funeral

Granny’s funeral – “un oeufs an oeuf”

“What’s the best thing that women have compared to men?”

“Nipples that work!”

My mum Emily had a  weird and wacky sense of humour and my brother Ned was first up at her funeral to reveal it.  Within minutes of starting his eulogy he had recounted an early joke of Emily’s that set the tone for an  evening of unexpected delights as we shared memories of our wonderful mother and grandmother.

Emily Norah Edmonds 20th April 1917 – 26th November 2015

Emily died while Jane and I were still on our travels in Central America.  We got the news while stuck on the border between Honduras and El Salvador.  The coach we were on was being searched for drugs and with an unexpected internet connection, Jane received a message that our daughter Rosa had tried to contact us.  We phoned her straight back.   Good or bad, significant news  always seems to be associated in my mind with a still image; like a photograph it remains imprinted on my memory bank yet often has absolutely nothing to do with the news itself.   With tears trickling down, I listened to Rosa’s account of her Granny’s last moments, while out of the side of the coach I watched a truck driver laboriously unpack the tarpaulin from his load in readiness for a customs inspection.  Like an image on a book cover this is what I see when I recall the news of my mothers death.   In the scheme of things two random events caught in my imagination – a man bent over struggling with the weight of his labours and my mother’s lifeless form in her bed at the residential home she had lived in for the past three years.    But this scene was all I had until we returned home a month later and I could visit her in the funeral parlour.    At which point the fact of her death became real … really real.    When we heard the news of Joshua’s death an image closely associated with that moment also has me looking out of a window and two police officers walk up our garden path.   It’s as if these images get stuck in time and the work of grief is to gradually erase them to reveal a truth that we can at last assimilate.    In any case I am a firm believer of viewing the corpse, not just as a way of helping us to recognise the unassailable fact that our loved one has died,  but as a first step to rebuilding and continuing our relationship with them.

7th January 2016 – we manoeuvre Emily’s casket prior to bearing her into the funeral
Respect for the dead

Relationships seemed to figure high in our speeches, eulogies and conversations at Emilys funeral – or celebration of life that many would prefer to call it. Ned and myself both referred to the idea that our relationship with Mum was “kind of complicated” – in that the way we were brought up, sent away to boarding school, and discovered new things about our past only after Dad had died.  These and other testimonies all started to build a picture not just of who Emily was but what she meant to all and each of us differently.

For grandson Joe it was childhood visits to their house in Sussex  where he discovered  “that old wooden box of brick dominoes that lived in the cellar.  Hours were spent constructing a domino rally down the winding stairs and through into the living room

Memories of signatured and scribbled words from generations past on wooden domino blocks… Wow, playing at Granny’s really rocks!

Joe’s most terrible rhyming puns would resonate for many; Emily’s unlikely love of snooker on the telly elicited this

Dozing off in the armchair was sheer heaven, We’d never quite stay awake for the big break 147.

For grandson Jonny it was Emily’s warmth:  “a warmth of welcoming visitors and those she loved dearly.  The kettle was put on, the biscuit tin was stocked, the table was set – even the breakfast table.  If you were a vegetarian, she found it slightly amusing and somewhat confusing – “not even some black pudding, Jonny?” 

And he recalled another of Emily’s favourite jokes – one that we have all heard over and over again and will continue to enjoy, not for any intrinsic hilarity in the joke, merely because it is and always will be .. sooo Emily –

“Why does a frenchman only have one egg for breakfast?”  “Because un oeuf’s an oeuf!”  

Granddaughter Claire read from a letter her granny had sent in which she made reference to the Australians seeming inability to laugh a themselves – unlike ‘us limeys’.  Written in 2000 her letter reveals the first signs of the dementia that would take hold of her in the years to come.  She had just moved to be closer to us in Chalford and writes “space is limited and I only have one bed I can shove things under.  The fridge is so small beers and cokes have to go under the dresser but having packed everything away I have difficulty remembering where I put things…”

Jane had been looking for photographs of Emily and came across a postcard that Josh had written to his gran from Vietnam.  “Hi Gran, Josh here!” (we always asked people to announce themselves at the beginning of a letter or card)  “travelling is one of the most amazing things ever” he continued “it is tough being on my own but I am learning so much and meeting loads of people all the time”     The postcard was unsent and had come back with the rest of Josh’s belongings; it now reminded us in the most poignant way how important Emily was to all her grandchildren.

