EXPLORING GRIEF WITH PHOTOGRAPHY

The following is our report on a photography workshop Jane and I ran at the TCF National Gathering earlier this year – apologies if this appears a little late but life work and other things do tend sometimes to take over from our tasks of keeping you informed of all the things that have happened since Josh died.    In any case time for us doesn’t really feel like a series of moments that gradually disappear into the ether,  or off the bottom of a blogroll, so we hope that this account will be as relevant to you in a years time as it does now.

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Saturday 11th October  2014 …   it’s the annual Gathering of The Compassionate Friends and Jane and I have an opportunity to share our joint skills in photography and therapy.  We are running a photography workshop for bereaved parents and siblings – EXPLORING GRIEF WITH PHOTOGRAPHY.    Our two disciplines seem to gell together seemlessly and the first part of the course is going well – the participants have split into groups and and are sharing the photos they have brought along.   We have a good turnout – two 90 minute sessions both completely full – most with very little practical experience of making photographs but all with a huge amount of stories and memories to share.   The room is buzzing with emotion.   Both therapy and photography are ways in which to seek beyond the surface layers and discover hidden emotions.    And while photography can have a more tangible result they are both very much processes in which everyday realities can be tested and revealed anew.  At least this was the approach we hoped to explore in the new photography course we have devised and for which this is its first outing.

The Compassionate Friends is a charity we have now become quite closely involved in and attached to. TCF is important to us, not just because of the video we produced for them (SAY THEIR NAMEbut because it truly is a peer to peer network run by and for bereaved parents.   Not only do we share our grief (it makes life so much easier when we do) we can also share our skills and for us this represented a very special opportunity to contribute something of our own to a community that had, I suspect, not given much thought to the potential of photography as a therapeutic tool, especially for the bereaved.

So how do we and how can we use photographs to help us as we grieve?       Both the photos that we already have of our child and the ones we intend still to take.    We asked everyone who signed up to the sessions to bring along at least three photos of their child, pictures that have a particular resonance or evoke a special memory.   Further into the session we will be asking them to choose just the one picture in order to ‘reframe’ it in a way that will bring it more into the present.   Our purpose here is to experiment with ways in which we can keeping an on going relationship with our child by employing one of memory’s most valuable assistants – the photographic image.

In preparing the course, I began by looking for some good examples of what others had done in this area.  As Josh’s sister Rosa has pointed out in her article (Making it Real – Death and Photography)  every photo we take will outlive its subject and as such has enormous potential to transcend  that final moment between life and death, a fact well recognised by artists and photographers ever since the medium was discovered 200 years ago.   But by  googling  a combinations of various words; GRIEF, PHOTOGRAPHY, DEATH, BEREAVEMENT etc, I found little that spoke to my own experience of life since Josh died.      Beautiful photographs as they are, mostly they seem to fall into high art or reportage, neither of which seem to be of much use to anyone looking to express their own very personal feelings in the days months and years following the death of a child.

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photo credit Nico Nordström 2010
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Dmitri Baltermants – Crimea 1942
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Dan Chung – China 2008

Typical would be this photo of grieving parents following an earthquake in China.   Although as a press photo it has the potential for a sort of anonymous association for the viewer (we can feel their pain)  it does little, I suspect, to help the mum and dad who have just lost their daughter.  Why?  Well I think its because they haven’t been involved in the real work of taking the photograph.  Did they know the photograph was being taken or did they pose suitably grief stricken in the rubble, their daughters image conveniently arranged so that the world can see her in full view.  Whichever,  this is an image of tragedy for public consumption and feeds a very common place idea of what grief should look like but, buried as it is in the historicity of the moment it can never convey what grief really feels like as one of life’s longest lasting experiences.

A little closer to home (in the sense of a personalised photography) I found this remarkable website NILMDTS – Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep – a sort of photo agency that will record for you a moment with your child who has died at birth.    This is a free professional service and is in the tradition of post-mortem very popular in the States at the  end of the 19th century, a time when child death in the family was commonplace, though we can assume no less traumatising..

