To walk a mile ….
“Do we ever truly understand the perspective of the bereaved parent? Let’s face it. It’s impossible to walk a yard never mind a mile in the shoes of a bereaved parent. As police officers we need to understand the impact of bereavement better”.
Detective Chief Superintendent Andrew Webster (Head of Serious Crime, Lancashire Constabulary)
Here we have it. A top cop recognising the lasting effect of parental grief following the death of a son or daughter. That he needs to say it in his opening remarks of a screening of A LOVE THAT NEVER DIES to an audience of Family Liaison Officers (FLO’s) in Preston last month says as much as about society at large as it does about the attitudes of individual police officers. At the same time it is a gratifyingly honest appreciation of our needs as bereaved parents. Cops of course are humans too and this particular breed – FLO’s – were here to find out how they could be doing their job better.
You may or may not have had a visit from a Family Liaison Officer. When our Josh died in a road accident 1000’s of miles from home, we were first informed about it by two very young police officers who probably had no idea that breaking such bad news was going to be in the list of things lined up for their day’s work. They performed this unenviable task perfectly well, straightforwardly and with no beating about the bush. Totally traumatised as we were, with our minds blasted into an immense blankness, any sense of who these messengers were as human beings will have evaded us. We never found out their names, we have not seen them since and we will now never know how they themselves may have been affected by being the bearers of such awful news. Equally they will have no understanding of the lasting significance that moment has had for us. We are complicit as authors of this new chapter in our lives yet we remain strangers.
By contrast, the work of FLO’s is to develop a two way relationship with the bereaved following an untimely, unnatural or suspicious death – they are there to keep the family informed about the progress of any investigation and to provide support as they encounter the various legal procedures, inquest, court cases etc. Not an easy job as they balance compassion, understanding and sensitivity with their primary role as members of an investigative team.
And maybe that was what DCS Webster was getting at in his opening remarks – given the nature of deaths that the police will most commonly be involved with, our audience for this screening of our documentary was split between road traffic officers and detectives in serious crime – principally homicides. Family Liaison Officers apply for the role voluntarily and some had been liaising with countless bereaved families for well over a decade. They are dedicated to this work and do so alongside their primary role as investigators. But it’s possible that any support they can offer may be compromised. Could there be a conflict of interest between the need to secure evidence and to preserve the integrity of the investigation with their role as a compassionate support for a traumatised family? How would watching A LOVE THAT NEVER DIES and listening to our experience improve the way they broke bad news or further their understanding of the long term nature of grief?
Of course in our case, even if we had been assigned a family liaison officer, such a conflict would never have arisen. But for any police officer breaking earth shattering news that will in an instant leave the recipients forever changed, then some idea of how this will/could impact the bereaved must be a prerequisite in any training they receive. Because that moment will and forever be imbedded firmly into our consciousness. It marks the start of a long journey and can never be forgotten, it can never be unknown. Like a stone wedged in the branches of a young sapling – it’s the hardest of truths that is forever trapped in time as the tree of grief grows around it.
So showing our film and taking part in conversations afterwards is a revealing experience, both for us and our audience, and goes to the heart of what we want to do with THE GOOD GRIEF PROJECT.
Crossing the divide …
At a recent event at Soho Farmhouse (it’s a private members’ club for people in the creative industries) where we showed clips from our films and presented our work, we talked about a kind of invisible barrier between those who have been bereaved and those who haven’t (or are yet to be, given that we will all without exception meet grief at some point in our lives). I remember having no clue and being quite embarrassed about what to say to a friend whose daughter had recently died from suicide. Now that I am on the other side of the ‘divide’, I sometimes find I am equally at a loss of what to say to those who want to know what my grief is like. If you haven’t been there, how could you walk in my shoes? Would I even want you to? But this is part of our job – to try and break down this divide between those who have and those who have not suffered bereavement.
One of the first lessons we want to share is that grief (especially grief for a child) is an on-going process. For us, it’s not a transitory phase with an anticipated return to some status quo ante, more it’s a new state of being, with a new set of physical and psychological dynamics. We are not looking for closure, a moment when we put Josh’s death behind us and move on. Our grief is more about openings, it’s more about how it offers opportunities to discover new ways of being, who we have become and how we relate to one another. It’s about reinventing ourselves, of regaining trust in an uncertain world, a world in which Joshua will always and forever be absent, but it’s also a world we must engage with in order to find some kind of purpose again. To reclaim our well being we must use all our creative abilities to try and understand how he came to die and how we then integrate his death into our lives, to find a way to nourish the love we still have for him.
