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Present, not perfect: An ode to helpline volunteering

Written by Marilyn Tan

*Note that some details and dialogue have been modified to protect privacy.

The silence of the room was shattered by the shrill ringing of the telephone. The piercing, jarring tone brought me a sense of urgency and importance. Heart racing, I answered the call, uncertain of who was on the other end. 

I was taking calls for Griefline, a helpline that provides support to individuals experiencing grief, loss, and isolation.

What started as a passion for mental health and a desire to help the community led to me putting my hand up for the opportunity, which I discovered while scrolling through LinkedIn. I underwent a brief screening interview, followed by the organisation’s helpline training, and before I knew it, I was taking calls.

I remember the feelings before my first shift. The nerves. The excitement. The desire to help others.

Be present, not perfect, said the Griefline training materials. Just being there can make a difference.

Breathe, I told myself. Nerves are just excitement in disguise. Just be you.

Breathe, I told myself. Nerves are just excitement in disguise. Just be you.

I started volunteering in July 2022 and have since taken over a hundred calls. I met individuals from various states and territories in Australia and heard their stories – tales of grief, loss, loneliness, abuse, or trauma. I encountered individuals who experienced devastating losses, trying to find meaning in the aftermath. I listened to people vent about what was bothering them.

Some people rang the helpline because they lost a parent or a pet, while others were grieving the loss of a relationship. 

I miss them so muchlife is so different without them, they said. 

Sounds like that has been a pretty big change for you, I replied, how have you been coping?

I haven’t been eating or sleeping well, they said, everything is just too much. 

At times, they cried as they shared their stories. Sorry for crying, they said. Take your time, I replied, it is okay to cry.

And indeed, there is no shame in crying. Research found that crying can release endorphins, chemicals that can provide relief from emotional anguish and physical pain. 

As a volunteer, I learned to give callers a space where they don’t have to put on a brave front, a space where they won’t be judged or criticized, a space where they can explore what is bothering them.

Doing this has been deeply fulfilling and satisfying. Callers thanked me after their sessions, which reminded me of why I chose to do this. The hope in their voices reminded me of the impact I made by simply picking up that call. 

A member of Griefline’s Service Support staff spoke to me from the helpline’s reception desk. They said that “being there for another human being”, and the “sense of helping [people] to feel that they’re not alone as much” kept them going when they volunteered with the helpline.

Nicholas Donnelly, the Volunteer Support Leader at Griefline, also started as a helpline volunteer. He joined the organization to be in a role where he could “help support people’s development and impact people’s lives in a meaningful way”. He also said that his work with the helpline “helped him have an appreciation for the people sharing their stories … because it is not always easy”.

And indeed, it is not easy. The helpline is completely anonymous – help-seekers speak to a nameless, faceless volunteer. They’d make that call, not knowing the story of the person at the other end – Who are they? Why did they sign up – are they a Counselling, Psychology, or Social Work student, or are they a member of the community looking to give back? Have they experienced grief and loss?

Speaking to a stranger about one’s struggles is difficult. It is an immense act of courage that I have had the privilege of witnessing.

I just want to take a moment now to acknowledge your courage in calling the helpline, I said to the person on the line, it is not easy to reach out for support.

After all, seeking help is a sign of strength. Not an indication of weakness.

Think of grief as a ball sitting in a box with a pain button. When a loss is fresh, the ball sits squarely in the box, pressing against the pain button. It can be difficult to cope, and everything can seem too much. Over time, the ball shrinks (at a different rate for everyone) and hits the pain button less often. Maybe you’re able to get out of bed, go for a walk in the park, or spend time with friends.

But on some days, the ball hits the pain button, and grief hits you in full force. You’re missing your loved one or your pet a little more, you’re eating a little less, or maybe you’ve started smoking or drinking more.

On both good days, and not-so-good days, the helpline is here. Maybe you need a good cry. Maybe you are looking for strategies to cope with your loss. Maybe you want to vent.

How can I best support you today? I asked the person on the other end. 

I just called to talk about the loss of my parents, I haven’t quite processed it, they said.

In such cases, I fought the urge to offer solutions or advice. It is about being, not doing. Simply listening to them was more powerful than any coping strategies I could offer. 

In other calls, I gave help-seekers coping strategies. Eat regular meals. Sleep at the same time every night. Spend time with people you love. Do things you enjoy. Try journaling. Maybe write a goodbye letter to the person you lost. Try meditation. Engage in regular exercise.

I taught them ways to cope with their grief but also learned from them. I learned about courage – about reaching out, and not holding it in. I learned about strength and resilience. I watched individuals struggling with their grief reach out to others on Griefline’s forums. They shared their stories, offered words of support, and showed one another that they are not alone. That they are heard. That they are understood.

I have also stepped in and responded to posts on the forums. It’s normal to feel sadness after losing someone, I wrote in one post, and it’s good you’re able to lean on others for support during what must be a challenging time.

Keep writing and sharing your story, I wrote to another person, we’re here to listen.

However, volunteering has its challenges.

