Working with young people in the area of moral development and sexuality education has always been a privilege for me. My role is to support trainees at a critical stage in their young lives, helping them to know themselves and to understand and express their sexuality in the context of ‘relationship’ with the other young people they meet in the course of their training. Sexuality is a very private area of our lives, and a huge amount of openness and trust is needed in order to participate in a group such as ours. Often our discussions and activities touch upon other deeply personal areas in life–past experiences, bereavement and loss, difficulty in relationships.
When appropriate, I try to give trainees private space outside the group in which to speak about and make sense of their experiences and feelings and to express their hurts with honesty and simplicity. Through working with young people at this individual level I have come to recognise their and my woundedness and spirituality. Sometimes I offer support; sometimes they need specialist help; sometimes the opportunity to express their feelings in a creative or ritualised way is a healing experience.
In this article I will describe two aspects of my work with young people in the training centre and with older adults working with the enterprise/employment section of our service–pastoral approaches in coping with bereavement and preparation for change/moving on.
Acknowledging loss through gesture and prayer, Taizé prayer, and the planting of a peace garden
Many of the adults I work with in enterprise and employment are at a stage in their lives when they lose parents or siblings. Some of them have not had the opportunity to take part in the funeral of the deceased family member. Those who live out of home may miss out on the intense support that extended family members and friends can provide at the time of bereavement. My own bereavement work with these men and women links in with the main support they receive from their family, house-parents and work-area staff, who provide them with a very important sense of belonging and security.
Coming to a place apart from the work area for individual attention gives a person recognition and makes them feel valued at this traumatic time. Some people have difficulty verbalising their feelings about loss. At the end of a meeting with me they might make the sign of the cross and place my hands together–to signal they would like to pray. To ritualise the ending of the session, I light a candle for them. They place a photograph or memorium card beside the candle and they or I say a prayer. This use of gesture, prayer and symbol is a way of helping them to express their grief.
Taizé prayer sessions have for some time been conducted once or twice a year in the Enterprise and Employment Section of our service for those who wish to take part and pray for deceased loved ones. A simple format is used, similar to that developed from the principles of SPRED.
- A relaxing atmosphere is prepared with lamps, candles, lavender oil and gentle music, and comfortable seating. The open Bible, a candle and flowers present the central focus point. Each person is welcomed by name as they enter and encouraged to relax and listen to the Taizé music which is playing.
- There is a short reading, e.g.: ‘Jesus said, Come to me all you who labour and I will give you rest.’
- Each person lights a small night-light candle and names the person they wish to remember.
- There is a short reflection, e.g. ‘We remember all our loved ones who have died. We have said their names and lit our candles in their memory. May they all rest in peace.’
- An appropriate piece of music is played.
- A message is given to each person, by name, while making eye contact and holding their hands., e.g. ‘Jenny, Jesus says to you today: “Come to me and I will give you rest”.’
- Taizé music is again played at the end of the session, and everyone is thanked by name for taking part.
In order to keep a record of the losses experienced by employees and trainees, and to remain sensitive to their grieving, each centre keeps a ‘Book of Honour’ naming the loved ones who have died. These books are included in liturgies throughout the year and serve as a symbolic reminder that those included are not forgotten.
The planting of a peace garden
As a Millennium Project, the Training Centre opened a peace garden which includes a ‘Tree of Memories’. In preparation, trainees looked at the changing seasons through art, music and story. They spoke of those they had loved and lost. Trainees prepared the garden with their garden maintenance instructor, and it was opened, in November 1999, with a blessing by the chaplain and the lighting of a beautiful autumn candle. Each person called out the name of their deceased loved one and placed a metal disc inscribed with their name in a large pottery leaf which had been made by our pottery instructor. (These memorial discs will hang from the Tree of Memories when it has matured.) The ceremony was enhanced by the music of Vivaldi, Enya and Secret Garden, and poetry by Dylan Thomas and Joyce Rupp. Support and fellowship were reinforced for everyone with a warming broth and cup of tea after the ceremony. There was a real sense of unity and equality among trainees and staff who shared this spiritual experience.
Preparing to move on–Peace Retreat
Many trainees in their final year of training express their anxiety about their future. I felt that ‘time out’ from their usual routine and training might alleviate some of the pressures they were experiencing. The peace retreat presents trainees in their final training year with an opportunity to relax and enjoy the company of friends, before saying goodbye and moving on to work or further training.
The peace retreat has been running for four years now. We are fortunate to have a very suitable venue at the Daughters of Charity Service facilities in Termonfeckin, where Sr Olive McEvoy and her staff make us very welcome. Participation is voluntary, and those taking part know that a retreat is different to a holiday–there are no television programmes or radio for two days, and no shopping trips. A high degree of participation and courtesy to others is expected.
A typical peace retreat involves a two-day stay in Termonfeckin. Pastoral Care team members travel ahead to prepare the premises and greet participants on the first morning with a cup of tea. On the first day, a facilitator works with them in a short session before lunch and two further afternoon sessions. Trainees consider the elements of moving on and change, through story, drama, art, music, dance and clay-work, through which they can give artistic expression to their inner, spiritual feelings. When fears and conflicts are given form, they can be recognised and responded to. Staff members and graduates participate in this part of the retreat. The creative activity is very demanding emotionally, but we also eat well, relax and rest.
After the evening meal, participants divide into groups to relax as they like–perhaps a walk on the beach, basketball or listening to music. The first evening ends with a hand massage and a short sensory prayer session for those who wish to take part.
The second day of the peace retreat centres around the celebration of the Eucharist, with the trainees taking an active part in its preparation. Mime, dance, music and art may be incorporated into the ritual, expressing their feelings creatively to make a memorable and moving Mass celebration.
The peace retreat involves much preparation, but it has proved beneficial in helping trainees to voice some of their fears about leaving the training centre. Feedback from trainees who have taken part in a peace retreat suggests that at least some of our aims have been achieved:
‘I never did collage before and it turned out fabulous–it was just brilliant.’
‘I enjoyed the songs and playing a few games. I enjoyed the little church and the mass, all the talking with our friends, and no fighting.’
‘[A special time was] the trust walk–looking out for the one you are guiding.’
‘The hands–clap your hands–I remember that one.’
‘You learn how to relax in peace and quiet.’
Working with people with intellectual disabilities presents a constant challenge to me–trying to help them to express their feelings in bereavement, loss and moving on. Each person is unique in the way they cope with loss, and each person has their own way of expressing grief. I have found the use of the creative arts and ritual (as I have attempted to describe above) invaluable in my work, particularly with adults who are unable to verbalise their feelings. My approaches to the work of pastoral care have been guided by the needs of the young adults with whom I work–they have been my teachers. They are enthusiastic, open and trusting–and I am grateful that they have allowed me to share some of their personal experiences and to journey some of the way through life with them.
By its very nature, pastoral care in the broad sense is the concern of all staff and cannot be done in isolation. I would like to acknowledge the generosity and support of my administrators and manager (past and present) in the Daughters of Charity service, my fellow pastoral care team members and colleagues in the training centre and Enterprise and Employment section.