Active Grief …
In honouring Josh we are helped in part with the other component of our work with THE GOOD GRIEF PROJECT. Our ACTIVE GRIEF WEEKEND retreats are our way of sharing what we have learnt over the last eight years, namely that a pro active and creative response to grief is a good (if not the best) way of coming to terms with loss. This programme is there to support other bereaved parents and siblings as they too struggle with the huge task of coming to terms with the death of their child and by helping them to release and express their grief in ways that feels right for them. Release seems the right word. It’s not about letting go, either of memories of your child or the pain of your grief – but it is about releasing the energies that come with grief, of not bottling your feelings up, of looking deep into the core of your being and finding those nuggets of truth that will bring you peace and a new sense of oneness with the world.
Since developing our ACTIVE GRIEF programme last May we have held three such retreats, accommodating 70 bereaved parents and siblings. While these may be our first steps on a learning curve to find what Jane describes as ‘a new language for grief’, we are confident that we are on the right track. The results so far have been encouraging … to quote some of the parents who’ve taken part:
“For 24 years I have kept my grief locked inside along with my guilt at not keeping my son Joe alive. I didn’t think I deserved any relief from it. Grief makes you crazy! … So now the guilt is gone (and) I am left with an empty space inside me where the guilt used to be and although that feels weird and fragile it’s a good empty…. You have unstuck me. Thank you.”
“The retreat gave me trust that life goes on and can get better and that grieving doesn’t mean giving up.”
“I have changed how I look at things in a way I didn’t feel would ever be possible.”
“We have learned such a lot from you….as we stumble along this very hard journey. We’re learning to have hope.”
Image by Niki Brookes. Words by Fran Moir
participants on our Active Grief Weekend retreat
She sat beneath the tree Her soft fleecy coat pulled tight It’s hood hiding her face Like a wounded animal Needing isolation
The tree so coarsely pruned It’s knobbly wounded branches Reaching up in supplication Starkly silhouetted Against the dawn sky
Was there a kinship here? She acutely felt the pain Of losing part of herself She prayed for answers In the wake of his death
She rose slowly, a tiny figure Head lowered Her breath wispy white Her thoughts as always With her beautiful boy
A dull sun parted the mist Raising her head She became aware Of a cluster of strong buds Bronzed and blushing pink
Her cold fingers stretched up In awe, to touch them This tree was awakening It had survived
She smiled and walked on by.
On the road …
We like to travel. Josh died on his travels. A LOVE THAT NEVER DIES is a road trip. Travelling is now part of who we are, who we have become. Last year we screened the film to over 25 venues across the UK and in the last few months alone we have presented our films and talks to audiences here and abroad.
In March we showed A LOVE THAT NEVER DIES at the Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol (UK) as part of The Life,Death (and the Rest) Festival and then travelled to the Czech Republic as guests of Dlouha Cesta (trans Long Journey) where we again screened the film to a packed house in Prague. Dlouha Cesta is a small but important charity supporting bereaved parents and other family members after the death of a son or daughter and we were honoured to be invited.
A few weeks later we were in Dublin for the Irish Premier of A LOVE THAT NEVER DIES. Another packed house at the Odeon’s Point Cinema which had been organised by the Irish Hospice Foundation along with a number of other charities including Anam Cara, Irelands foremost bereaved parent network, the counselling service First Light, children’s hospice LauraLynn, HUGG a peer support group for those bereaved by suicide and the Irish Road Victims Association. Over 250 people came to this screening which attracted major coverage in both the Irish Independent and the Irish Times.
Q & A after the screening of A LOVE THAT NEVER DIES in Dublin
People do talk of grief as a journey and we have taken this quite literally, meeting new people and learning much on the way. Following the screening in Dublin we spent a few days in Greystones in County Wicklow as guests of Liz Gleeson, a creative arts therapist and one of the few practitioners in Ireland trained in Complicated Grief Therapy. She also produces the Shapes of Grief podcasts where she hosts conversations with ordinary people about their experience of loss and grief in their lives. Through the recounting of our own stories of grief, she says, healing can begin to happen, both for the teller and the listener. One evening Liz and Jane sat down with a couple of microphones and talked about traumatic loss, the isolation many bereaved parents feel, and the fear of what we might represent.
We also met with Justin and Beatrice Caffrey whose son (also called Joshua) died in 2011 just a few days after our Josh. Coincidences like this do create new bonds and hearing the Caffrey’s story was both enlightening and comforting. Our Josh was 22, their Joshua was just eleven months old when he died. We sat round their dinner table and shared our stories. News of our Josh’s death came as a bolt from the blue. Their Josh became seriously ill soon after he was born and spent much of his short life in ICU. His death was a disaster for the family but not unforseen. Conversations among bereaved parents about whether it’s easier to manage a sudden and unexpected death rather than a prolonged life limiting illness almost always grind to a halt in the first few seconds … grief is grief and the manner of their dying seems irrelevant, even inappropriate when forging a new friendship. Better to discover how the tragedy will have changed them over the last eight years. Having spent his previous life in the higher echelons of the finance and banking world, Justin set out on a path of personal reflection and growth – as he puts it “a connection to his inner spirit”. He now earns his living as an elite mindset coach helping individuals and businesses reevaluate their needs. Success he told us is not made, it is sustained. Life to be sure is about self discovery but then it’s about more self discovery and repeating the process over and over again.
