‘If I can’t get a smile, I’ve not done my job’

Bereavement listener Penny (left) withJan.
Bereavement listener Penny (left) withJan.
Share this article
David Curwen, centre, hugs his mother with whom he wa sreunited. Completing the group is his brother Keith

THIS WEEK IN 1975: Reunited after 30 years – but only thanks to a kind stranger

Have your say

Since 1979 a charity has helped hundreds of people across the Portsmouth area to deal with bereavement. JEFF TRAVIS meets two kind-hearted women who lend a listening ear to help people at a low-point.

YOUR world is thrown upside down and nothing seems the same ever again.

This whirlwind of hurt, shock, denial, anger and depression affects us all at some point in our lives.

Sadly, bereavement is a condition which many of us suffer alone.

Some bottle up all the pain, only for the grief to manifest itself and come back years later.

And when you have that deep, nagging anguish inside, sometimes the last thing anyone wants to do is pour it all out to a friend or relative, who might be hurting just as much.

Thankfully, there is a listening ear at Help in Bereavement, a charity covering Portsmouth, Fareham, Gosport, Havant and Waterlooville.

For the last 33 years, its dedicated team of volunteers have been visiting homes across the area to lend a helping hand to people struggling with the loss of a loved one. Rather than counsel, the principle thing they do is listen.

One of their listeners is Penny, a 62-year-old retired veterinary nurse from Stubbington, who has been working with the charity for almost 20 years.

To all her clients she is only known as Penny – someone they don’t know and know nothing about, but who can be a listening ear for an hour or so every week.

Penny says: ‘There is a cycle we all have to go through with bereavement.

‘We can help people go through that cycle. A lot of things come out that they don’t want to tell their friends and family that they can tell us and won’t cause repercussions of any kind.’

Penny compares her role to that of a village elder.

Over the centuries, most people lived in villages and small towns and could lean on their elders for support in times of need.

She explains: ‘Someone could go to their village elder and talk to them – we have lost that, partly because everyone is moving around so fast.

‘Because of Help in Bereavement, we can go into people’s homes and sit and talk with them and listen to them, knowing that whatever they say to us stays with us and is in confidence.’

Every conversation with a client is different, says Penny, with some starting out on completely unrelated topics, whether it be the weather or your favourite film.

The aim is to gain someone’s trust, so they can open up about their feelings.

She says: ‘It’s not up to us to give advice. Even a counsellor does not give advice.

‘We listen. We can talk, but very often, if you have a problem you need solving, you find it easier if you can talk to someone about it.

‘The person can’t give you solutions. With your talking, you might find your own answer.

‘That’s basically what we are trying to do. We will chip in a question here and there, but we certainly won’t push the conversation.

‘Nine times out of 10 the person will find their own solutions.’

The charity deals with human loss, but Penny says each of us are dealing with some sort of bereavement since the day we are born.

‘Since the day you are born you are bereaved,’ she says.

‘Before you’re are born, you are in the womb, completely comfortable, warm and protected. It’s a heck of a process, birth. Suddenly you are thrown into the big wide world.

‘Bereavement is a loss – it can be a loss of anything, it does not have to be a person.

‘It could be a pet, it could even be losing a pen you like using all the time.

‘It can be anything at all.’

For 64-year-old Jan, a retired executive secretary from Stamshaw, the loss of four loved ones in the space of a few years sent her emotions into a downward spiral.

‘I lost my husband, then I lost my mum, then my brother-in-law and then I lost my dad,’ she says.

‘Then I had an accident and fell over and broke my wrist. I went into a depression.’

In 2008, her GP put Jan in touch with the charity, but she admits to having initial doubts about if it would work.

‘I can’t explain how it helped, but it’s just sitting and talking to someone who is not involved with you,’ says Jan.

‘You can cry, you can laugh, and you are not made to feel guilty. We sat and talked for hours. As the time went on I began to think “I’m feeling better”.’

Jan, who remarried this year, decided to use her experience to become a listener for the charity.

‘I can relate to people and they can relate to me,’ she says.

‘I think some people never get over it. But you only have one life – you have got to get on with it, especially if you have a family. It sounds hard, but you are wasting a life.

‘All those people I have lost would not want me to sit round moping. But it is very difficult.’

Though they perhaps don’t know it, picking up the phone and calling Help in Bereavement is a milestone for a bereaved person.

‘Dialling the Help in Bereavement number – to do that, it’s a big, big hurdle they have crossed,’ says Penny. ‘And how brave to do it. To a certain extent, there’s almost a relief in taking the plunge and asking for help.’

It may be hard to see amid the darkness, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel in the grieving process, which hopefully ends with acceptance of a loss.

Penny adds: ‘If I can’t get a person smiling, I have not done my job properly,’


HELP in Bereavement helps people of all ages from Petersfield in the north, to Emsworth and Locks Heath in the east and west.

Initial contact is by telephone and the request is passed to a team leader for the area a client lives in.

A visitor is chosen and they will then contact the client to arrange to meet at a mutually agreed time and place.

Visits normally last between 30 minutes and an hour and can continue for weeks or months if necessary.

The charity also helps children who are grieving a loss.

The Doves section has six specially-trained visitors who will encourage children to work through any worries through arts and crafts, photographs, games and memory books.

All the visitors at the charity are checked by the Criminal Records Bureau and undergo training from The Rowans Hospice and Primary Care Trust.

The charity costs around £4,000-a-year to run – all of which is met by donations.

Anyone who is need of help because of a bereavement can call 07432 602613.

The Doves section of the charity can be contacted by calling (023) 9261 8166.

People can also write to the charity at Help in Bereavement, 15 Binness Way, Farlington, Portsmouth, PO6 1LD.

The charity can be emailed at coordinator@help-in-bereavement.co.uk.

Volunteers endeavour to respond to a request for help within seven days of the initial contact.

If anyone wants to join the team of volunteers and would like to find out about the next training sessions, they can e-mail training@help-in-bereavement.co.uk.

For more information visit help-in-bereavement.co.uk.