“A lot of people who work in social work are here because it is more than a job to them”

For Emma Smyth, a social worker wasn’t something she had thought she would be. Her journey to get where she is now happened in a more organic way.

It was when she was in school and had to look at her options for the future, social work was first mentioned to her. Up to that point, Emma had been working on a deli counter, and it was there where she was inspired by other people.

She explained: “I felt a bit stuck. I worked on a deli counter when I was in school and met all kinds of people. The more I worked there the more I got to know all of the people who came in and I began knowing their needs.


“I met people with learning disabilities and with physical and mental health challenges’ I had a real affinity for all of them and I would do whatever was needed to help them. Then when I was talking to my careers teachers they suggested social work because I had natural empathy.”

After applying for the course at Queen’s, Emma was fortunate to be accepted on her first try. However, after becoming pregnant with her daughter, she decided it was best for her to defer for a year so she could complete the course in full without time off.

Speaking about the direction she thought she would go in social work, Emma explained: “I’ve been lucky as I have been qualified for ten years this year, so I have had opportunities to work in different sectors. But at the beginning my interest was actually piqued by the criminal justice side of social work, so I thought I would be a probation officer.”

What always kept Emma from giving up on her goals was her daughter. After having her at a young age, Emma had a lot of responsibility and determination to prove people she could do it.

“My motivation and drive came from wanting to show people having a small child wasn’t going to hold me back. I was still going to achieve the goals I had set for myself. Once she was born, she became my motivation.”

After completing her last placement in children’s services, she was offered a permanent position in the physical disability team in Downpatrick, where she gained her first experience with palliative care and stayed for the next two years.

After this Emma landed what she thought was her dream job in probation. However, she explained things don’t always go the way you think they will, around this time Emma’s mum passed away and she experienced a negative experience with her treatment and care.

Emma said: “I did love probation and I was there for two years. Motivating and supporting people to change harmful behaviours is skilled work and there was also responsibility for assessing and managing risk. But it was during that time when my mum fell ill with cancer. She died within six months of diagnosis. Unfortunately, her end-of-life care was not good as she spent time in an inappropriate ward.

“It was very difficult for us as a family. We felt unsupported, it was scary. That’s when I started to feel there had to be a better way of supporting families.”

Emma used her mum’s death as a driving force to motivate her on her journey into palliative care. Her perspective began to change.

She explained: “Because of how blindsided we were by my mum’s death, I started to look into palliative care and I wanted to be a part of that.”

When a role came up working in hospice care with Marie Curie, Emma knew it was perfect for where she wanted to be in social work.

Speaking about her job in palliative care, Emma said: “I definitely came into it with a greater sense of professional comfort, and knew I was able to manage the boundaries needed to do this work too.

“Within palliative care there is a greater opportunity to really get to know people and get to know what is important to them”.

“We can do legacy work with children and grandchildren, things that are fun in the moment, but are also going to be there for children to look back on in the future when their loved one is maybe no longer here.”

Working within palliative care is something that comes with a huge wave of emotions meaning you have to look after your own mental health too, but for Emma, she feels a sense of comfort from her job.

She said: “It’s so nice to know our support is wanted and appreciated. There’s such a feeling of privilege to work in palliative care. A lot of the people in my field are here because it’s more than a job to them.”

The Bereavement Cafe is a new project of Marie Curie, where people can come together and help support one another during their grief journey.

Emma said: “Grief is a natural emotion and it’s something we have to go through. Just because you’re in the process of grieving doesn’t mean you need counselling, but the cafe was a way of creating support in an informal setting. It is peer-led and you don’t need to sign up for it. People can come to as many or as few as they like.”

While Emma feels her life experiences have helped her through the role, one memory that sticks with her was during her first ever placement on the course.

She explained: “I know it sounds weird but at that stage I hadn’t thought through that the people I was engaging with might die. I was working with a woman and her rehabilitation had been going really well. We had been making plans for her transition back to the nursing home. Unfortunately, she died before that could happen. When my on-site supervisor told me what had happened I was really upset but I was able to work through the experience with my practice teacher.”

Making a difference is something Emma feels like she is doing most days at Marie Curie, having a positive effect on lives.

In terms of advice for others, Emma said: “Keep your mind open to all the different career opportunities, and try to find ways of getting experience in different fields, whether that’s going on practice development days to different organisations or getting to shadow in other roles.

“I also think that until you are confident, there really is no silly question to ask your manager.

“Utilise their support with any decisions, do not be afraid to ask for help or clarity.

“Working in palliative care is very emotionally demanding, it’s more than just a job. As my ward sisters say, we can’t change our patients’ outcomes, but we can change their journey.”

Tina Calder
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