We are very excited to announce that we have received a travel fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. The grant will go a long way to funding our planned trip to the USA and Mexico later this year. For some time now both Jane and I have been developing a documentary film project that involves traveling to the Americas to discover how bereaved parents are finding new and (some may say) healthier ways of grieving for their son or daughter, and this news has given a huge impetus to our plans. The role of The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust is to fund British citizens who want to travel overseas and study areas of topical and personal interest. Candidates are expected to research their subject and bring back best practice for the benefit of others, their profession and community, in the UK. We are grateful and feel very honoured to have been selected from over 1200 applicants. The validation of the project by the WCMT and the influence that follows will be invaluable.
We have provisionally titled the project GOOD GRIEF and we already have a number of academics and ‘grief’ specialists lined up for interview. But it will be the personal stories of the bereaved themselves that will make the film and we can’t wait to get started on the research. Part of the condition of the award from the WCMT is that we return to the UK with a better understanding of practices abroad that can then be of benefit and disseminated to the community at home. In this respect we are proud to be supported by The Compassionate Friends, NCPC/ Dying Matters and Cruse Bereavement Care and we hope that the resulting film will be of real value for them, for similar charities and the communities they represent.
The Good Grief Project will kick into action later this year when Jane and I fly to New York and drive across country to the West Coast and then fly down to Mexico. On the way we shall be visiting and filming bereaved parents, alternative grief professionals, home funeral arrangers, and academics, all with the purpose of creating a picture of what it means to grieve for a son or daughter in a society that lacks the emotional language to accept mortality as necessary component of life. Networks for bereaved parents are more established in the States – The Compassionate Friends has over 650 chapters – and contemporary practices around death and bereavement are more nuanced with an emerging acceptance of alternative ceremonies and funeral rites. We are looking for stories in which people have found new ways of honouring their child; of conducting the funeral arrangements, for instance, outside of the conventional practice of the funeral parlour; of ways they have overcome the isolation so often felt by bereaved parents; of ways they have found to remember their child as part of an on going relationship even if this has been perceived as being slightly mad. Many of these new practices may actually be something borrowed from the past – we know that modern society has industrialised and standardised death and bereavement in ways that have sucked the soul out of our mourning and turned it into an abject, not to say morbid, episode to be hurried through as quickly as possible – yet there is a lighter side to mortality that pre dates modern fears and anxieties, and many are turning to other traditions to help them in their grief. We will conclude our journey by filming during the days leading up to and including the Mexican Day of the Dead.
A crucial element of the film will be our own reflections as we travel with Josh by our side. In order to make sense of personal tragedy, people recount the event over and over either in the privacy of their own mind or in public. People tell stories don’t they. We find metaphors and symbols to express our grief. In a way the Good Grief project, our journey and the film, is itself a metaphor and an expression of our own grief for Josh
So what is GOOD GRIEF?
Based on the ideas that flow from the concept of ‘continuing bonds’ we are keen to research the more creative ways families are choosing to work through their grief. Many bereaved parents both here and in the States (and in the western world in general) have found that it is just not possible to continue living what might be called a normal life, without maintaining a meaningful and on going relationship with their dead child. This runs contrary to previous and widely accepted notions that in order to resolve the painful emotions that accompany bereavement, we must in some way, move on, to cut off from the deceased, to ‘forget’ the importance they have in our lives, before we can heal and make new attachments. Success in this version of grief is seen as returning to the normal – to the status quo ante. Failure to resolve it was defined as a pathological clinging to the deceased.
In a way you can see the value of this model, especially as it pertains to older relatives or friends. Jimmy’s own family quickly ‘moved on’ after the death of his father in 1987. But at 77 this was a ‘normal’ death, a death in the right order of things and while we have never forgotten him, it has been relatively easy to rebuild our lives around his absence. Not so with a son or a daughter. Our lives are now so totally different, so totally changed that its hard to see much in common with the two experiences. Perhaps we should have another word for parental bereavement, it seems so unlike the experience of all other deaths. For one thing we have found that Josh is still very much in our lives – four years on and not a day goes past that we are reminded of his absence – and his continuing presence in our thoughts, in the way we feel and in our dreams.This is painful. It hurts and troubles us (it also makes us uncomfortable
to be around) but what would be the alternative if we were to cut him and his memory out of our lives. We could do this I suppose with the help of a large dose of self medication but in order to do that we would have to cut out such a huge part of ourselves as well – the drugs and the drink would in effect be slowly reducing our own humanity.
