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Last Updated: Sunday, 7 December, 2003, 01:32 GMT
NHS Stories: Dealing with bereavement
Julie Wary
Each death needs special handling
As part of a series of articles BBC News Online reporter Jane Elliott looks behind the scenes of the NHS.

This week she talks to someone trying to make life more bearable for the bereaved.

The first thing that strikes you about Julie Wray is what a cheerful person she is.

Despite the fact that Julie spends virtually every day of her working life dealing with death, she always has a smile for patients and staff.

Meeting Julie for the first time, it is difficult to believe that before she started her job as a patient support co-ordinator at Harefield hospital Julie had never even encountered death on a personal level.

For Julie was working in an administrative post as a ward clerk when hospital staff at the Royal Brompton and Harefield Trust asked her to take on the vacant role knowing she had an interest in counselling and had done some relevant courses.

Death

Now, after a lot of intensive training in the field of bereavement, Julie deals directly with the relatives of the bereaved and liaises with the coroner.

I get a lot back from being able to help people who are quite anxious and stricken with grief
Julie Wray

But although many, including members of her own family, find her job macabre, Julie says she does derive a great deal of satisfaction from helping the families of the bereaved.

"You have got to be able to show you care.

"I find it quite rewarding I get a lot back from being able to help people who are quite anxious and stricken with grief.

"But some people are mortified when I tell them what I do. They think it is macabre so now I don't tend to tell them.

"I went on the Graham Norton show and when he asked what I did I just said I worked in a hospital. I did not want to tell him what I did because I knew how he would deal with it.

"I do have a sense of humour, but I think you need that.

"I do think you need a good balance though or it would send you mad.

Difficult

"My mum can't deal with my job though because she has a real fear of death and my husband can't bear to hear about it.

"It brings it home to them that life is too short and that you do need to make the most of it.

"But it is going to hit everybody one day."

She says that she can understand that others might find her choice of job a little unusual.

"Obviously we don't talk about anything that might identify our patients though, but when I get together with my counterpart from the Royal Brompton and we are talking about the sort of days we have had we tend to find that people move away from us on the tube."

But as a mother of two she admits that she is relieved that Harefield has no child patients, because she knows that she would find it very difficult to work in this area.

One of the ways the hospital helps staff and relatives come to terms with death is by holding an annual memorial for past transplant patients.

"It is very sad, but it is good to see how people have moved on."

Unique

As soon as a patient dies the hospital will contact Julie, who goes to the ward to read their notes.

Fully briefed she can then give advice and help to families, liaising with the coroner to register their deaths, liaising with funeral directors and offering advice on how to get counselling.

She explained that each death needs to be handled differently, but said she can often gauge the way a family want to be treated within a short time of meeting them.

"Each death is unique. You have to be able to think on your feet."

But she admits that despite her training that some cases do still leave her desperately upset.

"I had a young husband who had lost his wife. She had just had a baby and had just collapsed and that moved me."

She has also found that since taking on her post that she also now often acts as a shoulder to cry on for staff and friends who want to talk to her about their bereavement issues.

"My attitude has changed since I have been doing the job I find that friends or colleagues came to me when they have had a death. You become a bit of an ad-hoc counsellor."

Chaplain Father Cedric Stanley said people like Julie have a vital role to play in helping people come to term with death and making their experience with the hospital as positive as possible.

"Usually the person dealing with bereavements is the last one relatives see - their role is so important regarding support, practical advice and link ups, and the caring impression given."



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