Emily’s Grandchildren, Nikki, Claire, Jonny, Ben, Joe and Rosa
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Film showing at Emily’s funeral
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Eulogy from grandson Jonny

All these contributions speak to a relationship as much as they do to the person.  Joe’s experience of playing at his Granny’s house, Jonny’s enticement for us all to remember and share in the joke, Jane’s reading of Josh’s desire to connect with his Granny and tell her his news and Claire’s precious airmail.

Along with film clips, photographs on the walls and on the screen, we had built a small ‘set’ – a replica of Emily’s front room with her chair, her knitting basket, todays Times crossword, a bowl of humbugs, all her actual stuff but triggers to memories and the life that once was.   Forget multi media, this was ‘interactive’ in the best possible way as people took turns to sit in her chair or add their own memories – a scrabble bar with the word ‘twitten’ – meaning ‘alleyway’ or path between two hedges and specific to our home county of Sussex (and a good score in scrabble apparently as it uses all seven letters).   Emily was a wizz at the Times crossword and would normally finish it by nightfall – today’s remains only partially completed!

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So in a very real way, mourners for Emily were able to recall not only their memories of the person, but to actively engage with the space in which she lived – a truly visceral experience to be remembered in its own right and carried with us as part of our on going connection to her.  But it was also fun, really good fun which had Josephine (at just two and a bit, our youngest mourner) unravelling a ball of wool as she wandered around the guests and plenty of laughs as we watch clips from the film I had made in 2007 which featured Emil and her friend Yvonne discussing life after death and getting stuck in the lift.

Another departure from the norm (though this only became apparent to us afterwards) were the volunteers of the bearers for Emilys casket – we had the men carry her in and the women carry her out, something many remarked they had never seen before.   And for Jane in particular a special moment; one she would not have been comfortable with had she not been so up close and personal to death these last few years. Coming from a family where the D word was never mentioned, helping to carry Emily’s casket was for her a kind of rite of passage – she felt that there was something so primitive and powerful about this part of Emily’s journey being in the hands of women.

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My beautiful mother then spent the night in our living room, an honour that meant so much for us.  Our home is closest to where Emily lived for the last 15 years and it only seemed right and proper that we should host her one more time.

Again to have a dead body in your living room feels a bit untoward in this day and age – I don’t know why given what an ancient tradition this is.   In days past you might even have invited a photographer to make an image of the dead person such was the lack of squeamishness about these things.   You certainly wouldn’t have balked at having an open coffin.    For us it meant a wee bit of alone time in which we could lift the lid and say one more ‘goodbye’, to acknowledge that in the stillness and the coldness of her frame,  yes she really is gone but also in that very stillness, in her deadness our relationship though changed could still be very much alive .. my mama, my mama, my mama …

I think we had got to know my mum particularly well in the last chapters of her life (certainly in a completely different way from when we were children)  including the years in which the dementia progressed, years in which even while her memory and her capacity dimmed, her straight talking, her self effacement and her humour always shone through –

How you doing today Mum? Much the same, old and doddery.  You’re looking well.  Am I?  I don’t feel it.  It’s about time you put me in the oven

Emily may well have long fallen out of love with life, but her love for us never died.   If only we could have honoured her dying wish of putting her in the oven with as much flair and bounce as we’d managed at the celebration of her life though how we could have done that does stretch the imagination.

The service at the crematorium the next day was a more solemn affair – but by having two ceremonies we bucked a certain trend articulated by Su Chard the celebrant who did for both Josh and Emily – importantly we had separated two necessary (but normally conflated) rituals attendant at someones death: the funeral and the disposal of the body.