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19th century post-mortem photograph
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Victorian post-mortem photograph
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now i lay myself down to sleep – 21st century

Now as then these  photographs carry a huge emotional charge both for the bereaved families and for us strangers looking on.  Unlike a press photograph and in common with all portraits they have demanded the active participation of the sitters.   Mother has taken her dead baby in her arms and posed specifically for the camera.   She is performing a drama with the shortest of stories but one which will have lasting impact and as such has the potential for huge therapeutic effect.  The moment is both real physically and emotionally and she is in effect taking the first step in a life’s work of continuing her bond with her child.  This is a lasting image that has captured a hugely significant moment and one in which she can return to time and  again as she remembers and try to construct what (or who) might have been.  But again, as artefact, these post-mortem pictures are and can only be,  locked into the past, even while they generate very current as well as very healing memories and emotions.

It was with these thoughts in mind, that we began our workshops  with an invitation to explore  ways in which we can use photography to generate a continually evolving set of stories and impressions following the death our child.  We had each of us brought favorite photos and were now explaining the  stories behind them and the memories they evoked. In the small groups we had formed words spilled out and across the room in a veritable hubbub, a cacophony even of voices all (and I think this is the really interesting bit) trying to describe their feelings, all trying to convey their emotions.   But at the same time the mere act of vocalising our thoughts, of telling the narrative seem to get in the way of really connecting with these photos and the child within.  In a sense words were failing us.

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photo workshop – the telling

At this point then we asked people to remain in groups but to sit quietly and merely observe their images, together and in silence.  In the hush that followed Jane used her ‘mindfulness’ techniques, encouraging us to stay in the moment however difficult the feelings, to try and lose a sense of time and to find a connection with our child that is now and something more than just memory. It was extraordinary, as the words disappeared and the emotions took over, hands felt for another to hold, an arm went around another’s shoulder,  tears began to form and frankly, I was stunned.

Photographs of course are always memories – they are always of the past; of something that has already happened.  You cannot take a photo of the future.  But while they are always of the past, they are also always in the present. And like memory their meaning or the meaning they have for us, can evolve with time, sometimes radically and overnight.  We recognised this in the photos we had brought of our children … innocent snapshots that have now become overloaded with longing and painful fantasies of what might have been.    In my book RELEASED I wrote about how an image of Josh taken as part of a series of portraits of people with their eyes closed, had now attained a kind of iconic status in the way in which we remember him – and the way in which we ‘reinvent’ him in a continually shifting process of trying to find meaning in our lives and in his death. Personally, I have found much comfort in being able to re-photograph Josh’s  image – it has taken me from the raw pain of remembering too much to a newer sense of a continued relationship with him.   No longer here and forever dead, Josh still remains a huge presence in my creative endeavour and very much part of my life.

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Josh’s business card
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So there are two aspects to this business of exploring grief with photography. There are the photos we already have of our child who is now dead.  Photos that were taken in all innocence of what the future might bring, now portals to our memories holding us close to a life that once was, both ours and theirs.  And there the images that we can now make – post tragedy – of the lives we now inhabit, both ours and theirs (do they not live on within us?).

For the second part of our workshop people divided into pairs and together attempted to create a photograph that reflected some of these concerns.   In a way what we were trying to do is to weld together the past and the present – the past with all its longings and the present full of our current desires – and in so doing rebuild our sense of a future.  As all bereaved parents will know, when your child dies, you are immediately thrown into a world in which the future has very little meaning.  But in this act of re photographing our child’s image we began to see some real therapeutic possibilities in the way we can continue our relationship with her/him with less pain.  With the photographs we now made we could forgo the ‘what if’s’ in favour of the ‘might be’s’.   We might even imagine a time when we can look upon their face and smile again and know there are more photos to come many of which we haven’t even dreamed about – yet.

