GOOD GRIEF – Sifting for Gold a review by Jimmy


The drive to understand experience, and make sense of the world is as vital as the need to breathe – to eat.     And so it is that trying to understand and give meaning to life’s final moment is equally significant.    This may be a vain attempt to make sense of the inexplicable but for the moment the process of coming to terms with and accepting Josh’s death has inevitably raised the issue of our own mortality – the fear it holds, even the release it promises.     A year and some months on from this tragedy I am beginning to feel accustomed to my grief.    It’s not that life is any easier or that the pain of our loss is any less sharp.     It’s just that I know that pain better and my grief is not such a hostile companion.

What I am also beginning to understand is that we are at the start of a new journey with and without Josh.     And for this I am deeply grateful to our friend Fiona Rodman, a psychotherapist and very wise woman.   The following is an attempt to synthesize some of her ideas as contained in her recent thesis – “Mourning and Transformation – Sifting for Gold.”  (MA University of Middlesex)

Sifting for Gold

After I had read Fiona’s thesis for the first time, I had a real sense of a burden lessened; that the grief I had felt for Josh was less complicated and more natural than I had previously supposed it to be.      Here was an account of the mourning process, told not just from a theoretical perspective, but illuminated with the real insight from her own personal experience.    Fiona’s mother died at an early age, she endured the break up of a long marriage, and witnessed her father lose his own battle to dementia.        Her journey – her different journeys of coming to terms with these deaths inform her conclusions of what it means to mourn.

To a certain extent I think I have been caught up with what I thought society had expected of me in dealing with Josh’s death…  how to behave, what to say, what to feel.    How could it be otherwise.   Even in this modern age with its fast changing moral and ethical codes, we are so influenced by long standing attitudes to death and its aftermath, that it seems the only the right thing to do is to rely on the consensus and on traditional ideas when we are trying to find a way forward on the journey through grief.     In her essay Fiona, explores the connections and the tensions between personal emotions and public expectations.    What I’d like to do here is to try to extract from this necessarily lengthy and rigorously academic piece of work, some of her basic ideas that have helped me understand a little more some of the thoughts and feelings we have all been experiencing since Josh died.

“Sifting for Gold” is concerned with the transformative power of grief.       Another’s death, particular someone who is close to us and some one we love, is always a life changing event.   This might seem so obvious, it shouldn’t need saying, but until Josh died I hadn’t fully understood how difficult it is for many people to accept this change.     Fear of our own mortality certainly kicks in; confronted with the fact of another’s death, or another person’s loss, our thoughts about the inevitability of our own death become so uncomfortable, they prevent us from truly seeing, or at least acknowledging another’s pain.        As a family, we have all experienced having to skirt round the issue of Joshua’s death, for the sake of not embarrassing a friend or an acquaintance.      Yes, its weird, but to hide one’s own feelings for the sake of another’s shame is, I have found, a common occurrence.        All too often, we hear that people just don’t know what to say, but this becomes understandable when you realise that it’s not just that another’s death is such an ominous reminder, but that the bereaved have indeed undergone a fundamental change.      How that change is managed (or not) is the subject of Fiona’s essay.

Her own mother passed away when Fiona was in her early twenties.    But, it wasn’t until many years later that she discovered that she had not properly mourned her mother’s death.    At the time she had felt dislocated and adrift and that there were deep constraints on sharing her feelings with her immediate family.  “We were close”, she writes,  “as if clinging on to a shipwreck together.  We could not however, weep together, fall apart, sob and hold each other.”     Her father although loving and loyal, belonged to a generation that had known many war deaths; they were the survivors who had been severely traumatized by the horrors of war but who had learnt to suppress open expression of grief.     “Laugh” he would say “and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone”.     Fiona is only now aware of how this view had shaped her own emotional responses, leaving her feeling alone in a world where “the role of tears as communication is completely denied.”

Picnic at Josh's tree - will we eventually have to 'forget' Josh?

