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In 2017 the University of Suffolk hosted the “Can you hear me”? Conference.  It was an event sharing information; research, with great keynote speakers and Service Users’ stories.

One of the Keynotes, the Right Honourable Lord Laming talked about the importance of the ‘user of service’ as the Critical Interface for the services provided. He highlighted the challenges professionals face when assessing and analysing a situation, and proposed the application of intelligence (hopefully, a given). What he emphasised though was the importance of using “all the senses”:  to know when to exercise tenderness or authority,  or when for instance to be humble. The challenge often arises when an organisation’s bureaucratic processes are at odds with the individual exercising of ‘the senses’.  This application of the senses can not be measured by KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators), or necessarily accounted for on a quantitative scale, unlike other measurable variables like service user numbers, locations, ages etc.  How can we apply this intelligence to service users experiencing bereavement and loss?

The relevance in therapy?

A regular client had moved to a different part of the country.  Before then, Jane and I (not her real name) we were meeting regularly to help manage her life after the death of her daughter.  A child dying before a parent defies the expected progression of life (Wheeler, 2001), regardless of the child’s age.  Wheeler (2001) calls it a ‘crisis of meaning’.  The Why? How? Why not me instead? questions arise. Darkness seems to be a preferred default position, because light can be a reminder that life is going on regardless of loss and pain experienced. The sun rises and sets every day; our lungs are configured to breathe for us:  in and out.  We don’t have to think about it.  It’s all part of the Autonomic Nervous System – and, aided by the Diaphragm, they work together as part of the body’s ‘involuntary’ system (not under conscious control) to keep us alive .  If we try to hold our breath, the body takes over and we’re forced to breathe.  The levels of grief  and sense of loss are difficult to quantify.

Applying this to the loss of a loved one

Managing the loss of someone we’re close to can be a deeply personal and private process.  In as much as one’s relationship with any ‘God’  is sacrosanct, so is the journey of loss and bereavement.  Many theoretical models and guides to grieving exist, but it is the application of those theories that makes the difference in whether a person can benefit or not.  As Laming alluded to in his speech – it’s the How that matters.

Jane (in this case – the service user) is her living her life as best she can sixteen months after her daughter’s death.  When she is in England we meet in person, and in between we have Skype meetings and telephone calls.  To bridge any gap, she decided to try some Bereavement Counselling locally.

The Counsellor proceeded to tell Jane where she was on a ‘Stage of Grief’ scale, and that she could expect to be further along that scale in a few months with regular sessions.  Whilst the Counsellor might have felt this to be an appropriate step in assessing and analysing the situation; it may not have been the best way to engage Jane on that essential, sensory level. As Layman proposed in his speech, it is essential to know when to exercise tenderness or authority. In this case the Counsellor appeared to overlook the personal nature of Jane’s grief.  The ‘Can You Hear Me’? was lost in the deterministic approach of a theoretical model.

This is not a judgement of the Counsellor.  Perhaps in another case similar behaviour may have been appropriate, but this illustrates the disadvantages of using a specific model, presumed to gauge accurate levels of a person’s grief.  Whilst there is a way, there is no specific, one-size-fits all model to manage the death of a loved one.

Tenderness or Authority?

Sometimes one can use both, but use your intelligence and your senses to decide.  Do not presume to know what is going on.  Check it with the person; be curious, ask questions; be interested and really listen to the responses.  The focus must be on the ‘user of the service’.  Each situation, each person, each meeting is different.  Pay attention to the person in front of you at that moment: notice their breathing, any changes in skin tone, any perspiration, any involuntary movements?  Remember to use your senses.  Like a radio that has many frequencies, tune in.  It’s not about you and your frequency, it’s about finding the sense (both intellectually and sensory) to be in tune with the user of your service.

For information

The next ‘Can You Hear Me”? Conference at the University of Suffolk is taking place on Wednesday 21st of March 2018.  All the details are here for ease of access.




Wheeler, I. (2001). parental bereavement: The crisis of meaning. Death Studies, 25(1), 51-66. 10.1080/07481180126147