A better grief then, or a ‘good grief’ is achieved not by dismissing or rejecting the bond we have with our child but more by enhancing it – the problem is of course that this is now a one way relationship – a one way conversation that takes place in our heads and in our hearts. An imaginary conversation. Well that’s how we thought of it until coming across the idea of ‘continuing bonds’ a concept formulated by a group of American academics in the late 1990’s. Far from being a denial of our son or daughters passing they observed that the deceased and their memory can actually provide a rich resource for the way we continue to function in our every day lives. And we now realise from our own experience that what we thought of as wishful fantasies (what would Josh be doing now, how would he have reacted to this or that situation) were very real manifestations of our love and our grief. Painful though the last few years have been, we have slowly learnt how to accept these longings as integral to our present lives and may be all the stronger for it.
At this moment it is too early to reveal our exact plans but our intention is to travel during September and October in the USA to arrive in Mexico for the Day of The Dead by the end of that month. While we have already made contact with a number of grief professionals, we are still looking for a range of parents to talk to. If you are reading this (we know that this website has many readers in the States) and would like to take part please do get in touch with us via the Contact Form. Or maybe you know someone who would like to tell us their story – spread the word. We are particularly interested in documenting the more creative ways people have found to continue the bond with their dead child. This maybe artistic (through music or dance, by writings or blogs, visually with paint, photography, textiles or other media etc) or it maybe more practical (a change of your work, creating a charity, making a pilgrimage) most likely it will be some way in which we never thought of – please offer up your ideas as we love to hear about them. Any filming with you would involve a couple of sit down interviews (about an hour each) and a day filming your activity. Editing and post production will happen in early 2016 with the film’s release scheduled for late spring 2016.
Apart from the generous support of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, the project is for the moment entirely self funded. But this will only go so far. In order to complete the documentary to a high standard we will need to raise a further £20,000. For the moment we have time to think about how we go about getting more sponsors but if you have any ideas of who to approach or even want to contribute yourself, please feel free to get in touch via the Contact Form
A few extras
While we are away we will be updating you regularly with a new blog (link to be announced later) and taking lots of photographs – our notes and impressions together with a selection of photos will form the basis of an exhibition and a book to accompany the film.
We met at film school in 1982 and Joshua was born soon after we graduated in 1988. At this point Jane decided to train as a psychological therapist. Jimmy went on to work in TV as a documentary editor and has now cut over a 100 films for the BBC, Channel 4 and other broadcasters.
When Josh died in 2011 we were already working together again on a film about Jane’s dad Gerry (now published by Alzheimers Society) and this collaboration extended as part of our grief work as much as it did with our creative endeavours. Together we have built this website and produced SAY THEIR NAME for the Compassionate Friends.
Officially then, Jimmy is a BAFTA award winning documentary film editor with over 25 years of experience. He also produced and directed ‘BREAKING THE SILENCE’ for BBC 1, a 45 minute documentary about the effects of years of abuse at boarding school and his local church. He is also a passionate photographer.
Jane is a Senior Accredited Individual and Couples Therapist and Supervisor with The British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy. She has a thriving private therapy practice and works as a staff and student counsellor in a University setting.
Both our disciplines involve a natural curiosity about the human condition and together we have found that our talents as filmmaker and therapist make for an excellent combination when it comes to telling the stories that emerge.
Jane is a Trustee for The Compassionate Friends and a member of National Council for Palliative Care People in Partnership Group as well as a Dying Matters Bereavement Champion. Jimmy is a support contact for TCF.
Thanks for reading
Jimmy and Jane
The Compassionate Friends USA – home page
National Council for Palliative Care – home page
Dying Matters – home page
Cruse Bereavement Care – home page