Many professionals who deal with bereaved people on a daily basis, have never suffered loss themselves. Sarah Head, who works with a firm of Birmingham solicitors, tells Jo Ind about her pioneering workshops in handling bereavement.


It is perhaps a happy result of advances in medical care that some people get to their 20s and 30s without suffering a major bereavement.

Where once the death of someone close was an ordinary part of life, now it is possible to go for decades without experiencing it.

At Irwin Mitchell solicitors, based in Temple Street, Birmingham, there are many young professionals who deal with the bereaved in the course of their daily work.

The firm specialises in personal injury, which means its clients have either suffered the death of a loved one or a devastating loss, like paralysis following a road accident.

It also has many clients who have suffered from asbestosis, people who are going to die prematurely, some imminently, as a result of their condition.

"Many of our lawyers are young and have not experienced death as people of a previous generation would have done," says Sarah.

"Death isn't experienced as normal. It's like in our culture we think it's terrible when babies and children die - and it is. But babies and children have always died and they always will."

Challenges the solicitors face include ringing up a client suffering from asbestosis with a cheery "Hello. How are you?" only to be told that, actually, Albert died last week.

Or they might find themselves having to handle a client's anger which at first seems quite irrational.

Before Sarah devised her course, they had no training in dealing with these things.

"Sometimes clients are liable to erupt," says Sarah. "There you are, doing everything that you should be doing and then suddenly the client rings up and has a rant at you.

"You think, 'I was talking to this person only yesterday and everything was OK. What's going on?'

"If you look at the paperwork, you might see that this is the first anniversary of the death."

It was in order to help staff in this kind of situation that Sarah was asked by her boss, David Body, who specialises in medical law and patients' rights, to devise a course on coping with bereavement for lawyers.

Sarah, who is aged 52, is not a solicitor herself. Her background is in working for what was then the East Birmingham Community Health Council, helping people to make complaints.

In 60 per cent of cases of complaint to the National Health Service, the people will have suffered a bereavement. In the other 40 per cent of cases they will be going through some other traumatic loss, so Sarah, who did that work for 18 years, built up a body of experience in handling the grief-stricken.

For the past 18 months, she has been employed by Irwin Mitchell as the public and voluntary sector liaison manager.

Her role is to help the firm's clients in getting information, support them through the complaints process, produce information sheets and devise training programmes.

It is in this capacity that she has devised her pioneering workshops which are now being offered to people outside the firm as well as within.

People who have taken part in her workshops include social workers, Macmillan nurses, those working for Age Concern and staff from patient advice liaison services in hospitals.

In the nine months that she has been running the course she has worked with 85 different voluntary organisations.

They are all people who regularly come into contact with the bereaved in a professional capacity but who can use training to learn how to do it better.

One element of the training is to understand the process of grief and not to be afraid of it.

"People grieve differently," says Sarah. "How you respond to it really does depend on what your life experience has been.

"If you have worked through things in the past, you will have the hope that you will have a way of coping with it.

"For some people the first anniversary can be something to celebrate, a way of seeing how far they have come. For others it can be traumatic.

"People who have lived through the rail disasters, for example, or losing a child through a hit and run accident can find themselves reliving the horror.

"It's important for some people know that you you don't have to get over a bereavement.

It's something you learn to live with. For some the pain never goes away."

As well as understanding the general processes of grief, Sarah looks at the reasons why it affects people in different ways.

"Children grieve differently from adults," says Sarah. "They tend to be either very good or very naughty.

"When children are very good it is often because they think the death is their fault or that they don't matter.

"When they are naughty it is because they feel that they don't matter and are trying to get themselves noticed.

"If you tell a child that somebody's gone to sleep, it can make them frightened to go to sleep in case they don't wake up. They can get very possessive towards the adult that's left."

Sarah works on helping professionals not to be tempted to veer into areas that are not their expertise - solicitors trying to be counsellors, for example.

Being professional means recognising the distress a client is in, being clear about what you can and cannot do to help, and pointing the client towards the organisations that can offer other kinds of support.

An area in which her course differs from that of others is in the emphasis she places on professionals learning to take care of themselves in the work they do.

A first step in that is acknowledging that being around bereaved people has an emotional cost.

"It can be very difficult for solicitors who account for every six minutes they spend, to take time out to deal with their feelings," says Sarah.

She encourages them to think about what replenishes them and to give themselves permission to do it.

"I didn't realise that other people felt like this," is a common response from many of the professionals she has worked with.

"They think they are doing a really bad job because they are finding it hard to cope with. Now they know everybody goes through those feelings."

Some of Sarah's tips for dealing with the bereaved professionally.

* When people tell you their story, they may describe in graphic detail what happened when someone died. This will always cause deep emotion, especially when they approach the moment of death itself. Have a box of tissues within easy reach.

* You may find it difficult to distance yourself from such raw emotion. Sometimes you may feel like crying as your clients cry. Try to keep calm at all times and don't be afraid of supportive silence. It may be helpful to acknowledge the distress being exhibited with phrases like: "I can see how upset you are," "I realise how difficult this must be for you."

* There are also different attitudes in different cultures towards bereavement. For example Moslem families, especially men, may feel that once the funeral is over, there is no need to grieve for the individual any more. They may find it very hard to accept they might continue to suffer from the pain of bereavement and to access any form of bereavement counselling.

* There are particular dates you should be aware of in the bereavement process. You may find families become particularly distressed, angry or agitated for no apparent reason. It may well be there is a significant anniversary on the horizon. Dates to think about are birthdays, Christmas, anniversary of the death, wedding anniversary or any other day the deceased "always did something." Try to avoid such dates when planning a meeting.

* Check out with the bereaved person beforehand how they wish their emotion to be handled. They may wish to be ignored whilst they cry, or welcome a break when extra refreshments could be offered, or the opportunity for a walk in the fresh air.

* Anger should always be acknowledged, never ignored. "I can see you are feeling very angry. Can you tell me exactly what is making you feel this way so that you can explore ways of making you feel less angry if this would be helpful?"

* If a meeting is especially stressful and someone is becoming increasingly angry, rather than ignore them, make you have a spare "minder" in the meeting who can take them out for a short walk, if only up and down a corridor.

* If they are choosing to remain angry and this is making you feel uncomfortable, tell them how you feel in a calm and nonthreatening way. Do not be tempted to become angry yourself, it will not help the situation. If the situation becomes untenable or you feel their anger might escalate into an unsafe situation, terminate the interview or meeting.

* Always keep yourself safe by sitting near the door and know how you will remove yourself from the room. Find out if the room you meet in has a panic button and who will respond if you press it.

* If you know you will be accompanying a client to a meeting which may well prove to be emotionally difficult, warn the other side in advance. This will hopefully ensure other people at the meeting do not become defensive and prevent the situation from deteriorating into total confrontation.

* If you have a traumatic interview in the course of your professional work - either face to face or on the telephone - do not try to go straight on to some other work. Allow yourself space and time to let the emotion dissipate.

* When you work closely with people who are dying or who have been bereaved, it can make you very conscious of your own mortality or fearful for the safety and wellbeing of your own loved ones. Take time to think how best you would like to deal with this situation. The following ancient adages may be helpful. "Never let the sun go down on a quarrel," "Never part in anger," "Make sure your loved ones know they are loved."