It is a sad truth that the people we support at Dorset Macmillan Advocacy have been diagnosed with cancer or are caring for their loved one who have cancer. It is not unusual then that we come into contact with people who have experienced a great deal of loss in their lives or may experience loss during the course of the advocacy partnership. We, as advocates, often find that we are supporting people though some of the most difficult times in their lives and so it is not surprising therefore that we find ourselves personally affected by their circumstances. This is particularly true of our Macmillan Advocates as they themselves have had experience of cancer, and so are likely to recognise parallels at times, with those people they support. As well as supporting people who are bereaved we too experience loss in our roles as advocates and can sometimes be so focused on supporting others that we do not recognise the loss that we experience ourselves.
One of the coordinators on our Macmillan advocacy project felt that inviting volunteers at Dorset Advocacy to come together and share their experiences and feelings on the subject of bereavement might help us to recognise these emotionally difficult times and use them to identify ways of protecting and looking after ourselves.
Initially it was thought that this would be specifically for Dorset Macmillan peer advocates, but through the course of discussions about the training we found that the issues raised were likely to affect all of those volunteers who support vulnerable people across the county and that paid advocates too could benefit greatly from this training, so we decided that it should be opened up a wider group at Dorset Advocacy.
Kate Woodhouse (trained bereavement counsellor) facilitated this training on a sweltering hot summer’s day in late July and a dozen or so of us crammed in to the sauna that was Dorset Advocacy’s training room. There was a mixture of advocates from our volunteer base and paid advocates, all of whom work/volunteer for Dorset Advocacy projects. We spent some time chatting over lunch and sharing ideas and experiences before we reorganised ourselves and sat in a circle. This was a no-barriers style training and so we were not behind tables with note pads: we were sitting opposite our colleagues, ready to listen and to share. Kate ensured that we felt safe within this space and asked us to be considerate and respectful to those who spoke as well as those who chose not to.
Despite the heat it felt as though those who attended were comfortable enough to explore the sensitive subject of bereavement/loss and what it meant to them. We took turns to choose and present objects that represented our own experiences of loss. Many individuals in the group used these objects as a means through which to explain a loss they had experienced and reflect upon it.
We were also encouraged to relate personal experiences, worries, anxieties and difficulties to marbles and add them to a jug of water prompting us to consider how we as people can only cope with so much before we run out of capacity. We explored ways that we, as individuals, can look after and protect ourselves alongside offering support to others so as to ensure that we are in a position to give support.
What this training highlighted to me was the importance of having a free and safe space to enable advocates to speak honestly and openly about their experiences. All of the people at the training had different experiences and had been affected differently by them. We must remember this and ensure that those people who are offering support and sharing the weight of worries and emotions with others are, in turn, able to share theirs and are encouraged to take time and recognise when to focus attentions on themselves.
Emily Brown, Volunteer Manager, Dorset Advocacy