The Bereavement Comfort Call team is the lifeline for many families in Northern Ireland

31st October 2021

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Over the past eleven months the Bereavement Comfort Call (BCC) team have worked tirelessly to ensure that those who were bereaved during Covid-19 felt supported by offering a compassionate telephone call, practical information and signposting onto other appropriate services during very distressing times. The team currently consists of a Volunteer Coordinator, with 18 volunteers.

The model of bereavement support has changed since the pandemic to respond in a timely way to the needs of bereaved people, who could not visit or had restricted visiting. Normal funeral arrangements were not happening so it became increasingly important as a Trust to show compassion to the citizens and local community. Therefore a volunteer coordinator post was established to coordinate a team of volunteers offering telephone calls to those who experienced bereavement in the Northern Trust Hospitals. Within six weeks of the coordinator being in post the innovative service was operational, the coordinator having engaged with informatics to agree on the best information system and processes to securely send personal details remotely. The coordinator then advertised, selected, recruited, trained and inducted 11 volunteers. Normally volunteers would be selected and recruited face-to-face. The volunteer coordinator had to quickly adapt to recruit and support volunteers remotely. She had to learn new IT skills such as Zoom, and this was utilised for all training and supervision. This was new learning for the coordinator but also particularly for the volunteers, many of whom had varying levels of IT skills. But they rose to the challenge and persevered until they became familiar with the systems required.

It became particularly important for the volunteers to build a rapport with each other and the coordinator, the use of a WhatsApp group and online monthly supervision helped with this and the volunteers engage enthusiastically with these. The volunteers also support each other when queries arise, often using the WhatsApp group to ask a question, which other volunteers will answer even before the coordinator can. The calls made by volunteers provide a listening ear for the bereaved, displaying compassion and empathy. The volunteers have shown great resilience in distressing times, especially at the peak of the pandemic where there were so many deaths. The BCC service has been positively received by the bereaved service users with much organic positive feedback from those who have experienced the call. They have expressed being overwhelmed with the kindness shown by the team of volunteers. Eight further volunteers were recruited in January to reduce the number of calls volunteers were having to make, as these are so emotionally demanding.

The BCC service benefits bereaved families as the volunteer will give valuable written and verbal practical information, much of which was initially new to the volunteers, but which they have quickly become familiar with. The volunteers highlighted the need for a BCC leaflet to be given to bereaved families, which was quickly developed and shared with the volunteers and readers panel for their views. This is now included in the bereavement pack given to bereaved families. A proportion of bereavement calls were not able to be achieved, prompting the development of an ‘insert’ to the bereavement pack inviting families to get in touch if they needed support, after volunteers discussed the frustration at not being able to offer support to those who didn’t take the call. During their call to bereaved families the volunteer will note any specific feedback that is mentioned which is then communicated with ward staff, who have expressed how encouraging and reassuring it is to know that families value the care provided and someone is following up the family. For some, grief has been compounded by concerns over their loved one’s care or gaps in their knowledge around their last hours of life. This can include practical information, such as families being unsure how to locate personal property or how to ensure equipment is collected, the service can reconnect the family back to the ward and facilitate appropriate arrangements, working with ward staff to assist both them and the family. This proactive approach will help the bereaved person and may prevent the development of complicated grief. The volunteer can also provide the contact details of the Trust Service User Experience Dept.

The volunteers make bereaved families aware of support services when appropriate to support those who may feel lonely. Signposting would also occur to community support with the view to reconnecting them with their local community depending on the particular need. On some occasions the overwhelming grief is too much for some people and an intuitive volunteer can pick up that an individual is distressed and needs further GP support. Six months into the project it was scaled and spread from the acute hospitals to include community hospitals. The following month, after discussion with the team, it was agreed that it would be helpful for follow-up to be offered where the volunteer felt the family were open to this. This has been very well received, with bereaved people often telling the volunteer they were expecting the second call, remembering their name and commenting on advice they had followed from the previous call, such as being out for a walk. The volunteers have also shared with each other that the follow up call has helped them realise the value of their contribution. At the monthly supervision the volunteers have shared some of their call experiences and this has helped others grow in confidence and learn.

To date 1,042 bereaved people have been supported with 795 bereavement packs distributed and 51 follow-up calls made just since March. The team’s ethos is steeped in the core values of the Trust, displaying compassion, kindness, excellence, openness and team working at all levels of service delivery. The volunteers undertake the role from their own homes when speaking with family. Some of these calls are distressing and the volunteer shows great resilience in dealing with these. Volunteers often go above and beyond and have taken on extra calls especially during the peak of the pandemic without hesitation.

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