Sue Daykin, 67, retired seven years ago from her job as a specialist nurse working with first time teenage parents in Medway. She lives in Rochester and is one of our longest-serving volunteers, having first encountered HOLG when one of our staff gave a talk at Soroptimist International, an organisation Sue belongs to that advocates for human rights and gender equality.
Here’s Sue’s story:
1.When did you start volunteering with HOLG and why?
It was around 16 years ago that I first heard about HOLG and decided to volunteer for them. I was involved with Soroptimist International – and still am today – which is aimed at improving the lives of girls and women. HOLG was the organisation president’s charity of the year at the time and they came in to give a talk. Working with children is really my thing as I’d been a children’s nurse and I thought the work that they did sounded really important, so I wanted to get involved.
I’ve seen HOLG change dramatically in that time. The core of the charity has stayed the same but back then there were only around four or five bereavement weekends a year; now there are 12. They also now offer parent/carer groups alongside the bereavement weekends for the children which is great, because it enables adults to experience the same activities the children get involved in, and helps them to open and continue the dialogue from the weekend at home.
2.What does your role involve?
As I had experience of working with children, I wanted to be in the thick of it, supporting them directly at the weekends. I had to wait for my training first though, so to start with, I helped out in the kitchen.
Over my years with HOLG, I’ve done various things. I’ve supported children at schools on a one-to-one basis over a six week period, and I’ve also helped out at the neonatal death groups, with families who’ve experienced the death of a baby before birth or shortly after. I’ve worked at various locations including at Demelza Hospice, Broadstairs, Wrotham, and one day sessions at the Isle of Sheppey. I’ve also helped at the parent-carer groups too, supporting the lead member of staff.
I currently mostly work with the younger age group, the primary school children, at the support weekends. Sometimes I run the group; this involves ensuring we have all the right resources prior to the weekend starting, such as for the salt jars, collages and other crafts, and dividing up tasks among the team on the first day.
There are a variety of things I do over the weekend; it could be reading a story to the younger children, or getting involved in the crafts. One task which involves a bit more skill and thought is the question time where the children put their anonymous questions in a box, and we read them out to the group and answer them. Questions could be anything from ‘Do dead people go to heaven?’ to ‘What is cancer?’ You have to be really careful to make the answers appropriate to the age range in the group and only go as far with the detail as you need to. You also need to be aware that there will be different beliefs within the group, and that children will have been given differing information at home; some will know more than others.
3.How did HOLG prepare you for the role?
I was given an induction before I started which included doing some of the craft activities, like making a salt jar. I was quite surprised when I did mine; I made it for my father who had died four years previously and I discovered there was a lot more pain still inside me than I thought. It was really useful in helping me understand what the children get out of it.
The training has evolved so much and is amazing. We get lots of regular training, such as the essentials, like safeguarding and there are specialist training sessions throughout the year, often on subjects you might not have thought much about before. For example, a funeral director recently came in to give a talk and told us all about what happens during a cremation. I learnt so much and it was really useful as that’s a question a child might ask; it helps you think about what level of detail you should go into.
As I was a nurse for so long, I find it easier to put boundaries around how emotionally affected I am by the work with the children. But if there is something that has upset or worried you, there are always opportunities to tell one of the team at any point during the weekend or at the debrief at the end so it can be dealt with if necessary, or just so you can hand it over and not take it home with you. When I get home after a session, I make sure I have no plans and just do nothing that evening as I’m often really tired.
4.What’s your favourite thing about working with HOLG?
I just love being with the children. Even though they’re there because someone has died, bereavement isn’t all about sadness; their memories can be happy ones and it’s lovely being able to share that with them and have fun. Death doesn’t always have to be negative, or about feeling guilty.
From a young age, children often protect adults by hiding their emotions; it’s lovely to see them change from being anxious to understanding that they’re allowed to talk about the person that has died. They learn that they can be cross; it’s unfair that they’ve lost someone, it’s not right – they’re entitled to be angry about it. I love seeing them change over the weekend, it’s such a privilege.
I think it’s really important that people know that HOLG’s bereavement support weekends are a research based programme and they really work.
5. How much time do you give to HOLG?
I do about four sessions a year, but I do extras too; for example, we’ve got the 25th anniversary coming up, so we’ve got a family fun day at Buckmore Park which I’ll help out at. We’ve also got a special volunteers’ day soon. I also help out at the Christmas party; I love doing that, it’s so nice to see families we’ve helped coming back for a celebration with us.
6. What would you say to someone else thinking of volunteering?
Give it a try; you can get so many unexpected bonuses from it. You might think it’s going to be about sadness and darkness, but it really isn’t; there is so much light and joy. It’s a service that’s really needed too – you gain so much.
If you’re interested in volunteering with us, see our ‘how you can help‘ page.