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photo workshop – the making
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photo workshop – the showing

24 people attended our workshops and you can see some of the resulting photographs by clicking on the image below.   Some of the photos remain private so we are only publishing those for which we have permission.

EXPLORE THE RESULTS

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CLICK ON THE IMAGE

Some of the thoughts and feedback about the sessions …

“inspirational – I have been so sad that we have no new photographs of (our child) and now I feel I can put all our pictures into a new context”

” …painful, powerful, beautiful meaningful and extremely well run.   A perfect combination of professionalism, creativity and empathy”

“looking at my picture of (my child) was so hard … I have always thought I was so totally rubbish at photography and not really interested in it but it has inspired me to do more in the future”

“but maybe the tears are necessary and maybe they feed the creative process ..”

“You have shown us a beautiful & really unique way  to remember our very precious children ….. I thought I would get very upset seeing (my child) on the screen …. but in fact because it was so special, it was actually comforting”

“such a beautiful way to continue our bonds and to make new ‘memories’ with (my child).   Jane and Jimmy, you handled our feelings so sensitively and I feel uplifted”

Jane and I feel very encouraged by this and will be offering a more developed version of EXPLORING GRIEF WITH PHOTOGRAPHY in the future.   In the TCF workshops we were concentrating on re-photographing an already existing image but there so many more ways of photographing our grief.   We also realise that for some  the image of their child still holds too many painful reminders or that they might want to focus on a more abstract sense of their grief.   Grief afterall is such a complex range of emotions that finding words to describe them often seems to result in cliche or just very ordinary and nothing like what we are truly experiencing.

And this is where making new photographs can help to play a part. We can learn to express our thoughts and feelings in a language that is not so literally tied-bound.  By finding the visual metaphors that are in a way unique to us and that express our grief, ours and ours alone, we can interpret our feelings and our experiences  in our own way.  In a way this is our route to honesty, something others are bound to recognise.    We may also find that despite the very solidity of a photograph (this did actually happen – this person did actually exist) the language of photography is very fluid, that photos in themselves hold no particular meaning outside of the way they are viewed. But isn’t that a bit like grief anyway – a constant slipping and sliding of feelings and emotions around a central fact – our child has died.

Thanks for reading

Jimmy

December 2014

If you want to know more about our work or would like us to create a course for you please use the CONTACT FORM on this website

Look out for my next photographic series

Another Place Beyond Time – coming soon

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LINKS

The Compassionate Friends – WEBSITE

Now I Lay Myself Down to Sleep – NILMDTS

Continuing Bonds – on BEYOND GOODBYE

Rosa’s essay – Making it Real – Death and Photography

Jimmy’s book – RELEASED

Josh Edmonds Memorial Scheme – Year Three Launch

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We are very excited that our memorial scheme for Josh has had such an enthusiastic response.    We now enter the third year of the scheme that enables a young person in Gloucestershire to work at the Ministry of Sound for a month.     The launch of the 2015 Scheme is on 12th January and we like you to spread the word so that all those aged 18 – 25 know about an opportunity NOT TO BE MISSED

Last year’s successful candidate, Barney Wilson told us how much he appreciated the opportunity:

For five weeks this Summer I became an intern at one of the world’s leading dance music brands, Ministry of Sound. I moved away from home for the first time, lived in London, worked in a huge office, filmed inside the 12th best club in the world, interviewed superstar DJs, made ten videos for Ministry of Sound’s website, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, heard my own music played through the best sound-system there is and sat in board room meetings planning the next big dance hit.

This is all because of the Josh Edmonds Memorial Scheme.  I was lucky enough to be chosen as candidate two of this brilliant scheme and I’m pleased to say that I experienced things beyond my (very high!) expectations.

Both personally and professionally I made huge steps forward thanks to Jimmy and Jane’s initiative. As a young person it’s hard enough deciding what to do, let alone doing it but we all need an open door or a little leg up sometimes and I’m sure Josh would’ve been proud of his parents creating this opportunity in such a competitive industry.

If there was ever an example of creating a positive out of a negative, this is it.