Thanks for reading

Jimmy

January 2016

This post appears both here on BEYOND GOODBYE and on our blog for The Good Grief Project

(for Su’s ideas on the nature of contemporary funerals see our film Beyond Goodbye )

and here is a short (i.e. edited) conversation between Emily and Jane that should amuse … recorded on her phone in Steppes, the residential care home she lived in for three years.

We’d like to thank Harriet Lewis for the wonderful Paella that rounded off the evening and James Kriszyk for some great photos of the day.

Learning from our Goodbyes


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On Tuesday 5th August 2014 the Harris clan gathered for the funeral of Josh’s grandmother Pat Harris. This was the third family funeral in as many years and we were quite apprehensive about yet another cremation and the possible return of  previous painful memories. As she bore her mother’s coffin into the crematorium Jane was conscious of her now ‘orphan’ status and what this might mean both as a daughter and a mother. In a sense we have been caught in the middle of different generational deaths – while we have a good enough word – ‘orphan’ – for a child without parents, we are yet to discover what we should call a parent whose child has died. And while the feelings and the sadness and the pain are so very different we both felt it important we should somehow equate them and make Josh too part of this ceremony for his grandmother. We have a lovely photo of Josh (aged 3) on holiday with Pat and Gerry – sadly one of only a few of the three of them – which we included on the order of service and Josh was mentioned a number of times throughout the day. To be honest this is not easy, we do not want to ‘dilute’ that sense of honour and respect we have for Pat, but at the same time her death and her funeral (as did Gerry’s) wouldn’t seem nearly as significant without Josh being there too. After all he was their grandson and theirs to mourn as we mourn them.

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In the end this blending of memories seem to work even though many of Pat’s friends had never met Josh. Compared to the way we said ‘goodbye’ to Josh, both Pat’s and Gerry’s funerals were more mute affairs though we carried forward the idea of inviting people to write messages on ribbons which could be tied to a flower and laid on the coffin as a central ‘doing’ act to the ritual.   Although there are strong Jewish roots to the family, our funerals are non religious and perhaps a bit ‘modern’ provoking one elderly relative afterwards to remark “what kind of funeral was that?” Our wonderful celebrant Ian Stirling was quick to respond – “that was a Pat Harris kind of funeral.”

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Funerals are of course for the living – and for what we take away from them as much as the memories we bring. We were all very moved by the poem that Jane read at the service and reproduced below. We know now that grief is hard work, maybe not so much for the death of a parent or a grandparent as it is for your child; but work nevertheless. And in that work, and in that experience of grief, inevitably we learn new things, new ways of looking at life. That is the gift our loved ones leave us.

“Comes The Dawn” by Veronica A. Shoffstall

After a while you learn the subtle difference
Between holding a hand and chaining a soul,
And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
And company doesn’t mean security,
And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
And presents aren’t promises,
And you begin to accept your defeats
With your head up and your eyes open
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,
And you learn to build all your roads on today,
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans,
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.
After a while you learn
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.
So you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure…
That you really are strong,
And you really do have worth.
And you learn and learn…
With every goodbye you learn.

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This is one of the last photos we took of Pat, just two months before she died. We had recently collected Gerry’s ashes from the undertakers (this was over a year since he died – why it took so long is anybody’s guess)  and Pat had asked that they be scattered around a particular tree in the old family home near the golf courses in Troon. The tree had been given to them as a wedding present in 1951 and was one of many that Gerry planted subsequently in the many years they lived there. But the house now has new owners  and we needed to get their permission. We had planned to do this on our next visit but life and death intervened.

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It was the day following Pat’s funeral then, that we met again for another special ritual. Jane had asked the present occupiers of the house who kindly obliged – and with considerable grace as their afternoon was about to be disturbed by eight adults and two children, none of whom were dressed in the manner customarily required for the dignified disposal of a family patriarch.    Neither of us can remember being so involved in the funerals of our grandparents. In fact we were positively discouraged from even attending. In those days it wasn’t seen at all appropriate that young children should be present on such occasions – something to do with protecting their innocence, shielding them from sadness, from raw feelings. Yet here we were half a century later, on a bright summer’s day wandering around somebody else’s garden, carrying a box of human remains and with kids in tow!

