It was a fairly standard visit as they go. I knew the block of flats. It was one of those seemingly ubiquitous 1950s high rise blocks that had been built in the shadow of the wartime bombings.
I knew that particular block though. You get this, when you’ve been working in an area for a fair amount of times – particular estates or blocks that will bring back a range of memories about the people you know who live behind the doors.
There had been a family there, in this block, with whom I’d worked for a couple of years until I was moved to a different patch and handed over with a fair bit of reluctance on both parts, to a colleague.
Now, the boundaries have been redrawn again and I found myself in exactly the same building – in the flat directly underneath the one in which I had spent so much time.
On my way in, I tried for the life of me to recall the name of the family that I’d been working with previously. It worried me that I had spent so long in the life of a family and I couldn’t remember their surnames (I remembered the first names fine, of course). I pondered about the nature of my job, flitting in and out of lives but the lives continue and have to deal with such anguish of illness and tragedy. I can walk away from it.
As I went towards the lift on my way out of the flat I had been visiting (I was on the 11th floor at this point, and while not adverse to staircases, I sometimes have limits), I saw the woman who I had visited so many times a few years previously, coming down the stairs.
I immediately remembered her surname. Thankfully. Maybe I just needed to connect the face with the name.
She did an almost double-take when she saw me and she greeted me warmly. She told me the rest of the story that I knew, partially, from my colleagues’ visits of her husband’s death.
She told me and I listened. We had, by this point, moved downstairs into a more sheltered area. She interspersed the story with tears. I listened more. We walked a little way together.
‘People tell me’ , she said ‘that I should be glad to have got my life back’.
She had been a devoted carer for her husband who had needed an incredible amount of care at home.
‘And that’s not how I feel’.
I nodded, and listened some more.
I gently reminded her how much she had done but mostly, I listened.
Throughout the conversation, there were tears running down her face. I offered her a tissue but she did not wipe away the tears. She just continued to talk.
As I was heading into a different direction, she touched my arm lightly and thanked me.
‘I can’t talk to anyone really about his death’, she said. I nodded. ‘I mean about the details – about what happened’.
‘I don’t want to upset my children, you see’, she said.
I nodded and explained that I felt glad that she had been able to share this with me.
As I headed up to the bus stop back to the office, I pondered the nature of random encounters and the importance of knowing and being attached to a particular community.
I was also pondering the way that we think and discuss death. I have worked for almost 10 years in older adults services. Death happens. It happens in many ways but it never stops being something of a shock. It never stops being the crucial key in the life of the family around that person.
When my student was on placement, two of the people who were allocated to her died. We reflected a lot about the nature of the job we have and what we do when that work comes to an end through a death. Sometimes it is difficult to have a discussion with family members after a death has taken place. It might feel awkward or intrusive. It depends a lot on the length of time you have known a family and the nature of the involvement – whether it has been welcomed or not.
Generally, I think back to my own experiences of my parents’ and grandparents’ deaths and try and pick up on the need to connect and acknowledge the life of someone rather than trying to brush what may be difficult conversations under the carpet.
Death is still a taboo. Especially to those who do not have personal experience of it. For me, I count my childhood and adulthood through the deaths of those whom I have been close to. That sounds dramatic but it builds a unique perspective. I spent much of my adolescence trying to think through issues surrounding death. Through the anger, the blame, the fear of ‘being left’, the confusion – what do you do WITHOUT that person who was the rock, however unwell, however much disease ravaged the body, the unresolved pieces that need to be fit together.
One thing that I have learnt, through personal experience and through professional experience is that it’s good to talk and conversely, it’s good to listen quietly and let the stories be told.
Sometimes when you face a bereavement some people, friends, family, for their own reasons (often fear), don’t want to listen – they express sympathy but they display discomfort. Sometimes people don’t want to hear about death.
Listening without comment, to the commentary about a person’s last moments isn’t always easy but it is undoubtedly important.
Yesterday Community Care had an article on their website talking about the need for social workers to have training around talking about death.
It struck me as a coincidence. As I talked about death. In a corner of a lobby of a high rise block of flats in central London. And I think it helped. I hope it did.