The standard model of grieving in 20th century Britain relies heavily on the stoic – our way of doing things has been to keep a lid on our emotions, to be strong and to weep only in private, and to avoid any public display of frailty or despair.    And the advice is to put some kind of time frame on the business of processing loss and to find closure – after Josh died a close friend even counseled that to avoid becoming excessively morbid, we would eventually have to ‘forget’ Josh.      The idea is that sooner or later we must ‘move on’ in order to regain the composure and the equilibrium necessary to continue with the rest of our lives.    To do otherwise is to risk a pathological descent into melancholia and depression and the social exclusion that will inevitably follow.

Death of course is all around us – over 10,000 people die every day in the UK, yet for most of us contact with death is relatively rare and as individuals many us lack the experience as well as the social models to help us deal with grief and those that mourn.      And when death happens unexpectedly many of us are understandably but sadly ill equipped to handle the emotions that ensue.    “We don’t learn to mourn at our mother’s knee” observes Su Chard in our film ‘Beyond Goodbye’ (Su is the celebrant who conducted Josh’s funeral.)      Conflicting feelings of sadness, despair, confusion, anger and guilt, which I’m sure all who knew Josh, will be familiar, need to find expression.        But if the emotional climate of society is such that we show only those emotions deemed appropriate for the occasion then what will happen to the inner rage, the impulse to self-destruct, and high levels of anxiety, ambivalence or even the manic laughter that can overcome us from time to time.   Not being able to mourn her mother Fiona writes of being exposed to terrible and “unlived emotional states.”    Her experience of loss and separation were never really resolved but continued to provoke, “turbulent unintegrated long fingers of pain…that seemed to clamp my heart and block the flow of my being”.

I was faced with a similar ‘block’ when aged 21 (a year younger than Josh) I too was involved in a road accident.    I was on holiday with my girlfriend in the former Yugoslavia, when the car we were traveling in was hit by another, ran off then road and fell into a deep and fast flowing river.    My girlfriend, Gillian could not swim.    She died.   I survived.       Totally unfamiliar with very unexpected feelings (particularly guilt and shame) and without the necessary understanding from friends or family, (and without professional help) I too now understand that I was unable to process my grief in a particularly healthy way.     Much of this really was the isolation that I experienced.    Returning to London, I felt shunned by many of my friends who had their own fears of how to behave, as well as my parents need to protect me from extremes of emotions.       This left me in a place where I felt completely disconnected both from my girlfriend Gillian, as well as from my environment.      At the time I would have seen this as distressing but acceptable, and my attempts to brave my way through it as honorable – the thing to do was to make the best out of a shit situation and to move on.      I had the rest of my life to get on with and to allow a tragedy such as this to mark me felt like failure.      But I had been marked and I had been changed.      And without the adequate means both personally and socially to express my feelings and with no acknowledgement of the importance of the grieving journey, I think I became quite introspective, learning how to cope on my own, actively avoiding close emotional involvement.    I lost contact with Gillian’s family and to a degree I lost my way in life.

But does surviving such untimely tragedies or even the anticipated death of a parent have to be such a lonely experience.      In retrospect Fiona identified a sense of an “arrested capacity to mourn” in the years following her mother’s death.      This led her to explore just what it is within the cultural and psychological life of our society that determines they way we grieve and how mourning has been understood by academics, writers as well as the bereaved themselves.      And going all the way back to Freud she discovers that, after a death, it is the way that we understand our sense of self in the world that plays a crucial role in our ability to regain the necessary psychological balance and the stability to continue living as functional human beings.   “Self” she posits, can be understood in two different ways – there is the idea of the ‘objective separate mind’ and the idea of the ‘subjective interconnected mind’.      The first of these philosophical positions, the idea of the self as a separate finite entity underscores a very western view that we are each (at our core) unique and autonomous individuals existing alongside other individuals in a highly individualistic society.       When it comes to processing trauma, of which grief and mourning come high on the list, our way of dealing with it is necessarily an internal and private journey of gradually loosening our attachment to our lost loved one until equilibrium is restored.     It’s a finite (even measurable) process which if unbounded becomes pathological  – basically you’re sick if you grieve too long.

