In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

Time for leaving, time for anything


I am about to move house and to start a new life in a city still strange to me.  Among all the many moments I have to give to packing and managing the move, I have found a few spare to write this.

But snatching at moments seems an image for us all, in our time. So much of the time, these days, there is simply no time, none for this, none for that. So for what do we need time, when there is so little of it available for so much that matters ?

Mine is an even bigger move than I had thought. I have lived in London all my adult life. But until recently, I was focussed in my leaving on more immediate or close-in endings and transitions the move implies, and forgot the London aspect, my daily surroundings for over forty years. But in the last few days, with moving day very close now, I have begun to feel it more. It does not change my gladness in the move, but complicates it.

But at the same time I am thinking of all the other people I know whose lives feel precarious, at sea and in question, so that perhaps we all feel ever more like flotsam and jetsam tossing about, and ever less safe in dock, securely berthed. And the people I’m thinking of tend to be of high talent and integrity and I do not think I would be overstating things in suggesting that their situation is somehow symptomatic of what our Society is doing to people of high talent and integrity, in these days.

And a related thought is that I have various projects on the go at the moment, from my creative but precarious place here on the outside of most systems, but all of them bar one feel snarled up and stuck just now, often precisely because the people I have to work with to make them happen don’t have the time. They are too busy just struggling to survive, to stay afloat, ticking whatever boxes have to be ticked.

In such precariousness, and so much lack of time, the writer has to fight even harder to find an audience, to get people to pause for long enough to listen, to read, to think. Or put it another way, real exchange between people gets harder and harder, rarer and rarer. We address and properly listen to each other less and less. And just brush past each other more and more.

It makes me think of a poem I wrote decades ago, called “Loitering” (with intent). Here are some lines from it :

I loiter here between lines of thunder

poised for the sudden break

the momentary opening

my own hushed moment of interruption.

And also I find it makes me want to “bank” my material with people I like and respect a lot. I cannot expect them to read it now, as of course they don’t have time (though obviously I would love it if they could). But I would ask that they read it sometime, whenever there is time. Or if and when the times become a bit more propitious.

Thus I am presently “banking” the Speak, Parrot poem described in the post just beneath this one, with various of my friends, for when they have time. I think it might be worth digging up at some point, buried in its box, in its cage. Then open it and let the Parrot speak to you.

And on the subject of leaving, I shall add here a very short paper which I have just written. It is for workers of an organisation offering social care. The wonder of it is that the paper might be necessary to correct a growing malpractice in some organisations, by which leaving has come to mean just disappearing as fast as possible, like a casual shop assistant, without taking personal responsibility for taking your leave humanly, for parting with skill and care, for going carefully and creatively, over time.

The paper is based on a working life in mental health social work, principally in residential and day services ; also on Transition Theory in Psychology ; and on psycho-dynamic ideas on bereavement, for which “Bereavement” (Penguin, 1977) by Dr Colin Murray Parkes , is still the classic text. (Colin Murray Parkes has acted as a consultant to the UK Government on numerous occasions, following various major tragedies and incidents in recent times).

The following precepts can be derived from that material  :

1. Separation, and the anxiety associated with separation, are a matter of relationship, a two way process. They are not just things that happen to the person leaving. They happen too to the person (s) left.

2. Bereavement, and the theories and practice associated with it, do not apply just to extreme experiences such as loss brought about by death or violence, and in only intimate relationships. They apply to loss of any kind and any extent of seriousness, such as the loss of a limb, a familiar dwelling, a familiar colleague.

3. For every relationship we have, becomes in a sense a part of who we are, to a greater or lesser extent. Losing that relationship requires inner adjustment of some kind, at some level, depending on the nature and importance of the relationship. Failing to allow for that adjustment in some appropriate way is like leaving homework undone. It will hang over you until you’ve done it.

4. Loss and separation is also a matter requiring, where possible, time and process. Thus, if someone leaves close colleagues without allowing them time to process the coming separation with that person, to resolve and round off their working relationship, that leaver is committing an act of social violence. In a worker involved in care work it is simply a pathological denial of everything care means. He or she is treating people as if they are  just furniture in the room. Leaving cannot be a matter of just turning out the light and moving to the next room. To do so leaves human damage behind, on both sides of the relationship, to one extent or another, raw tissue unhealed. It is adding to human damage, not ameliorating it.

5. Thus it is universally understood that traumatic loss, ie loss that is sudden and unexpected,  is harder to deal with and to recover from for those left behind. Loss prepared for and worked through, however painfully, is less disempowering and can actually be healing and energising. Loss prepared for is a necessary opportunity to identify, evaluate and make sense of one’s experience and place in the world, and one’s attachments to it. It can even help people to review and resolve previous losses insufficiently lived.

6. There are some accepted “pathways” for helping people through loss. “Counselling” is often lightly suggested and lightly undertaken, marching the “patient” through “stages” of bereavement and transition widely known. These “stages” regularly turn up in magazines about moving house. There is no point repeating them here. They can be looked up. What is lacking too often is not knowledge, not the forms, but the basic human skills that come from empathy, sensitivity and common sense, the inner reality.

7. Here are some suggestions, in principle, for processing loss and separation in a professional and positive manner, in an organisation involved in care work :

  • Give sufficient time for people simply to get used to the coming separation emotionally and practically.
  • Address the coming separation with the individuals affected, both colleagues and clients, giving time to the topic not just once but over time. Explore the meaning of the relationship and of the separation, according to its importance to each. This can be done 1-1 or in meetings, or both, as judged appropriate.  Allow time for real talking, free of bullet-points and clichés !
  • In close working relationships, all aspects should be looked at. It is an opportunity for unfinished business to be resolved and the maximum learning to be extracted. By unfinished business I mean negative as well as positive, if these topics can usefully be addressed. As few loose ends as possible should be left dangling, working negatively on the individual left behind.
  • Obviously, these suggestions imply different degrees of application, according to the extent and degree of personal commitment to the relationship about to change. They apply far less to a departing admin worker, say, than to someone working directly with clients, or to a senior manager leaving a small circle of close subordinates. But, however slightly, or largely, they do apply to all degrees of loss.

And, finally, here are a couple of suggested applications of these ideas :

  • Good  quality training in bereavement and loss and transition should become part of the in-service training programme for all relevant staff – ie for all managers and for all staff working directly with clients. The skills and practice required  for good leaving should be an integral part of staff supervision.
  • Lengths of notice across the organisation should be reviewed, and should vary according to the nature of the work undertaken by each worker role, and the working relationships that person has with clients and colleagues. The optimum notice given by senior managers might be three months. The optimum notice given by ground level staff, working with clients, should surely be more than the standard month – maybe two months (as habituation time can be too short, so it can also be too long to be helpful). The notice should be seen as, and from the outset contracted to be, a vital part of the employee’s work overall and not just a chance to take available leave.  How people work out their notice should affect the reference they receive from the organisation.