Sharon Tomlin is one of our volunteer counsellors. She, and other volunteers, have continued to provide essential emotional support to people throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, she shares more about her volunteering.
“I’ve always been keen to volunteer, and support St Catherine’s so was really pleased to be offered a counselling placement last year. I did my training with the hospice in September/October 2019 and qualified as a counsellor in June this year. I had my first hospice client face-to-face at their home in January 2020, and when COVID-19 hit, I continued working with them on the telephone.
Many years ago, I worked at the airport alongside a lady whose husband was cared for by the hospice. She would sell Christmas cards and when she spoke, she was so passionate about St Catherine’s that her words stayed with me.
My own Mum was admitted to a hospice too, so hospices are a cause that’s very dear to me. It had been a horrendous time and I remember the relief we all felt, and that feeling of support, when Mum was admitted to her local hospice.
All the way along, St Catherine’s have been really supportive and friendly
I felt like I’d joined a family who all understood what I was going through in my training and who wanted to help me get to where I wanted to be. It’s been a lovely experience, full of supportive, caring people. I’ve really enjoyed it.
I decided to start pursuing counselling in the last four years. I’d always thought about it, but I had to fit it in around family and work. As well as the learning, I had to do 100 hours on placement, 60 hours of my own therapy and supervision. It’s been a huge investment in my time and money, but now I’ve done it, it feels like an amazing achievement!
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been providing people with counselling by telephone
It’s a new, different way of working that I hadn’t envisioned but I’ve adapted and carried on. I pick up more on people’s tone of voice over the phone, but if someone is upset, I find that quite hard as in person it’s easier to convey compassion. It can also feel a bit more awkward with silences, but you still need to let someone have the time to work through things.
I’m aware of what else I can hear on the phone too. Generally, I can tell if someone is doing something else while they’re speaking to me, but I remind them they still have the time to sit still and for me to listen. In general, most people have embraced counselling by telephone.
There can be challenges with it though! It can be difficult to separate work and home as I’m doing the calls in my home, but I try to sit before I have a call, read through people’s notes, and keep up a routine. During the first lockdown my children were all at home, but I still had to find a safe, quiet space to do my counselling calls. I used to tell them I was going on a call and couldn’t be interrupted. You do hear life noises though. In one session, I could hear a dog barking and another time, I was in the middle of counselling with someone and their doorbell went – You wouldn’t have that in a usual session. One lady I rang was even at work, so I always check in with people saying things like, ‘Is this a good time to talk?’ ‘Have you got somewhere private you can speak?’
I find I need to check in more with people on the phone and remind them that it’s okay to take this time for themselves.
It feels incredible to support people
There was a client I had in the height of the first lockdown who was very much on his own and it felt incredible to support him every week. He has no idea but he also helped me a lot personally. Speaking to him put things I was finding frustrating during lockdown into perspective, and without knowing, he helped me through. He’d lost his wife and couldn’t have a funeral and was feeling quite lonely, so he was always so appreciative of my calls and time. It was so nice to be there for him, and to listen.
It’s lovely to know we can still allow people space to explore their feelings, and how they can change things, and still provide a connection throughout COVID-19. Counselling gives people somewhere safe to explore their frustrations and find ways and resources to help themselves. Frustrations are understandable and normal, especially if someone is navigating this uncertain time on their own.
One thing that’s been common with a lot of people I’ve spoken to is the fact that they’ve not been able to hold funerals for their loved ones or to grieve properly. I also hear a lot about the impact the restrictions of the pandemic have caused for people socially. They’ve not been able to visit people, or to see their family and friends during a really troubled time. Missing that connection when going through a hard time has been something that people have felt greatly.
After my calls, I’m always aware of how I feel, and spend some time processing them
To help with this, I have supervision with other counsellors every two weeks. It gives us chance to hear one another’s experiences and reflect and listen to each other. Supervision’s a good, learning tool and there for our own protection. It’s especially useful if you have unresolved feelings, for example, if you feel that you’ve let someone down. Hearing other people’s opinions or thoughts gives you a different perspective. Having ongoing supervision, especially during the pandemic, has been very important for me. I look forward to it every fortnight.
As well as supporting St Catherine’s by volunteering, I was planning to run the London Marathon for the hospice in April
I’ve now deferred by place until 2022, but I was aware a lot of people had already supported me, so I decided to walk the Virtual London Marathon in October. It was horrendous weather – torrential rain all day, and it took me 9.5 hours. I was soaked, and I walked it alone, as my husband was injured, but I’m so proud of doing it. So many things were against me, but I thought so much has gone wrong this year, I was determined not to let the weather stop me! It’s something I’m really proud of during this time.
The lovely people I’ve met and worked with at St Catherine’s are definitely one of the best things about volunteering
The hospice is an incredible place, and everyone does an amazing job. Counselling isn’t the easiest job, but I enjoy it and everyone is always so grateful for the support and help.
It’s a positive feeling for me too. It’s nice knowing I can give something back to others experiencing loss. I do really miss doing face-to-face counselling, but we’re doing what we can at the moment, and I know how valuable that support has been for the people we’re helping.”