‘With every goodbye you learn …’    And that learning can and maybe should start at any age, best done in the act of doing, of actual participation in ritual. For Pat and Gerry’s great grandchildren, Naomi and Louis, even while they may not recognise the full meaning of this day, hopefully they will remember the weight and the feel of their forebears ashes as no less fearful than the  bark on the tree and the dirt in the ground.

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Thank you for reading

Jane and Jimmy 

August 2014

For an evocative set of photographs from the day of Granny Pat’s funeral please take a look at this gallery

Goodbye to Granny Pat

and there’s another wonderful collection from the following day when we scattered Gerry’s ashes

Ashes to ashes – Grandpa Gerry goes home

 

 

SAY THIER NAME nominated for Award

SAY THEIR NAME

A COMPASSIONATE FRIENDS VIDEO

PRODUCED BY BEYOND GOODBYE

More nice news – SAY THEIR NAME has been nominated in the Good Funeral Awards 2013, to be held in Bournemouth on 7th September.    The video, which we made for THE COMPASSIONATE FRIENDS, is in the running for the Best Internet Bereavement Resource and I have to say we are honoured, excited and encouraged by the recognition it has received.

The Good Funeral AwardsNow in its second year, The Good Funeral Awards is actually the brainchild of Charles Cowling who writes, promotes and speaks up on everything do with making sure that the funeral you have is the one you want.      As well as being a consumer guide to the Funeral Industry, Cowlings blog and book “The Good Funeral Guide”  is an advocate for independence of mind, spirit and body, especially if its a dead one.       Interestingly, though the awards are primarily about the ‘funeral world’ with other catagories like ‘The best Gravedigger of the Year’, ‘The best Embalmer of the Year’ and the “Eternal Slumber Award for Coffin Supplier of the Year”, they are also shine a significant light on our understanding of death and patbutcherbereavement in contemporary society.   Its probably true to say that ‘gallows humour’ mixes with serious intent as more than 75 nominees compete for 15 different awards.

This years ceremony will be hosted by Pam St Clement who as many will know starred as Pat Butcher in Eastenders culminating in a brilliant dying scene which touched millions of viewers.

If you haven’t yet watched SAY THEIR NAME you can view it here – SAY THEIR NAME

As we have noted before, we believe the video to be the only one of its kind in this country – made by and for bereaved parents, it gives comfort to the newly bereaved and understanding to their friends and family.

For reviews of the film click  Film reaches out to bereaved parents | Dying Matters – Dying Matters is a broad based national coalition of 30,000 members, which aims to change public knowledge, attitudes and behaviours towards dying, death and bereavement.

Click  THE GOOD FUNERAL AWARDS  for more information about this years event.

Anyone fancy going please let us know so we can meet up.

Jimmy

August 2013

Saying Farewell to Gerry – a timely death at 95

 

Gerry Harris

12th March 1918 – 28th January 2013

Death is always a shock. Even though Josh’s grandpa Gerry had been living with dementia for a good many years; even though he had recently been moved to the end of life ward at the hospital where he spent the last four of those years;  even though we had been told that his temperature had dropped to 31 C, that he had been put on the Liverpool Care Pathway and was not expected to last for more than a few days or weeks; even though we had visited him and could see for ourselves that Gerry would not “be getting up from this one”, still death comes as a shock.

Josh’s Grandpa is Jane’s dad and we loved him very much.  That is why his death, his life no more, is still hard to take in.  Gerry was 95 and had had a good and inventful (sic) life.  The obituary in the Glasgow Herald headlined him as “businessman, inventor and pilot who taught Prince Philip to fly.”   He was nearly 80 when his last creation, a revolutionary fire fighting device, won the John Logie Baird Award for innovation in 1996.   We are sad to see him go, but we are at peace with his passing.  Unlike Josh’s, Gerry’s death is in the natural order of things.      If there is a timetable for death, if there is fairness in death, then clearly Josh died too soon and Gerry perhaps too late.