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Barney helping out at MoS dance music legend Erick Morillo

Barney will be guest speaker at the launch at Cirencester College where he will be showing some of the videos he made during his time at MoS.    This will also be an opportunity to see some of Josh’s work too. Quite a night!

If this is Josh’s gift to young talent in Gloucestershire, then their gifts to us have been these two amazing blogs –

READ ABOUT Barney’s experience here

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AND the 1st Years intern Lewis’s here

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To find out more about how to apply to this year’s click on the invite below

Josh Edmonds Memorial Scheme Invitation 2015

 

Coping with Christmas

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Christmas is coming and we’d like to extend our warmest seasonal greetings to one and all ….

 

 

 

 

Along with many families who will have an empty space at their festive table,  we will be setting a place for Josh, lighting a candle for him, drinking  a toast and remembering happier times.   Our last Christmas with Josh was in 2009 – we spent the season in New York – a great holiday with much to discover.    Josh, with a free pass from his work at the Ministry of Sound  had got access to a club for New Years Eve and the following day with his brother Joe,  took a dip into the just above freezing Atlantic as part of the Coney Island New Years Day Swim.   And he will never be forgiven for the stress caused when he wandered off in search of a sandwich just as we were about to board the plane back home – with the rest of us left stranded at the gate he eventually strolled up munching  nonchalantly with just seconds to go before it closed.    Memories that last the longest are probably those with the strongest emotional charge, even if they are tinged with certain frustration at a teenagers self absorption.    A frustration now of course loaded with regret that there are now no more new Josh stories to be told.

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New York – winter 2009 – Jane, Rosa, Jimmy, Josh
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5th Avenue – Winter 2009 – Jane, Jimmy, Josh, Joe
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New Year’s Day – Coney Island Swim- Joe and Josh

For us Christmas is less, far less about any religious observance, more about an opportunity for the family to come together, all under one roof and to assert of love for one another – to celebrate and to strengthen our bond with one another.   That we do this simultaneously with families up and down the country is also important, cementing us within a cultural framework and providing an emotional security as part of our ‘belonging’.    So, as for many bereaved families, Josh’s forever absence is particularly painful, especially if that sense of belonging is disrupted not just by the trauma of death but by the isolation we often feel from a society that finds death or deathly memories a tad annoying when everyone is just trying to get on and enjoy themselves.

Jane spoke about this in the radio interviews she did on  the day Dying Matters launched their BEING THERE campaign (see this post).    She was asked to try and discribe what it felt like to be bereaved of a child in the run up to Christmas.  Having lost both parents in the last two years, she tried to compare timely and untimely deaths – “when your parents die you lose your past”, she said, “when your child dies you lose their future”, a distinction possibly not well recognised by family and friends as they shell out seasonal greetings.    While it is true that our own Christmas card count has decreased rapidly over the last few years (we don’t send and therefore don’t receive that many), of those we have received so far, only a few have mentioned Josh.    We believe there is nothing ill intentioned about this, merely that people are somehow fearful that to talk about Josh is to cause extra pain at a time when we should be celebrating.    This is of course a fear totally misplaced and probably speaks more to the senders fear about death and mortality than it does to their concern for our happiness.   Click on the link below to listen to Jane on BBC Radio 5 Live

Christmas cards are probably one of our biggest bones of contention.   We struggle with the cards who edit Josh out especially from those who knew him.    What we say now is please do not be scared that you might make us upset.   Every parent who has lost a child will be thinking about them and longing for them at Christmas and we are desperate that they should be acknowledged.  There is a saying; “Your words may bring tears to our eyes but they are music to our ears.”  And as the title of  The Compassionate Friends’ short film emphasizes it is important to SAY THEIR NAME.

