Content warning: Contains reference to murder and suicide.
After a tragedy, someone has to clean up. That was the job of Meredith Delany, 52, who found her unusual work as a trauma cleaner rewarding and satisfying. The Melbourne resident (from McKinnon in the city’s south-east) features on the SBS program The Cleaning Company, an Australia Uncovered documentary. Here, she explains why the work was “such a privilege”.
I’ve always been one to go and do things a little bit left of centre, so it was absolutely no surprise to my husband and two sons (aged 21 and 23) that I would go and do something like this.
In 2017, I read Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services (STC) founder Sandra Pankhurst’s biography, The Trauma Cleaner. I was inspired by Sandra’s story of surviving a traumatic childhood to become the CEO of her own company, so I decided to join STC as a trauma cleaner in 2020. All of my previous jobs had been administrative roles.
My very first job was for this young woman in government housing who was a pet hoarder. I’m not sure how many cats had been kept in her one-bedroom apartment, as animal control had come and removed all of them bar one. It was completely and utterly overrun by faeces and contamination. I was thinking, “How am I going to do this? What am I about to walk into?”
After that first day, I was utterly hooked. I loved it because I saw the difference. As soon as I walked in, that feeling of being overwhelmed was huge, thinking, How are we ever going to fix this? What’s the solution to this? I watched my co-workers, and they were phenomenal. Our team leader, Abby, spoke in this very calm voice. I just remember feeling this sense of calm at hearing her voice, because internally I was panicking, going, “We’re not going to be able to do anything here.” The connection that we made that day with this woman (who was a pet hoarder) and the trust she gave us to come into her world was phenomenal. By the end it was as if we’d known her for years, and her unit was restored. I sat in silence in the STC van coming home, thinking, That was amazing.
My first murder scene was a man who had been attacked in his own home. The really disjointed thing was that there were two little kittens playing in the house. We were trying to do the clean-up and in the background there were these two little kittens wrestling around on the floor. My co-worker loved animals, so she made sure they had water.
I thought, When I leave, I’m actually going to go to McDonald’s, because I’m starving. A lot of people think, Oh my goodness, after what you’ve just seen, how could you eat? Hunger is not an uncommon thing, because your adrenaline is running so high that at the end of any big job you’re starving.
Some people don’t want to know about the person they’re cleaning up after. Whereas I loved to look around the room and put a face to a name. But I wanted to know who it was, to put a human side to it. It made it very real that you were cleaning up after a human being who was once living and breathing. You’re trying to clean everything to get the house ready for the family to come home, but you’re acutely aware of kids’ toys lying around, scooters on the deck and family pictures on the walls.
You’ve got to have an enormous amount of empathy. You do feel very privileged that they’ve allowed you to come into their house and be exposed to what’s happened.
I used to feel really proud that we were able to do that – that we were the ones they trusted to come in and try to put the house back together so they could continue living there. When you go out for a walk and go up and down the streets, you have no idea what life somebody is leading behind their front door. Nine times out of 10, (for the jobs that I did) the front of the house gave away absolutely nothing. It wasn’t until we opened that front door that (it was apparent) this whole other world existed. Life doesn’t discriminate.
There was one job where a (middle class) lady’s life had become out of control because her teenage daughter had died by suicide. It just completely derailed her life, to the point where she went from being highly functioning to not being able to function and her life just falling apart around her, and her living conditions deteriorated. That’s how quickly life can change. That’s the vulnerability of it. When you see people show you their vulnerability, it makes it very real. That’s why we were non-judgmental.
I am currently employed as a PSA (patient services assistant/nurse’s aid). I left trauma cleaning after 20 months because the physicality of the work was intense. I don’t think there has been a day that I haven’t missed it. It was rewarding and such a privilege. A lot of situations make people feel powerless, so you feel powerful being able to help.
Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue 24/7 on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at beyondblue.org.au. For 24/7 crisis support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
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The Cleaning Company airs Tuesday 8 November at 8.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand. The documentary is part of the ‘Australia Uncovered’ series, a package of four prime-time documentaries from Australia’s top filmmakers.