Sometimes, callers call the helpline with complex issues. Maybe they have a history of trauma, are struggling with their mental health, and processing the loss of a loved one. In such cases, I did my best to listen and offer comfort. I suggested coping strategies or advised them to seek the support of a professional.

I have also listened to graphic accounts of trauma and imagined the help-seekers’ stories playing out on an antique television. Picture a well-worn vintage television, with its matte brown body and tiny screen, balanced on four rickety legs, perched on a table in the corner of a dimly lit room. The help seekers’ stories played out on it in black-and-white, unfocused, grainy images. 

This allowed me to distance myself from the help-seekers’ problems and protect myself from vicarious trauma, which is a negative response to someone’s experiences. It can look like nightmares, avoiding shifts, or withdrawing from others.

It is not just vicarious trauma that I have to protect myself from.

Compassion fatigue can be a major issue for volunteers. According to Donnelly, this is one of the reasons why volunteers leave the helpline. 

It is when a help seeker’s problems seep into the volunteer’s life. One becomes overwhelmed. Tired. Numb. Angry. Unhappy. It hurts volunteers and leads to poor outcomes for help-seekers. 

And so, it is important to practice self-care. You might have seen those safety videos on airplanes - put on your oxygen mask before helping others.

Focus on yourself, before attempting to help someone else. After all, no one can pour from an empty cup.

I have also had to ask about suicidality. Have you had thoughts of taking your life? Do you have thoughts of suicide? Are you safe right now?

They might be safe. Occasionally, they get transferred to emergency services. On one occasion, the line cut out, and the resulting silence was eerie and ominous. I sat there. Shocked. Disbelieving. Worried. I questioned if they were safe. If the caller had someone out there looking out for them.

On rare occasions, volunteers deal with unwanted interactions on the helpline. These can be callers who make lewd remarks or insult and degrade volunteers. Such calls can take their toll.

Getting harassed or yelled at can be jarring, or even confronting for a volunteer.

Imagine answering the phone, and hearing someone yelling at you. You’re in shock. Did they just say that? Was it my fault? 

I would like to support you but cannot do so if you continue to do so in this tone or manner, you say, I recognise that you think I cannot help you – you’re welcome to call back later.

When this happened, I felt torn – part of me was empathetic and wanted to support them. But the other part of me knew that I did not deserve to be abused or harassed.

It is a difficult situation for everyone – for the help-seeker, who might be overwhelmed by their emotions, and for the volunteer – who is just another human on the other end of the line, just another person, dealing with the horrors of life distilled through a helpline.

Such situations are challenging, and the organization provides debriefing sessions for volunteers after difficult calls.

Donnelly said that debriefing is for “complicated or challenging” calls and allows the volunteer to “get feedback” on how they handled a situation. Such sessions can also “minimize the impact that calls may have on the actual volunteer”.

Volunteers are also offered regular group supervision, which is a place to build confidence, share ideas, and meet other volunteers.

According to an article by the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors, supervision “enables practicing counsellors to gain an objective insight into their own performance and skills”. It also allows counsellors to “find better ways to help clients”.

Sometimes, a quick call may not be enough, and that’s okay. Sometimes, you might need more time to process how you are feeling, and there is nothing wrong with that. After all, grief is different for everyone.

Maybe your grief is so overwhelming, and that ball sits on the pain button, refusing to budge. It feels like you’re struggling. You’ve lost interest in things you once enjoyed. Everything hurts. Everything is just too much.  

The organization has developed the Integrating Grief program, aimed at NSW residents over the age of 18 who might want more support. It provides telephone counselling without a mental health care plan.

Katie Tunks, the intake counsellor for this program, said that the program provides “compassionate grief support” that is “free at every stage”. Over 400 individuals have used this service since it was rolled out in 2022.

Maybe you’re reading this, and you’re thinking of making that call. Maybe you’ve dialled the helpline’s number on your phone, and your finger is hovering over that green “call” button, about to take that leap of faith. Maybe you’ve got the number scrawled on a piece of paper, taped to your refrigerator, or sitting on your desk.

You’re nervous, and that is normal. But talking to someone might be worth it. 

Asked if he had a message for help-seekers, Donnelly said,

“Grief and loss is a universal experience. There’s no correct way or exact process of it, and everyone grieves in their own way… it’s important to understand that what you’re feeling is not necessarily a linear process, and it can really help for you to talk to someone to unpack [those feelings]."

Take a deep breath, dial the number, and hit the green “call” button on your keypad. For all you know, it might be worth it.

I finished up my last call and wished the help-seeker well. Feel free to call the helpline again if you need to talk. Take care.

The room became silent yet again. I sat down and took some time to reflect. What did I do well? What could I have done better? I reminded myself that I helped someone, just by picking up the phone.

And it started with being present, not perfect.

About the author

Marilyn Tan

Marilyn is a former helpline volunteer and current peer debriefer with Griefline. She is a recipient of one of Griefline’s 2022 Volunteer Values Awards, and a Provisional Psychologist pursuing the Master of Professional Psychology at Victoria University. She wrote this article as part of her Journalism studies at the University of Melbourne. Marilyn hopes this article will raise awareness of grief and loss and normalise the experience of seeking support.

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