Listen here to more of Jane’s interviews across the nation


 

LINKS 

For some excellent tips for both bereaved and non bereaved  click here for THE COMPASSIONATE FRIENDS guide to coping with Christmas

 

DIAS DE MEURTOS

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By coincidence while Jane was helping to launch the Dying Matters BEING THERE  campaign in London last month (2nd November 2014) our older son Joe was in Mexico visiting Hollie, one of Josh’s best friends.      The Dying Matters event was the focus of their annual Day of the Dead celebrations and guess what, Joe and Hollie were remembering Josh at the real deal in Oaxaca, birthplace of Las Dias de Muertos.    Here is his account of their day …

JOEMEX2238Experiencing Dias de Muertos – Oaxaca, Mexico 

We experienced Dias de Muertos here in Mexico in Oaxaca City. Each year Mexicans celebrate the dead leading up to 2nd November (Dias de Muertos) by creating colourful altars for their loved ones that have passed, dressing up in death related costumes and face paints, drinking and eating and holding street parties. Within Mexican tradition, the 2nd of November is kept for the dead to return to this world and share in the offerings given to them.

Having lost a brother and a best friend, Hollie and I  wanted to honour our Josh this past weekend and ensure that his presence and soul was celebrated. We created a colourful mobile made of traditional Mexican tin, that carried pictures of Josh on star shaped card and little skeleton figurines and a sacred tin shaped heart. We visited a candle lit vigil for the dead in a cemetery just outside of Oaxaca Centro. The scene was magical. Night had fallen but the cemetery was lit up with candles, bright marigold flowers and the sound of music from people playing instruments and singing beside the graves of their lost ones.

JOEMEX2249We found a suitable tree that Josh could now call his own and hung his mobile to a branch. We scattered Josh’s ashes at the base of the tree and shared a small bottle of tequilla with Josh whilst sitting with him.

Although in the UK, it is not un-common to see relatives and friends visit  a cemetery and to hold time with a lost loved one, this experience felt very different. A more shared experience and less private, where visitors walked in between the dead and were invited to learn more about them. The dead felt more alive due to the decoration of their graves and how families were sitting, eating, drinking or even singing or having a smoke with them.

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We shared our love of Joshua with a mother and a wonderful young child who became instantly interested in Joshua’s memorial mobile. He asked questions about who Joshua was to us and it was nice for us to introduce him to Joshua. He was so taken with the mobile that Hollie simply had to give him the sacred tin heart for keeps! He was chuffed to bits.

Here in Mexico, people’s relationship with death seems very honest and open. The dead are not forgotten. They are celebrated and seen as still part of this world.

Josh’s mobile still hangs in the cemetery and now he has two trees in this world he can call his own.

Joe

November 2014

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Hollie downs a tequila in memory of Josh
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Jane with Josh’s sister Rosa at Dying Matters


LINKS

to view more photos from Joe’s trip to Mexico click here

Dying Matters : http://www.dyingmatters.org/

 

Worldwide Candle Lighting events

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Big thanks go to our friends at the JESSICA MATHERS TRUST who organised this years annual worldwide candle lighting event at their headquarters in Deptford, South London.

Now believed to be the largest mass candle lighting on the globe, this was the 18th year in which a virtual 24-hour wave of light moved from time zone to time zone.   Started, in the United States by THE COMPASSIONATE FRIENDS in 1997 as a small internet observance, it has since swelled in numbers as word has spread throughout the world .   On the second Sunday of November,  hundreds of formal and informal candle lighting events are held  in homes, churches, community centres and all sorts of meeting places as families and friends  gather in quiet remembrance of children who have died, but will never be forgotten.      At 7.00 pm local time parents and siblings gather to light a candle to commemorate their dead son or daughter, brother or sister thus creating this huge wave of light that travels round the world.

Jane and I, along with Josh’s brother Joe and sister Rosa joined 50 or so others in an evening of remembering and honouring.   Like many communities that part of society known as BP’s (bereaved parents) is held together mainly via social networks.    AWe use the internet as a more or less safe place to talk about our feelings, both about the child we have lost and about the place we are in now – our grief sometimes feels like a burden, one that is hard to share with those who are so bereaved.  Candle lighting events such as these are as much about celebrating our children as it is about meeting others in a similar situation.   Often, while we have formed tenuous virtual relationships this is the first time we will have met in the flesh.    If it is important to continue the bond with have with our dead child, its the relationships we have with others (both bereaved and not) which are the fertile ground in which that bond can grow.

