Storying Sheffield

Catching the Thread

This guest blog is by Jan Hine. Jan is an Interfaith Minister, and a volunteer in the Chaplaincy Department of the Northern General Hospital, in Sheffield. Jan says this about her blog: “This is my very first blog! Having recently heard about Storying Sheffield I contacted Brendan Stone to talk informally about my current work and the potential for the use of storytelling and narrative. At the end of what was for me a very positive and encouraging discussion, Brendan asked me to write a blog about my story and what I want to do. So here goes…”

I always knew I wanted to be a nurse…
When I was a child I often visited my Auntie Betty with my family. She worked at the Royal Infirmary Hospital in Sheffield (now a well known supermarket) where she was ‘Sister-in-Charge’ of Ward 5, the Orthopaedic ward. I thought she looked magnificent in her blue and white ‘polka dot’ uniform, crisp frilly hat and starched apron. I was eight years old; I knew I wanted to be a nurse. Actually at about the same time I also wanted to be a nun, but I was put off when my Dad told me that I would not be able to have tinned pineapple and evaporated milk in the convent! ‘Ok I won’t be a nun then’, I said. But I did qualify as a nurse, successfully completing my training at Kings College Hospital in London in 1970.
And so it was I embarked on a career in nursing spanning over thirty years. I loved it. I had lots of different jobs in lots of different hospitals, both at home and abroad. My work by its very nature meant I was intimately involved with people often living with chronic and life-threatening illness. I found myself talking to and supporting people who were experiencing grief, loss, profound sadness or despair. Of course there were episodes, lots of them that were light, humorous and sheer fun. How else could I have survived 30 years! During this time I worked and completed a training course in the Care of the Dying at St. Christopher’s Hospice in London. I also completed my BA in Health Studies and an MA in Counselling and Psychotherapy. For the thirteen years leading up to my early retirement I worked as a Clinical Nurse Specialist in the Sheffield Kidney Institute based at the Northern General Hospital. My work there was dedicated to a holistic approach to illness, particularly in end of life care, and I was involved in developing the first nurse-led counselling service for renal patients in the UK. It was a very creative period of my professional life. Looking back I realise that I spent a great deal of my time listening to stories, the patients’ and often those of their families – although these were then always referred to as case histories.
A new thread…
When I reflect back on this part of my life I realise there was always something about me that, for whatever reason, I chose not to acknowledge. But it was always there waiting to be heard. I responded to this ‘thread of unknowing’ by immersing myself in alternative approaches to personal growth. It just felt uncool to own this part of myself that I could not even name! What was it that I just did not feel safe to own? What was it that felt like wisps of fear and shame hanging off me like threads of cotton on a garment? It was my spiritual self. And I was about to take a step that would mean it would no longer be hidden.
One day whilst having lunch with a colleague with whom I had shared bits of my hidden self, he suggested that I consider looking at a training course to become an ordained Interfaith minister. ‘What!’ I gasped, ‘Take holy orders! You above all people know I am not religious…at all!’ He laughed, ‘Please yourself, then’. Well I did. I contacted the Interfaith Seminary and clutching the prospectus to train as an Interfaith Minister & Spiritual Counsellor I attended the open day in London and immediately signed up. I was totally inspired by the vision of the Seminary and its commitment to train open-hearted men and women in an inclusive global spirituality, to serve people from all faiths or none. A crucial element for me was the inclusiveness of the training, wholeheartedly embracing the universal truth at the heart of all spiritual traditions, and anyone who felt called to deepen their own understanding and awareness of true self and spirit.
So, I hung up my nurses’ thermometer in 2003 to begin my training as an Interfaith minister. It is true to say I found the training a total work out! But it felt I had come home, and the threads of fear and shame had fallen away beautifully. I was in a more powerfully grounded place. I felt joyful and happy, but most significantly I could at last accept all of myself. Nothing was hidden or unknown. I was ordained in August 2005. I had no idea how my ministry would unfold, and it came as a bolt out of the blue to grasp the fact that it did not matter. I do not need to know. What an invitation. All I really had to do was let people know I exist and where to find me. To trust what would follow, and let myself be fully present to a wisdom and guidance far beyond my own understanding. As a ‘non-conformist’ minister, with no church or parish I have had to develop my practice independently. I create and lead different ceremonies; I offer spiritual counselling and healing; and I work in a wide range of roles with individuals, families and communities.
I have enormous gratitude for my professional life and the gifts I have undoubtedly received, and I wanted to give something back to the National Health Service. I also wanted to serve my local community. I also knew that I wanted to achieve these two objectives by working in a voluntary capacity.
What now…?
Well, I have been able to make progress with both of these objectives. I have been accepted as a volunteer in the Chaplaincy Department of the Northern General Hospital, which involves me visiting and talking to patients. I visit weekly and the patients I see are all on the Cardio-Thoracic Unit, which means they are being treated for heart and lung conditions, often serious. I have also started as a volunteer with a new organisation, Your Good Mourning, set up to help people facing bereavement. It has a shop in Walkley which raises funds for bereavement-related charities and it is looking to develop help and support for local people suffering loss. I am now involved in both elements of its work.
It is early days with both of these developments, but by giving my time and commitment to this new thread in my own story, I hope to enable others to have their story heard. What I have realised is that this is familiar ground for me but it feels like a new beginning, as if seen with clarity for the first time. All I have to do is to be still, listen, and let these sacred stories unfold.
You may wonder why I use the word sacred to describe peoples’ stories. It is because as a spiritual person I believe that the stories I am hearing are intimately entwined with spirit, soul, the pure essence of ourselves, what makes us human and therefore immensely vulnerable. I do want to draw on the rich history of storytelling within the faith traditions, particularly mysticism, so as to emphasise or draw attention to the spiritual dimension of the stories as they unfold, and the threads that join them.
I would also describe the stories as being told ‘on the breath’. Breath gives us life; breathing is the most primal rhythm of our life, along with the beating of our heart. In the mystical teachings found in all religions, the soul has long been thought to be in the breath, and is sometimes visualised as a breath-body. It is perhaps no coincidence that I am visiting patients in the Cardio-Thoracic Unit, patients who say they are, ‘Short of puff, but still breathing. I’m still alive to tell the tale, luv’. At Your Good Mourning I have begun work with a group of women who are sharing a different grief, the experience of miscarriage or stillbirth. What one woman described as, ‘my baby never drawing his first breath’.
So, here I am, at the beginning of what I hope will be a creative process of listening to the stories told by people experiencing loss and bereavement. If you are interested in talking to me and perhaps becoming involved in this developing theme of storytelling please do contact me. I’d love to hear from you.