In January 2019, Catherine joined our Palliative Care team to coordinate our innovative volunteer befriender service. Her new team of volunteers will support St Mungo’s residents to cope with loss or dying. This is her story.
When you know you’re reaching the end of your life or when you’ve just lost someone – they’re probably two of the hardest things that anyone will ever experience. I want to help people feel supported.
I was always that irritating kid at school trying to get people to buy fair trade or something similar. I went on the ‘Make Poverty History’ march and I was always joining different campaigns. This led me to volunteer at a safe house for trafficked women in India. The reality of their experiences was very humbling and from then onwards I have always wanted to work with vulnerable people.
I am a trained counsellor, which I think helps me to deal with the discomfort, hopelessness or anger that someone might feel in when they suffer a bereavement or have to think about their own death.
During my counselling training I saw several clients who were bereaved and naturally began to consider their own mortality. Thinking about death and dying can be a painful, scary and isolating prospect. With no known cure for death, it is something that we will all experience one day. These clients inspired me to get involved in palliative care.
Palliative care is really great because it doesn’t just think about someone’s medical needs and pain management. It also recognises their emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. Unfortunately, you’re not always going to get the outcome that someone wants, but I feel strongly about trying to do the best we can to support people within their circumstances.
I was very excited about this role when I first saw it advertised because I feel passionately about having difficult conversations with people and having them done well. The befriending service I am setting up will really focus on these things.
Recruiting our volunteers has been amazing. We have had some incredible people put themselves forward: barristers, a funeral director and a palliative care doctor, and even those with their own lived experience – all people doing amazing stuff. They are so passionate about this project, and it’s really exciting to see people raring to go to meet with clients and help.
We have nine volunteers so far and I think the service is going to make a huge difference to people’s lives. I feel that my counselling training will help with supervising and training the volunteers so they have good support in place and don’t become emotionally overwhelmed.
With our clients, we try to see them not as people who have been homeless but more as people who have probably had really difficult lives, people who may have experienced quite a lot of trauma and whose lives have not been straightforward. For me, they are people I want to learn from and better understand so that I can work with them in the best way possible.
We’re meeting people at their most vulnerable but also probably at their most hurt. They may not want to have those tough conversations immediately, so it’s really important for us to remain consistent; our door is always open and we are available to people whenever we are needed.
We listen to what people have gone through and work collaboratively with them towards their goals. It might be something small like watching a certain programme on TV or visiting a certain place, or it could be reconnecting with a family member.
It’s amazing seeing how week by week things can change for people. Recently one of my clients needed bereavement support. At the beginning, they were in disbelief about what had happened. But over time you could see how things became clearer for them – life became less foggy. Being able to have that dedicated time, as well as some emotional and practical support, meant that things really did change for them, which was amazing to see. Their anxiety went down because they were able to talk about their loss and what that person meant to them. It impacted lots of other aspects of their life too. They were able to start focussing on their housing situation, which they couldn’t do before.
When people are coming to the end of their life or experience bereavement, they often naturally review and reflect on their relationships with friends and family. Although they’re not always positive – I think we can’t underestimate the importance of being able to have that space to reflect on these things. You never know where it can take you, even if it initially feels quite full of despair.
There’s hope from the ashes if you like – our volunteer befrienders are able to help give people who have experienced homelessness this space. It’s important everyone has the chance to have a good death.
Learn more about our Palliative Care service.
Our 50 year history is filled with some extraordinary people. To mark our anniversary, we will be profiling 50 Lives throughout 2019 – a snapshot of those who have played their part in our story. You can read the stories on our website at www.mungos.org/50-lives.