The fabric of daily life, from supermarket trips to salsa classes, was pared back or torn away. While in the village the staff wear clear masks, but outside, the necessary face coverings added to that sense of loneliness and isolation. The lack of casual contact – smiling at someone or shaking their hand – hit hard. “A person can’t see your expression, you can’t see theirs,” says Gobbinsingh. “So there’s a fear – is she smiling at me, are they angry? Are they feeling sad? What is it? You could pass someone and not even know who they are.” In some cases, the isolation may have caused incipient dementia to worsen. While people might be keeping safe, she says, “We are losing community. And we don’t even know we are.”
For all these reasons listening is very important, Gobbinsingh believes. She has volunteered with Cruse for three years. Bereavement supporter volunteers like her complete a training programme – with additional refresher training – which enables them to provide listening support to their bereaved peers. The training focuses on communicating effectively and compassionately with bereaved people, developing confidence talking about difficult and sensitive topics, listening skills, raising awareness of the impact of grief on families and individuals (and the volunteer) and understanding the various factors that can affect the grieving process.
Knowing who might need support is a skill in itself. If she doesn’t see someone who’d normally be “buzzing around the village”, Gobbinsingh will call, just to ask, “Are you keeping all right?” When people are down, regardless of what they tell you, “You hear it in their voice. You pick up that tone, and you know something isn’t right.” Then she’ll visit in person and chat from a safe distance at their front door, “and before we know it, an hour’s gone!” She adds, “People don’t want to go back to those four walls. The longer they talk to you, the better it is. They talk about anything, they laugh – and you think, ‘yes!’ ”
Thanks to her training, Gobbinsingh knows that supporting those grieving isn’t always like a normal conversation, where you might jump in to talk about your experience. “It’s something you automatically do, but during the training we were told, ‘you need to listen’.”
Some older people are hesitant to come forward to access support, and as a peer Gobbinsingh’s position and skills are invaluable, giving informal support as and when needed. She recorded some of this year’s extraordinary deprivations in her diary. One painful aspect of grief in the era of the coronavirus, she notes, is that whereas usually, the community would gather to celebrate the deceased person’s life with their family and reminisce, now “we can’t meet and the family aren’t coming in. It’s very, very hard to give sympathy. It’s a bereavement on top of a bereavement.”