It was a long time coming – a whole year in fact. Two of our previous Active Grief Weekend retreats had had to be cancelled so it was a huge relief and a real pleasure to welcome 20 bereaved parents to Holly Bush Farm in Derbyshire for two days of creativity and companionship last month.
WE LAUGHED, WE DANCED, WE CRIED ….
“The first time I laughed, I thought what a horrible person I was to laugh when my child had died. I didn’t want to enjoy anything or eat the food he liked because he couldn’t do it.” So says bereaved mother Denise in our film A LOVE THAT NEVER DIES. (see the trailer here)
Our son Josh died over ten years ago and that fear that we would somehow be dishonouring his memory should we start enjoying life again still haunts us … but not as bad as it used to. In fact to smile, to laugh, to enjoy good food, to dance even, having fun has become essential to the way we now live our lives – to our grief. Something that was very much in evidence throughout the whole weekend – even for those who are more recently bereaved than us.
This is not to say that we have ‘moved on’ from Josh’s death, that we have got over his not being here – not at all. But in the same way that our lungs still breathe and our hearts still pump blood through our veins, we cannot help but engage with life and all that it throws at us, the good and the bad.
GRIEF IS THE FORM LOVE TAKES WHEN SOMEONE DIES
This is the definition of grief for us, something we like to share as the general ethos for our work, and which became one of the themes for the retreat.
Grief is not about hiding away in a darkened room (though I’ve often done that), its not endless days full of sadness and despair (even if a times it feels just that), it’s not about being pissed off with a world that avoids talking about your child (that too), neither is it a pretence that that you are holding everything together, that you have all the positive energy and emotional strength to see this shit out (again I’ve faked it loads).
Neither is grief a passing phase, a moment of doom and gloom from which we will eventually emerge to the sunlit uplands of a happier and more productive life. No – grief is a condition, neither light or dark. It’s an ongoing life long condition in which the first steps are about learning to accept that painful experience (including and especially the trauma of a child’s death) is integral to our new reality, to a new way of living.
CONTINUING THE BOND
Grief is hard work but it will become harder if we deny it. Throughout the weekend, guests are invited to share memories of their children as well as their thoughts and feelings about how they are coping since they died. In turn these become the foundation for the work of creating new memories, of helping us to maintain our relationship with them.
Again this concept of a ‘continuing the bond’ with the deceased is central to our understanding of a ‘good grief’.
Since our son Josh died, we have found sharing the story of our own grief with the photos and films we have made, not only do they validate feelings that had initially seemed unwelcome in the world, they gave sustenance to a new and ongoing relationship with him. By creating new work, work that did not exist before he died, work that can be viewed or read by others, we are speaking of Josh in ways that acknowledge that new relationship not only with him but with all those who knew him and importantly many that didn’t.
One of the wonderful things about our retreats is the way that new friendships are formed. Yes we are all bereaved and within the ‘bubble’ of this community it is a lot easier to share difficult and painful emotions but still there’s a line we cross when private grief becomes more public. Crucial then to have a truly understanding and unconditional setting in which we can consciously and actively embrace the reality that we now must face.
A PLAYFUL GRIEF
We offer three different workshops for our guests – photography, creative writing and physical activity. It’s a full but well rounded programme that gives you the opportunity to explore some aspects of grief you might not have thought about before.
Of the creative writing session (led by theatre director Jo Bousfield) one participant wrote that she loved “playing with words” and discovering that “random words can magically be assembled to express a feeling. It was like becoming a poet despite oneself”.
For many the highlight of the physical activity session is non-contact boxing – if playing with words “unleashed my sadness” one mum told us the boxing “unleashed my anger”. Generally viewed as a ‘bad’ emotion, anger is part of a normal range of responses to the death of a loved one. It’s OK to be Not OK, so the saying goes – similarly its OK to be angry and Joe’s physical activity workshops are a good opportunity to let it all out.
In our view, we cannot nor should we disconnect from all the difficult, brutal emotions that accompany grief. If we disconnect with the pain of our loss, we disconnect from the love we have for our child and the memories in which they have played such an important role. These are our history. They have made us who we are and who we have now become. Deny them and we deny ourselves the wisdom that grief can offer.
Similarly if we deny ourselves fun, laughter and joy we do a disservice to our grief. Our loved ones would not want us to lead a miserable life – this is a common refrain but difficult to achieve, often undermined by the guilt that Denise alludes to in our film. Or is it fear? Fear of being of being accused of not grieving enough, that we don’t miss them enough, haven’t loved them enough, that we haven’t been a good enough parent to them even and especially after they have died.
We might also fear that after a while we will forget our child, what they looked like, sounded like, smelled like and that if we should dare to have a little fun and start to enjoy life again, we would be papering over those memories, or that by ‘softening’ the pain of our grief we would somehow be assisting the passage of our child’s death to the mists of time. We know these fears well. I remember my own anxiety about Joshua’s death becoming more commonplace ‘as he takes his place in the shared anonymity of all the worlds dead’, something I wrote about in my book of photos and poems RELEASED – published a mere six months after Josh died.
A PROACTIVE APPROACH TO GRIEF
If there’s a barometer of pain, I know that even after ten years the anguish of my grief still registers high in my psyche. But what we’ve discovered and what we like to share with our guests who mostly are not as far into their bereavement, is that a proactive approach to grief, especially the process of creating new images and stories that belong in the ‘now’, liberating memories from the past and rejuvenating them in ways that they become embedded in our lives today … this is where healing occurs. The scars will always be there but we can be comfortable and accepting of their presence – they need not deter us from living life to the full again.
Thank you for reading and thank you to all those who took part – you made us all very proud. Please take a look at our Facebook Page where you can view all the photos made during the photography workshops.
Jimmy and Jane
If you would like join us on our next retreat you can download an application form here
And scroll down for a few more photographs from the weekend – all shot by the amazing Lizzie Pickering