‘There is no better feeling than when you see a patient get to a point of acceptance’
Adam Graham, 41, hospice nurse, Newcastle upon Tyne
People say: your job must be so depressing. It’s actually not. Of course there are sad moments, but they are few and far between. A hospice is not somewhere you go to die; many people return home. We specialise in palliative care, which means making the best of your life. Obviously death is a part of that. But death is a part of regular life, too.
A lot of people who come here have lost hope; maybe their symptoms are overwhelming, or they are psychologically distressed. Our job is to show them things can, and will, improve. I ask about their symptoms, their fears, what they need. Maybe they’re worried about getting their affairs in order, or being in pain, or want to contact someone they haven’t spoken to for a long time. Helping with that is the hopeful part of my job. Obviously we can’t work miracles, but there is so much we can do to give people the best possible quality of life.
There is no better feeling than when you see a patient get to a point of acceptance, of calm. When they realise that it is possible to have a good death, and they lose their fear, and the stigma they may have carried with them about going into a hospice. That makes my job worthwhile. I do have to decompress outside of work, though. Exercise is my thing: basketball and swimming.
I’ve seen people in real dire straits, physically and clinically. They come to me and I think: how am I going to sort them out? Sometimes you think it’s impossible. But we almost always can. I see that every day.
‘Grief is a beautiful thing because it shows how deeply humans connect’
Marlene Jenas, 64, bereavement counsellor, London
Bereaved clients often tell me they’ve lost hope; my job is to get them to a place of acceptance. Some get there in six or 12 weeks; others take longer. I can tell when our sessions are about to end: they walk into the room differently – they’ve arrived at a point where they can move on; the pain doesn’t interfere with their everyday life any more.
The process of getting a person to acceptance is different for every client, of course. The main thing is to let them know they’re in a space where they are heard and accepted. I will listen to whatever they have to say, and there’s no sense of rush or obligation: it’s not like talking with friends. Once they feel comfortable, we move through the stages of grief: denial, anger, guilt, acceptance. This is seldom a linear journey: people can circle through different emotions for months, or even years.
People think being a bereavement counsellor is depressing, but that’s not true. People are grieving, but that is a beautiful thing, because it shows they connected with someone deeply enough to mourn their death. Human connection is ultimately what we’re about; we are inherently caring creatures.
I try to hold it together when I’m counselling my clients. But I’m human, I feel their pain. Sometimes I’m holding back tears, and I have to take a break in between clients, to compose myself. All of them stay with me. I feel their sadness, but try to find a way to let it go.
I practise mindfulness, meditation and sound therapy. I’ll have a little jamming session with my Tibetan singing bowls, which are awesome – they totally zone you out. Or I like to go walking, in the woods or the park.
The first client I cried with was a mother who had lost her child. He was only one. I sat and wept with her. But even then, she had hope. When her other children embraced her, she’d look at them and think she would be OK, because she had to be, for them.
I see humans’ resilience every single day. Clients come in the depths of grief, unable to see a way out of the darkness. I help them find this pinprick of light; it expands into a glowing expanse of warmth, and they feel that life can go on again.
‘Pulling someone out of a fire is the best feeling in the world’
Caz Whiteman, 34, firefighter, Sheffield
As a firefighter, you’re always preparing for the worst, from a major fire to a motorway pile-up. We spend most of our time training; it’s taught me that you can’t be in control of everything that happens in your life, but you can do your best to prepare and trust in the people around you.
I stay hopeful by focusing on what I can do to help others, not what may happen to me. When I’m running into a burning building, I’m not afraid. My training kicks in, and there’s so much adrenaline. The only thing going through your mind is: we need to get this person out. That’s why people do the job. I remember the first time I pulled someone out of a fire, I looked at my colleague afterwards and we both had the biggest smiles on our faces. It’s genuinely the best feeling in the world.
As a firefighter, you see the worst things life can throw at people. Over the past few years, we’ve been called to more and more suicides. Or I may attend a house fire and see someone has lost all their belongings. But then you revisit them, further down the line, and already that awful period in their life has passed. They’ve come out the other side.
What helps afterwards is talking about it. We always debrief after a major incident with a cup of tea. As long as I’ve done my best for someone, I can’t ask any more of myself.
‘I tell myself humans won’t go extinct’
Dr Jaise Kuriakose, 44, lecturer in climate change, University of Manchester
Hope is a predicament for me. My professional perspective on climate change is that we’re not completely doomed, but it’s certainly not good.
A climate change scientist is by definition an optimist – I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it was possible to stop it – but I waver. I’ll feel hopeful when a government announces a new policy, or there’s a breakthrough in renewable energies. Then I dig into the specifics and it’s not actually that ambitious or groundbreaking. But I tell myself it’s still a step in the right direction.
Lately I have been feeling more hopeful. The Covid lockdown reduced emissions. It’s likely that business air travel will become a thing of the past. China, Japan and South Korea announced they’d be carbon neutral by 2050. Joe Biden will almost certainly rejoin the Paris agreement. Boris Johnson recently announced a climate change action plan.
I’m from India and I’ve seen first-hand the droughts, floods and landslides climate change causes. I can get annoyed with the complacency of people in the west, and I worry about my family because they will be the first ones to be impacted by it. But I believe human beings are incredibly adaptable. Things won’t be the same in future. There will be loss of human life, species loss, mass migration. But we’re not looking at the extinction of humanity. At least, that’s what I tell myself.
When I feel hopeless, I find joy in simple pleasures: going for a walk or meeting friends; savouring a coffee. Often people are fascinated by and thankful for the work I do, which also makes me feel better about my capacity to change the world.
‘Kindness and chocolate go a long way’
Mary Finn, 64, social worker, Morpeth
It’s a privilege to be a social worker. People let me into their lives – not always willingly, but generally they do want to work with us. Most parents genuinely want what is best for their children. Even when you’re dealing with a family in very difficult circumstances, you have to flip that on its head and realise there are so many more families getting by just fine.
Over the past year, with Covid, I’ve seen so much resilience in the families I work with. They’re dealing with financial worries, domestic abuse or mental health issues, and they tell me they weren’t sure how they were going to pull through. Yet they did. Sometimes people are so beaten down by life that they don’t appreciate what skills they have. They need someone like me to point it out.
Humour is very important to doing my job. Also, just being kind to each other. Making cups of tea in the office, that sort of thing. Kindness and chocolate go a long way.
I have to be kind to myself, too, or it can be gruelling. People don’t like social workers; they’re anxious when we’re involved. There were times early in my career when I did take the job home. I was exhausted. I had to learn to accept that you can’t always change things, and that I have to practise self-care. It’s nothing fancy. I go to pilates twice a week. I walk my dog. I read a lot. I speak to my friends.
My community fills me with hope. People are donating to our local food bank; there was an amazing response to a callout for Christmas toys. Covid has made us realise that care for the elderly wasn’t good enough. Marcus Rashford’s campaign was a wake-up call for a lot of people.
I always feel hopeful because the alternative is to feel grim about things, and there’s no use in that. Incorporating hopefulness into your daily life is a bit like climbing a mountain: it looks too big, but if you focus on something small and manageable, it’s much more achievable. I saw a kingfisher the other day. There are otters returning to a river near where I live. Things are getting better.