Since his son died, Justin has become very much aware of how grief can help us find qualities and strengths we never knew we had. He is also wild swimmer who introduced me to Greystones unique ‘swimrise’ community which is where we met Ruth Fitzmaurice author of “I Found My Tribe” a best selling memoir that chronicles hers and her family’s life following the discovery that her husband Simon has Motor Neuron Disease. It’s a viscerally honest account of the physical and psychological chaos that comes with having to bear witness as well as to attend to a loved ones deteriorating condition and his eventual death.
“There is a secret society of the hurt” she writes “we harbour pain skillfully under smiles”.
The tribe Ruth has found are wounded warriors, tragic wives, superheroes, moon dancers, and sea glass collectors – all fierce friends. Her book is a generous invitation into her world and an offer to ‘walk’ that mile in her shoes but it’s the cold forbidding waters of the Irish Sea that present a better insight to what her grief is like and why diving into the unknown can be so therapeutic, so liberating. Her writing is edgy, staccato …
“I stand on those steps every time with raw fear. Your brain screams no! It’s the first time very time. To dive you need to turn your brain off. Steer past your brain. What the fuck am I doing? Shut up brain. This makes no sense. That’s why it makes perfect sense. Just dive… cold water hits you with a head slam. Don’t fight the cold. Let go and let it seep in. Keep treading water, this too shall pass. Ten seconds later you don’t feel the same. Ten seconds later is pure freedom.”
Greystones Swimrise community
Ruth Fitzmaurice – author and swimriser
As someone who also loves to swim in cold waters, I know what she’s talking about. A year ago I set my own challenge in an attempt to find a more physical response to a grief that has often felt out of reach. My plan is to swim an ICE MILE. You enter another world when swimming in open waters especially in the winter months when temperatures in our seas, lakes and rivers will drop below 10°C. But an Ice Mile requires you swim that distance in waters temperatures of less than 5°C and without a wetsuit – just a pair of swimming trunks, goggles and one hat – in ‘skins’ as we say.
So why? The answer is I’m not sure. All I know is that my own grief isn’t comfortable with everyday life. It demands to be special but won’t hold my hand in public. So sometimes you must grab grief by the scruff of the neck and drag it through the mess it’s made of life. Sometimes you have to show grief just who is in charge. Plunging into really cold waters is one way of doing that. Despite the very obvious fear you will tell your body what you are about to do and your body will resist. It has felt the grip of ice cold pain before so it knows … it just knows. But you’ve come this far and grief has shown you how pain takes on many forms and frankly this is the least of it.
Unlike Ruth I do not dive in. My entrance to cold waters is slow and steady, a gradual immersion as the freeze creeps up my body. The real challenge presents itself when I must dip down and submerge my neck and shoulders. My face will ache, my hand and feet will go totally numb, my mind will want to go awol.
And here we have it – the junction between head and body, between heart and brain, the moment when both must endure together the shock of real cold, of a nothingness that wraps its icy arms around you, no air, no feeling, no nothing … I have never entered the water with a temperature is less than 10°C without thoughts of oblivion. Allowing those thoughts to free roam is an acquired skill that has come with much practice – as much practice as it has taken to train to swim for longer and longer periods in colder and colder waters – but with every stroke and with every breath I’m learning a little more about how to do this thing called grief.
Thanks for reading
Jimmy (May 2019)
Please see below some attempts to express my grief photographically … with thoughts of a wild swim never far away.
Joshua by Fran Landsman – rephotographed on the beach at Branscombe (S.Devon)
Report on our travels to make A LOVE THAT NEVER DIES – https://thegoodgriefproject.co.uk/2017/10/04/report-travels-usa-mexico-now-available/
Life,Death (the Rest) Festival – https://arnosvale.org.uk/events/life-death-rest-festival/
Dhoula Cesta – http://www.dlouhacesta.cz/
The Irish Hospice Foundation – https://hospicefoundation.ie/
Anam Cara – https://anamcara.ie/
First Light – https://firstlight.ie/
HUGG – http://www.hugg.ie/
Irish Road Victims Association – https://www.irva.ie/
Justin Caffrey’s blog – https://www.justincaffrey.com/
Shapes of Grief (Liz Gleeson) – https://www.shapesofgrief.com/
Read reviews of A LOVE THAT NEVER DIES in Irish Press – https://thegoodgriefproject.co.uk/about/press/
Swimrise – https://thehappypear.ie/swimrise/
I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice – https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1784705462/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i0
I Grieve therefore I Swim – my ICE MILE challenge – https://thegoodgriefproject.co.uk/2018/03/14/new-film-making/