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Liz’s story – Why I became a bereavement volunteer

Liz Philpott began volunteering for Hospiscare as a complementary therapist before deciding to train to become a bereavement volunteer.


Hospiscare bereavement volunteer Liz in the garden

“If there is one guarantee in life that’s absolute, it’s death. We are all going to die.  However, many never give this a second thought until it happens to someone we are close to.  When it does, it can shatter lives. That’s why it’s so important that we talk about death and drop the old stiff upper lip attitude.”

Liz Philpott, 69, from Exeter has been a volunteer for local charity Hospiscare for over 14 years. Having worked previously as a nurse and midwife, Liz began volunteering at Hospiscare as a complementary therapist and reflexologist. Giving treatments to patients and relatives, Liz found that people would often unfold and talk about their feelings of grief. It was hearing these stories that moved Liz to take the four day training course at Searle House to become a bereavement volunteer.

“I had my own mega experience with grief when my daughter Rachael died,” explains Liz.  “She was only three years, nine months and eleven days old.  This was back in the 1970s when there was no support or help available for dealing with bereavement.  It was a weighty time in my life, I had a son who was two and a half and another son two years after Rachael was born.  So I was a busy young mum and it was a case of just get on with it.

“Keeping busy is a distraction technique that a lot of us do when grieving.  You don’t want to think about what’s happened, you don’t want to face it.

“But there will come a point when your feelings come out in some form or another.  There is no question about that.  If you don’t address the situation it can come back to bite you.  So fully coming to terms with death is a huge element to address.

“I have learnt so much over the years, from my own life and from volunteering with the fantastic and dedicated bereavement team at Hospiscare. People can be so closed about expressing things, it’s often easier to talk about the death of a loved one with someone who can be objective and not related to the deceased or you.

“So when I visit or call a bereaved person it often helps that we don’t know each other, there is no fear of being judged, no subconscious worry on their part about what can be discussed.  The revelations that come out in our conversations are often extraordinary.  As soon as I mention I’m a member of the bereavement team from Hospiscare there is an instant element of trust.  People will often comment, ‘I have never said this to anyone in my life before!’

“Being able to facilitate that expression of feeling is a real privilege and very humbling. It’s not just about listening, it’s about really hearing what someone is saying.

“I don’t give advice; it’s more about just being there and making that person feel acknowledged and heard.  Society is so busy these days, it’s massively important to take the time to really hear what someone is saying.

“When someone dies, nobody can tell you how to do things.  We are all individuals and move along our own path, at our own pace and grieving is a very personal experience.   Some people move on very quickly, others never get over the death of someone significant in their lives.  But in time they learn to adjust to the fact that person has gone forever, and slowly begin to find a new way to live their lives, accepting finally that it has to be different from any previous expectations.

“Why would you ever forget?  Embrace the person who lived and has now died.  Talk about them, it’s healthy.  Use appropriate language.  I often feel, when someone refers to losing someone or says I have lost my friend, children especially are confused. We need to get comfortable with the right language and not skirt round words like ‘died’ and ‘dead’.

“I often say it is natural to feel sad, it’s really ok to cry, but you don’t need to be sad all the time.

“You’ll go through a range of emotions and there is no set pattern.  If you learn to express yourself, it’s almost like giving others permission to do the same, like a licence to share and remember.  So don’t feel like you have to pull yourself together, allow yourself time to grieve.

“Of course there is also the loneliness.  At Hospiscare, the bereavement team offer a drop-in tea at Searle House.  Every third Wednesday in the month between 4:00pm and 5:30pm we get together with people who are going through a bereavement.  Everyone knows that the people in the room are grieving.  You can listen to someone and it helps normalise your own feelings and heartache for a while, realising that you are not the only one in this situation.

“Anniversaries, birthdays and Christmas are times when people often need extra support.  It can be really difficult for people to keep going.  I remember being in Exeter Cathedral around the festive season.  Hospiscare have Light Up A Life services in November and December, which are a time for people to stop and remember.  The Cathedral was jammed packed and a lady I knew approached me and said, ‘I had no idea all these people were feeling like me.  I felt so alone, but now I don’t.’

“It can reassure a person to carry the image that there are other people out there dealing with a bereavement.

“People leave personal messages to their loved ones, who have died, in books of remembrance at the Light Up A Life services.  You’ll see people stroke the pages of the book where their words are.  It reaffirms death, even if it happened many months or years before.  Making a dedication in the book of remembrance makes it real and those can be really powerful and profound moments for a person.

“It’s really rewarding for me to volunteer in this way.  The excellent training I had enables me to cope.  The stories I listen to are really sad. I fully hear what is said and I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t empathise, but I also wouldn’t be doing my job if I let myself get caught up emotionally.  So, I put on my professional cap and act as facilitator in the background.  I try to offer some kind of intervention, which leads a person to a better state and outcome from where they are.  It’s about supporting and empowering, helping someone find their own path.

“I love volunteering for Hospiscare.  It’s a really kind, caring and compassionate organisation.  Dignity at end of life is so important, and what most people don’t realise is that our Hospiscare here in Devon is not a national organisation.  It’s a local charity for Exeter, Mid and East Devon only.  So, if you have time why wouldn’t you volunteer?  It is the most extraordinary experience.  You get the joy of connecting with individuals and being valued and appreciated as part of a team.  You also make a big difference to people when they need your help the most.  None of us can tell if we too may need that help ourselves one day.

“It’s fantastic when you hear from one of the people you’ve supported that they have dared to go out alone for the first time.

“Or they may have booked a holiday.  When you hear that you know they are getting there, they are learning to live again.

“Being a Bereavement Volunteer for Hospiscare for me, feels like a legacy to my daughter Rachael.   I want to carry on for as long as possible, and I simply want to help and to make things better.”

If you’re interested in finding out more about volunteer opportunities at Hospiscare, please call the volunteering team on 01392 688005 or email volunteering@hospiscare.co.uk.