Contrast this with more contemporary yet still relatively unfamiliar philosophical ideas which shift the emphasis away from the ‘isolated’ self and the separate mind to a more relationally embedded model of the self, in which mourning and recovery are seen as being facilitated or impeded more or less in response to and with the help of others.    Searching out and recording the experiences of fellow travelers in grief, Fiona findings were confirmed in two ways.     First, whilst previous wisdom was heavily influenced by the pressure to get over it and move on, these new ideas revealed mourning to be a two-fold process with a constant oscillation between deep sadness and attempts to reconstruct life.     Now, as I write this, I believe I am in recovery mode.   An hour ago I was experiencing one of those painfully raw moments of missing Josh.    Later the hurt will return.

The second of Fiona’s findings was that processing trauma is not best achieved in isolation – Fiona writes, “we need others deeply alongside us in our mourning, we need to be known.”   Rather than a private, closed, exclusively personal experience, mourning is here seen as an inter-relational process in which dependency on others is vital for us to heal our fractured life, reassert our sense of self and our ongoing being.

It might seem obvious that to share one’s loss and be supported by others can only be of value to the bereaved, but the actual process of mourning extends way beyond any public ritual in which an open (but limited) form of grieving is found acceptable.   The funeral, that necessary rite of passage, has more often been seen as providing opportunity for a final farewell, part of a closure rather than the start of a journey through grief.

Josh's funeral at the Matara Centre

Many people found that our funeral for Josh was not only deeply moving, but it was also quite unique with its emphasis on creating a symbolic journey in which we carried his casket into the main room at the Matara Centre, on to the next and then out into the night.     But if it was remarkable, maybe that’s only because in this country we seem to have lost the idea of a collectivised ritual and its ability to engage in or invent symbolic acts that give meaning to the loss the community is feeling and to the possibilities for healing.

In ‘Sifting for Gold”, Fiona describes her visit to the Musee Branly in Paris (“not like walking into a museum but a prayer”) in which displays of mourning rituals from all over the globe included ceremonial objects that marked death and its journey as being important as much for the mourners as for the deceased; like the carved wooden boat inlaid with mother of pearl, in which the bones of the deceased were finally sent out to sea after the long community ritual.

What is important here is the way a traditional community will come together and create elaborate rituals, in some cases lasting for years, in order not only to register the loss and its impact, but to help construct a voyage to a different relationship with the deceased.     As we know in many traditional cultures, the dead remain as valuable spiritual guides for the living.

Friends help to build Josh's casket

Our family was hugely supported by our local community in organizing Josh’s funeral and their creative involvement deepens the sense of a shared loss as well as providing the impetus for building a new relationship with Joshua.   The viral candle lighting ceremony was highly symbolic of the way we had all been in some way influenced by Josh and could share that with others.


But creating this ritualized journey, (as old as time itself) and the possibilities that holds for a communal sense of loss is not so possible in a world where the individual, the lonely and the private self is the norm.

viral candle lighting ceremony

This brings us back to Fiona’s definition of self, of how we see ourselves, our “self”.   Are we unique, separate identities or part of a continuum with the rest of humanity.       In both cases of course we need to relate to others, but within the model that Fiona describes as the intrapsychic or separated self, we can survive without the other in the belief that nothing of our own self has been actually lost.    Not only that, we can endure the loss knowing that our mourning will be a finite process with a final letting go signaling a healthy outcome to our grieving journey.

However if our view of who we are is based on the idea of our “selves” being part of a commonality of all human experience, (a sense that we all more alike than different) and that we exist as relational beings, then when someone close to us dies, we feel that death as a loss of part of our own ‘self’.   I suspect that all those who knew Josh, all those who had any kind of relationship with him, will accept that when he died something inside of them died as well.


Fiona describes the traditional approach to mourning as “a cutting off and a moving on”.    But this need to detach oneself from the deceased has obscured another aspect of the work of mourning – to repair the disruption to the relationship we had (have) with the deceased.

Fiona describes the anxiety and the rawness at the loss of her mother, remembering in detail her illness and her death as if it were yesterday.    “At the same time I could not remember at all.    Such was the pain of bringing her into mind that I could not draw on a sense of continuing relationship with her inside me.”         Twenty years on and in the light of subsequent losses, Fiona identifies this “continuing relationship” with the deceased as key to regaining the confidence and the stability we need to carry on living, to carry on living with another’s death.     She draws on the ideas of psychoanalyst, Darian Leader, that “we need to separate out the loss of the other from the loss of what we mean to them, the person that we were in their eyes”.

the person we were in their eyes

That last phrase “the person that we were in their eyes”.      Eyes that no longer see; the person that we were and are no more.      We lost Josh and what he meant to us, but we also lost that part of us that was Josh and what we meant to him.    Fiona desperately misses being a daughter to her mother, “of mattering to her” and I have not only lost a son I have lost my role as a father to that son.      No longer can I advise and argue with him, no longer can I protect and admire him, no more long phone calls to gather up his news, no more am I his last port of call.