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CLICK ON ANY OF THESE IMAGES TO SEE THE FULL

SELECTION OF PHOTOS FROM THE WORLD WIDE CANDLE LIGHTING EVENT

AT JESSICA’S HEART LONDON 2014

Thanks for reading

Jimmy

December 2014

Links

THE JESSICA MATHERS TRUST:  http://www.thejmt.co.uk/home/

THE COMPASSIONATE FRIENDS :  http://www.tcf.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

BEING THERE – what to do or say when someone has been bereaved

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Almost half of Britons (47%) say they would feel uncomfortable talking to someone who has been recently bereaved, and many bereaved people have experienced negative reactions to their grief, including people avoiding them and the loss of friendships, according to a new study released by the Dying Matters Coalition.

This is a finding of a special report commissioned by Dying Matters to coincide with the launch of a new campaign designed to support people with what to say and do after a friend or family member has been bereaved. The BEING THERE initiative comes at a particularly poignant time for many bereaved families – this is the lead up to Christmas, a time when, as in our case, the absence of a loved one is more keenly felt. BT1BEING THERE is addressed to people who like many of our friends have naturally moved on their lives and away from the intense pain that we feel. This is normal but it is also very hurtful – the affect upon the bereaved is to suffer not just one loss but many … with death being such a taboo subject in our culture, grief too becomes a feared emotion and all too often our friends and family shy away from a state of mind they see as uncomfortable, disruptive and avoidable.

So the BEING THERE campaign is a really good starting point for all those wanting to know what to say and do as well as what not to say when a friend or family member has been bereaved.   Here is a link to the Dying Matters press release :

Brits struggle to support bereaved people

Dying Matters is a coalition of a number of organisations from across the country set up to promote public awareness of dying, death and bereavement.   The Coalition’s Mission is to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement, and to make plans for the end of life. This, they say,  will involve a fundamental change in society in which dying, death and bereavement will be seen and accepted as the natural part of everybody’s life cycle.

Josh_BM_042Josh’s mum Jane is on their advisory committee and contributed to the launch of BEING THERE  with a number of radio interviews across the UK including BBC Radio 5 LIve, Radio Scotland, Gloucestershire and London and the West Midlands .   This is what she had to say about her conversations around Josh… “We discovered that whenever we talked about our son Josh to friends and family there were awkward silences and people just didn’t know what to say or do for the best or even avoided us altogether. The first Christmas after Josh’s death was particularly upsetting, especially when we received Christmas cards that didn’t even acknowledge his death. However, talking about our loss, remembering Josh’s life and being allowed to say his name really helped us, as did the kindness and support from those people who went the extra mile to be there for us.”

You can download Dying Matters’ ‘Being There’ leaflet free here : Download ‘Being There’ or order hard copies here: Order ‘Being There’

Thanks for reading

Jimmy

December 2014

Click on the image below to hear Jane’s interview with Anna King of BBC Radio Gloucestershire

Links

ComRes: download the full Dying Matters report on British People’s Attitude to Bereavement

The Compassionate Friends, the charity which supports parents following the death of a child of any age, has launched a guide to getting through Christmas when someone so important is missing: Coping with Christmas

Annie Broadbent is the author of new book ‘We Need to Talk About Grief’, which gives first-hand advice on supporting someone who is grieving: visit Annie’s website

Kate Ibbeson has written a blog about feeling unsupported at Christmas following the deaths of her parents: Read Kate’s blog

Cruse Bereavement Care offers a helpline for bereaved people all year round, including throughout the festive season: Cruse Bereavement Care

Silverline provides information, friendship and advice to older people who may feel alone; the free helpline is open throughout Christmas: Silverline