Grief, loss and Talking Hope

In this first guest post for the University of Strathclyde based Talking Hope project, Norrie Clark, service manager for Stepdown – a residential care service that helps to manage transitions for young people leaving secure care – discusses his findings and how they can relate to experiences of hope for both practitioners and the young people they support during transitions.

Grief and loss is a really personal subject, but something that we all experience – I’ve experienced it myself and I’ve always thought about the ways that affected me and how it changed me as a person. It came to me that nobody ever speaks about that in care work, we never talk about how we’ve been affected by grief or loss in the job. Then I started to think about when I’d felt grief or loss during my work with young people, and the idea for my MSc dissertation came from there.

The MSc was the first time I’ve studied at that level and going into the class I had imposter syndrome. I never thought I would get through the full course, but I was really passionate about my research at the end. As a service manager for residential and foster care services, and with a background in secure care, I had a great opportunity to take this experience and investigate my research across these three different environments. I discovered that there were various feelings and types of loss that people could experience, such as ambiguous loss, where it may be that you simply never find out what has happened to someone, or disenfranchised grief, where foster families may feel that they cannot fully grieve for a young person they cared for.

As a care practitioner a lot of emphasis is placed on preparing for admissions and young people coming into a care service. You spend a lot of time preparing, reading reports, thinking about where you are going to place them. Everything can seem like it is about the admission, the assessment, and we put so much energy into a young person. But then when the time comes for a young person to leave, all that energy and investment just fades away and it’s never spoken about.

When I started to talk to people working in care, I discovered that so many of us have experienced this, but it is rarely spoken about. You never get the chance to speak about it because everyone is so busy that there’s not the time, or because people don’t feel comfortable discussing it. But as one staff member put it to me:

We aren’t working machines; we don’t just close off. You’re working with people, it’s relationships and whether they’re positive or negative it is still loss in some sense. I think loss comes in all sorts of forms in the job that we do.

Sometimes in Scotland, in the west of Scotland where I’m from, people don’t really talk about their emotions, not at home and especially not in the workplace. You’re left with all that emotion, and as a care practitioner it can sometimes feel like you are expected to bury that emotion. You can be expected to be there on the front line, welcoming people in when you’re exhausted. Sometimes all someone might need is to have you put your arm around their shoulders and ask them if they want to go for a cup of tea and a chat.

I believe that talking about our emotions and discussing how we feel with others is actually a sign a strength; a sign of emotional strength. Similarly, grief is not always a negative, but can be related to positive outcomes. Working in care, you can grow close to the young people that you support, and it can be difficult to see them move on. But at the same time, you can have so much hope for them because you know that they are going to a good place – but it still leaves you with an emptiness. Other times, when you aren’t so confident about a young person moving on, you can be left thinking, have I done enough? Did we do the right thing for this young person? This can make it hard to hear anything at all, not just negative things, and hearing about young people can really affect you, even after they’ve moved on.

Transitions are such an important part of young people’s time in care, and managing these well could be beneficial for the staff that support them as well. This is where I think work on grief and loss can connect to hope, because the best way to avoid feeling grief can be to know that there is a good transition plan in place for a young person, and for workers to feel that they are still involved in a young person’s care as they make that transition. For example, transitions when leaving secure care and moving into residential can be better connected. Care practitioners are so important in talking about hope in these contexts, in encouraging young people to plan for the future and imagine how things might be different. But sometimes a lot of this is lost when a young person moves into a new environment and only parts of their care plan are taken forward, or if staff start talking about hope and goals in a different way, so that the young person has to adjust.

At Stepdown, we try to make this as smooth as possible by getting to know the young person beforehand, meeting and spending time with them at the unit to get to know them. We also find that getting to know the family can be crucial to a good transition, having them involved so that they know where their child is going and what will be involved. We also like to have staff from secure care involved in the transition, so that they can come and see young people they have supported, for example, taking them out for lunch during the day.

We have a big responsibility to listen to young people and their hopes for the future. Young people in care have often experienced a lot of broken trust, so we need to stop the cycle of continually broken relationships that can go with this. Offering gradual transitions helps to build relationships with the carers that young people are going to move forward with, and also maintains relationships with the places and people that they are coming from. There is more hope when these relationships – including with family – are present. It’s so important to make sure that the hope continues from secure to other places, and there is that link that carries through. That there is a safety net from a young person’s old carer to their new carer, that they can always rely on that. That’s always there, and through it they can take the hope with them, the same hope, not something else.

About our blogger

Norrie Clark completed his MSc in Advanced Residential Child Care at the University of Strathclyde in 2021, studying experiences of grief and loss among Child and Youth Care practitioners when young people leave their placements.

Talking Hope considers how thinking and talking about hope promotes better futures for young people who are identified as being at high risk. To do this, it explores the factors identified as important by young people, and the staff who support them, in achieving hope.  The project is led by the University of Strathclyde and was funded in Phase I by the European Social Innovation Fund in partnership with the Scottish Government, in Phase II by the Scottish Government and the Good Shepherd Centre, and in Phase III by Scottish Government and Includem. Find out more.

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