With Joshua’s death we are changed and as much as we need to come to terms with his, or any death we need to acknowledge our changed selves, something I was not aware of when my girlfriend died all those years ago.

Fiona cites the work of  The Compassionate Friends, a self help group that supports parents who have lost their children.    By meeting regularly, mourners are encouraged to name and speak of their child and to hold rituals on important dates.      Memories of the child and the parent’s grief are in this way validated and held in mutual recognition.     “Through this shared space” Fiona writes, “a transformation is facilitated in which the child comes to occupy a different, still living, inside space.     The pain that the child is dead and will never again be present in the way that it was, is given room to be, but through a shared space and over time this other internal journey can take place.”

As I read these lines I wondered how this could be possible.      With only memories and history to sustain us, with no actual Josh, how could a new living relationship grow inside of me?       Then I was reminded of the various creative acts we have done in order to continue our bond with Joshua – the tree planted on a farm where Josh and his friends would often gather, has now become a Mecca for those same friends and family alike, the photographs I have made since he died, the film we produced as a celebration of his life, this website, all are sustenance for our new relationship with him.    And they are all necessarily shared and communicative experiences  – on Josh’s still active Facebook page we talk to him (Josh we talk to YOU) and in speaking of Josh in these varied ways we acknowledge that new relationship not only with him but with each other.

reshaping and continuing the bond

In not relinquishing, in not cutting off from Josh we are in Fiona’s words “reshaping and continuing the bond in a different way, a way that is not a denial that the relationship has changed forever, but a way that honours the place and the significance of the deceased in ongoing life.”

That our ongoing lives have been transformed by Josh death is beyond dispute. Fiona’s conclusion is that it will be the deep inner work of reframing our “self” in relation to others that will make them worthwhile once more.

The title of Fiona’s essay comes from a line she found in one of Alice Walker’s poems – ‘now I understand that grief, emotional speaking, is the same as gold…’ Yes, there are special treasures to be found in our mourning and grief can be good.


I miss you Josh

Your Dad, Jimmy (July 2012)



Fiona Rodman is a psychotherapist and lives near Stroud in Gloucestershire.      She is currently working on her next book – a further exploration of contemporary practices in mourning and grief.   To read “Mourning and Transformation – Sifting for Gold” in full please contact Fiona directly –


I am particularly interested to find out how any of Fiona’s ideas might resonate with your own experiences – please leave any comments in the box below


15 Responses

  1. I was interested in the concept of re-framing the self. Kirsty was born when I was nineteen, she died when I was sixty. We shared the same interests, theatre, film, literature, sometimes I did not know where she began and I ended, our lives were so entwined. I know now! Sometimes I feel that I will never bridge the void she left in my life. The voluntary work I now undertake with The Compassionate Friends, (I run a support group here in Bristol and organise a yearly weekend retreat for bereaved parents) drives me forwards. This is how I am re- framing my own identity without my soul mate of 41 years. This is not merely a ‘giving’ exercise – it’s much more complex than that. This is how I keep Kirsty an essential part of my life – a continuing bond. Her memory drives me forward into the future, not optimistically, her death has robbed me of that, but purposely, with the resolve she always had in the face of cancer. She always told me (yes ‘told me’ she never lost that teachers tone of voice) “I don’t want you to cry Mum”. Well I do but I do other things as well in keeping her memory alive.

    1. Dear Nicki

      Thank you for your comments. I have had a brief look at your website and it seems we both recognise how as bereaved parents we are fundamentally changed following the deaths of our children. I love your concept of SLOW (a very clever acronym). We are currently making a film for The Compassionate Friends which should be ready at the end of this month – stayed tuned.

      with love


  2. Dear Jimmy
    I find your writing so gripping and am very interested also in the transforming nature of grief after our children died – your Josh looks and is so beautiful and shines through all you write. In the slow group for bereaved parents we allow the time that all nature takes – slow time – to feel, , to grieve , to love, to heal, to sift through our fingers what the daily tide brings in, and to see any small pieces of treasure there in. It’s raw, it’s honed by pain, it’s real, it’s human.

