Working with grief and loss in our role as chaplains

As chaplains we meet people at challenging times in their lives, facing the illness or death of someone they are close to or indeed facing their own mortality. We meet people who through a variety of circumstances have lost home or job or relationships. The foundations of their lives have shifted, and they have yet to find secure ground on which to move forward.

My work as a chaplain has much in common with my work as a volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Support. Those who refer to Cruse will have had a significant bereavement either quite recently or often many years previously.  They are preoccupied with feelings of loss and in turning to Cruse for support they are looking for a way to manage the pain of loss and to move forward.

Grief is not straight forward. Our coping mechanisms are determined by many factors including the support we have in our lives, our personalities, our experience of previous losses and what happens on our journey forward. Each of us has an individual response to grief and loss and there is no single map to guide us. The journey from loss to recovery is not linear. There are many obstacles on the way and most of us need a helping hand at some stage.

As chaplains we are accustomed to working with loss, yet it is good to be reminded of the skills which will help us in our work, and which are most effective in helping others. Dr Catherine Grimley of the University of Warwick has recently launched a report that gives new insight into how age, gender, ethnicity and sexuality can all affect people’s choices of formal and informal support as well as how they find it. There are differences in responses between the under 50’s and the over 50’s.

Over 50’s often saw seeking help as a weakness and don’t like causing a fuss. They are also more reluctant to use technology or digital support which is on offer. The under 50’s report lack of time and a perception that support is not available. Participants from ethnic minority groups found the value of support was compromised where there were language barriers and a lack of cultural and religious understanding. LBGTQ+ respondents valued non-judgemental understanding and a feeling of belonging which may be lacking in wider society. Men preferred more informal and practical support and many people asked for practical coping strategies.    

In this comprehensive report certain universal requirements for bereavement support, informed by participants in the study, stood out: The importance of attentive and caring listening.  People need to feel understood. They need to be able to talk openly without fear of judgement. They need a safe and supportive space in which to explore their feelings. The chaplain or counsellor also needs to give dedicated and unhurried time to the bereaved.

Let us be mindful too that those of us providing support to the bereaved in our chaplaincy roles have invariably suffered our own losses and supporting others on their grief journey may also trigger reactions in us. Worden reminds us that counsellors are well known for their inability to negotiate their own help and support systems. Those of us engaged in grief work need to know where we get emotional support, what our limitations, when we have reached saturation point and how to reach out for help when we need it.

Good supervision should be built into the fabric of our roles. If it is not, we may need to reach out to other chaplains for support and to raise our needs with our supporting organisations.

And finally, from The Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy (image credit):
“When have you been at your strongest?” asked the boy.
“When I have dared to show my weakness”.
“Asking for help isn’t giving up”, said the horse.
“Its refusing to give up”.      

The Perceived value of bereavement support and the impact of inequalities on availability and access: Accessing bereavement support. Dr Catherine Grimley and associates. University of Warwick Press. May 2023.
Grief counselling and Grief Therapy. Worden J W.   Routledge. 2003  
The Boy, the  Mole, the Fox and the Horse. Charlie Mackesy. Penguin 2019

Mary Hanna
Trustee, Cambridgeshire Workplace Chaplaincy.

Published by Jane Thompson

Jane Thompson, Freelance Marketing Consultant

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