintingly offers her professional advice. She runs monthly supervision sessions when, with other bereavement visitors, we have an opportunity to talk in confidence about the different situations and scenarios that may be worrying us.
It can sometimes be hard to see someone upset and struggling to cope, but you have to learn not to take that home with you, but the supervision sessions and support from Dodie always makes me feel better. As volunteers working in such an intensive environment ,and because we share something very unique and special, close friendships have been made. Being a bereavement visitor has also allowed me to learn a lot about myself. Before, I wasn’t aware of how much I felt the need or want to fix things. I had to learn that I couldn’t fix people’s problems or take away their pain, I just had to help them through it. The experience allows you to become more aware of who you are through other people.
One of the things I have found over the years, is that I have never come across a client who has had a bad word to say about Compton Hospice and the care it offers to patients and their families. I think that the bereavement service perfectly demonstrates the circle of caring. If someone’s loved one has been cared for by Compton nurses in their home, or if they have come into the inpatient unit, it is wonderful to be able to keep that continuity and contact with a relative after their loved one has died. It’s so very special.
What would I say to anyone considering becoming a volunteer bereavement visitor? You have to learn to put your own thoughts and feelings aside. You have to learn to listen, be empathetic and most of all, be a warm and caring person. Being a bereavement visitor isn’t easy by any means, but the rewards far outweigh the challenges. As volunteers, we want to give something back, and we try to make a difference.
I do enjoy being a bereavement visitor – not just seeing the clients, but also making firm and lasting friendships and being part of a team.
National Volunteers week runs from 1st to 7th June every year and aims to recognise the contribution of the 20 million across the UK who volunteer every year, donating more than 100 million hours to their community every week. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of National Volunteers Week. For more information visit www.volunteersweek.org