    Thanks for your inspiring site – found by accident actually


    1. Thank you Sarane for your comments. We are so sorry to hear about Seth – you must be hurting so much and we feel for you. Fiona’s work was my first step to understanding how we are changed by a loved one’s death and transformed in our mourning. I guess we all still have a long way to go but like you I believe that looking forward as we remember the past is better than looking back and fearing the future. I don’t know much about Buddhism – tho we have found iots meditative practices very helpful – I will look up the books you have suggested.
      Thanks for contacting us – please stay in touch
      with love


  3. Hi Jimmy and Jane
    I am very interested in your discussion and appreciate your bringing up a different approach to grieving. We bereaved are changed forever but it doesn’t have to be a bad change. I have found the more I understand about myself, the better I am able to move forward. I have found different cultural expectations very helpful. My own belief in Buddhism has been particularly helpful as it provides a framework with rituals that helped me and my son, Seth, in the early days. (Seth took his own life, age 24 in May 2011) Also I had my Buddhist community to ask for support. A book called The Other Side of Sadness’ by Bonanno is a very interesting read. Grief and grieving is such a personal thing but I do feel that the more we are able to talk about it the better. Love and light to you x

  4. Thanks Jimmy( and Fiona) for your stories and thoughts on death and loss.
    Loved ones who have died do live on in our hearts.
    In my experience death changes us in ways we could never imaginei,and in order to heal we have to be real,to be true to ourselves,to stay with it.I see you doing this Jimmy.
    Someimes we dont know how to do this,especially when we are younger.
    I think Joshs funeral and the web site Jimmyand Rosas work are all useful thought provoking sign posts to grieving and what being real can look like
    thank you so much for being so open,

    with love

    1. Hi suzanne – thanks for your comments – I like your line “to heal we have to be real” – in a sense Josh’s death has been the most painfully real event in our lives but what I have been left with is a complete sense of unreality – I think what we are doing is clawing our way back to a new sense of being – a new sense of the real – the reality of Josh being dead in our new lives – what Fiona talks about in reshaping our relationship with him at times feels quite impossible if only because a great sadness seems to get in the way – but that as you say is real and it will be only through sadness and pain that we can forge that new bond with Josh. What I have found to be most important actually is the ability to share all this with friends like you and John who have seen and known our grief.

      lots of love Jimmy

  5. Thank you dear Jimmy. Move alongside and not ‘on’. love knows no boundaries or constraints, dear Josh. My Nan set a place at the table for my Grandad every day of the forty years she lived ‘on’ without him. She said he never left.

  6. Thank-you Jimmy. I read Fiona’s thesis after reading her review on Rosa’s exhibition here and I found it so inspiring. I think it is so important. The model we have as a society, that we must cut off and move on is, I believe, so damaging and diminishes us as human beings. It seems to me clear that dying and grieving are aspects of the whole experience that we call ‘being alive’ and in trying to cut them out, we limit our ability to live fully and truly. As you and Fiona make clear, in grieving we are changed (in dying we will also be changed); our relationships are changed and change is sometimes frightening….. Thank-you to all of you, and to dear Josh, for being such an inspiration.

    1. Dear Georgina – thank you for your comments. I think it is natural that we should try and avoid pain – pain is after all one of the body’s way of signaling that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. I have never felt a pain so deep as when we heard the news that Josh had died but it has felt like society’s answer to that pain is to try and help me to get it to go away. This is Ok – to a certain extent – and all the messages of condolence, all the flowers, all the help we had with arranging the funeral, all this support definitely helped us to carry the pain. But to treat the pain of grief as if it was ‘fixable’ is clearly not going to work, because our loss cannot be treated, it will last forever. When Joshua was born and Jane was anticipating the pain of giving birth to her first child, we had this saying from the I Ching stuck on our bedroom wall –

      “Rain after all is only Rain,
      It is not bad weather,
      So Pain is, in the end, only Pain,
      Unless you resist it,
      And then it becomes a torment”

      No-one can take away the pain of losing a child. I’m not sure that I want them to. In the daily, hourly and truly painful acknowledgement of his death we are not as you say “diminished” but made more aware of how alive we are.

  7. I echo others comments that you are both real pioneers in the way we approach mourning and loss, and goodness me it needs a rethink. One of the most difficult aspects of losing my mum, was the attitude of others that it was perfectly normal to lose ones parents and therefore I should ‘get over it’ fairly quickly. Of course the idea that there is a neat graph of acceptable amounts of pain depending on the age, relationship and status of the person who has died is absurd. My mother was a fantastic woman and without doubt my closest friend. However all her life she cared for others; her own mother, my Downs syndrome sister, my alcoholic invalid father and so I always had to share her with others, and she had little or no free time. When my grandmother and then my father died, it appeared that for the first time in our lives, my mother would have time for fun and to spend time with me and her grandchildren. So her diagnosis of terminal cancer only a few weeks later, felt like the greatest injustice and nasty trick being played out. But my goodness we had a fun year! We went to Africa together with my sister, had a wild weekend in Dublin, spent a few days being tourist in London and laughed like we would drop. I then had the privilege of nursing her at home as she became more ill, until she died aged only 64 in my arms. I then arranged the funeral, wrote her eulogy and my brother and I conducted the service alone, using readings from her hero – nelson Mandela, and poetry and readings from various spiritual writings. It was the most powerful experience of my life except the birth of my babies. However I found people’s expectations afterwards that it was all over, and I should now get back on with my life ‘as normal’ utterley incomprehensible. Ths experience changed me profoundly and permanently. Being so close to death, watching it, sitting in the room with it, talking abou it to ,y extraordinary mum who was able to talk openly about her feelings about dying, meant that I had been given an insight into a huge aspect of living, that we will all die, that never leaves you. My salvation has been my fantastic family, my husband and children who allowed me to grieve over a long period of time and have now helped me find a source of great happiness in remembering and talking about my mum. Just as you explored in this essay, I have now found a new relationship with her. We talk about my mum all the time. My children send me letters on her birthday talking about her. I use objects of hers which have taken on an almost talismanic quality for me, earrings I bought her for her birthday which I now wear, a teapot she loved which I make tea in when I’m feeling low. It may seem silly, but they have the power to reconnect me to her, not just as I remember her, but also how she saw and felt about me. It’s been twelve years now, but she is with me emotionally all the time and my memories of her now bring me great happiness and even laughter but it took a long time for it to evolve into that. Thank you both so much for giving us an arena to explore these thoughts.

  8. Just read this essay with great interest as i do all your posts. As i have said before i feel that you and Jane are real pioneers in your courageous ongoing sharing of your process as a result of Josh’s death and i have the greatest love and respect for you both, and Joe and Rosa also for allowing us, your friends, to partake of and learn from this journey.
    I also identify with the idea of having an ongoing and developing relationship with the person who has died.That has certainly been the case for me with the few people close to me who have died (a very dear friend,my father and my beloved mother-in-law). I still talk to them and feel their love; imagine what they would say to me and also try to replicate some of their best gifts and qualities in my own life, which is one of the ways they ‘live on’ through me, just as Joshua lives on through all who knew and loved him and will ALWAYS continue to know and love him . . .

  9. Grief is made up of waves of pain that come and go, and for me an essential part of surviving these waves, is to attempt to share our experience with others so that they can get alongside us if they feel able to. This in turn lessens the feelings of isolation that come with bereavement. Josh,s death is not about seeking closure…….(can there be such a thing for a parent who has experienced the death of their child?)…..It is about continuing the journey through grief in the hope that Josh can, with the passing of time, take up a more comfortable space within us….part of us … he always was….and always will be. And as we get to know the pain better, hopefully with that acceptance the pain will lessen. Fiona talks about her father,s generations suppression of grief: “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone”. For our post war generation it is only marginally easier. As Fiona points out, a death is an ominous reminder of our own mortality, which we oft times prefer to ignore. Thanks Jimmy and Fiona for sharing Good Grief.

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