In hospital – June 2012

But justice is a concern for the living – for death itself there is no moral dilemma.   It remains for us who would still breathe to make an account of these deaths, to mourn them as we do, and to wonder if there can be anything like a good death.

By strange coincidence, on the weekend between Gerry’s death and his funeral, Jane and I  had attended a symposium on “what makes a good death”.   Organized by the Wellcome Foundation, and intended to contribute to a growing conversation about death and dying, we were both curious about how others were dealing with and talking about this so-called ‘difficult’ subject.    The show opened with various readings from literature including Roger McGough’s poem …

Let me die a youngman’s death
not a clean and inbetween
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death

When I’m 73
and in constant good tumour
may I be mown down at dawn
by a bright red sports car
on my way home
from an all night party ….

It continues in similar vein.     To my mind a rather distasteful attempt to glamorize death, to sanitize it and to take death away from its natural place as a conclusion to life’s inevitable story.    In these lines you can find both Gerry and Joshua but neither of these deaths were in reality what McGough would wish for as his own ‘good’ death – Josh never got to be 73 and Gerry, instead of a slow decline to a morphined non-existence would, I suspect, much rather have gone out with a bang.

The day before Gerry died

What the poem does point to though is the wish to have some kind of conscious control over how we die.   In modern society this is presented almost as a consumer choice; the planned for death, with living wills and demands for legally assisted suicide.  The more agency we have, the better our death will be – if it is we, that is, who are doing the dying.     But what of those left behind?    After ‘our’ death it is still left to the living to mourn the nature, tragic or otherwise, and the consequences of our death.    So perhaps a better question to be asking is “who is the good death for – the living or the dead?”    Or both.    If we understand our lives, our individual selfish lives to have meaning only in relationship with others, (…… no man is an island etc) then our dying and our being dead can only find fitting resonance with the survivors of our death.    For both Gerry and Joshua who now know no more of their lives, this is actually meaningless.    For us it couldn’t be more relevant.

While Gerry’s was to be expected, the unnatural circumstances of Joshua’s death precludes an easy ‘inbetween the sheets’ kind of mourning as we struggle to continue our relationship with him.   His life cut short creates a vacuum not only in our hearts but also in the story we would want to tell of him: we fill it by projecting our wishes and ambitions for him on to the future he never had.    If Josh were alive now, he’d have found another job, he’d have found another lover, he’d have traveled again, set up his own video production company making underwater music films, he might even have gone back to college.  Our dreams for Joshua will forever haunt our nights and days, but we have no need for such fantasies for what an old man might do with the rest of his life.     A good death is perhaps possible only after, what McGough’s poem doesn’t reveal, that which makes for a good and full life, as lived by Jane’s Dad, Gerry.

How then to tell of the life that gave life – that gave life to Jane and thence to Josh and our other children?    I have known Gerry for as long as I have known his daughter.  My first encounter with him was when he took us out for dinner soon after the two of us had got together.  I was immediately taken and excited by his anarchic behaviour, his unabashed sociability and his seeming need to display both as publicly as possible.   If there was a table to dance on he’d be the first on it.

Gerry Harris was an engineer by trade, but I knew him best as a difficult father, an over protective husband, a terrible businessman, a gifted if slightly bonkers inventor.    Gerry’s triumph was BLASTER, a water jet that started life as a new form of garden sprinkler but ended up as a fire fighting device that could drench flames in seconds and with minimal water damage.   Gerry had first showed me his creation a few years before and we now have precious video footage of him running round his garden in the pouring rain as he attempts to activate a series of sprinklers made from bits of bicycle and beer bottle caps.   These rudimentary  contraptions were to become BLASTER or … wait for it – ‘Boundary Layer And Surface Tension Energy Release’.  By introducing a carefully positioned rotor blade in the path of the water jet Gerry had found a way to turn water (a liquid) into water vapour (a gas), so reducing the amount of water needed to put out a fire by a thousand fold.   Gerry was not only well into his 80’s when he discovered this but also well on the way to establishing a principle that may still revolutionize fire control.    

If Gerry had a ‘good’ life how was his death?  Or how was his ‘dying’?

Gerry began his last journey 5 years ago when after a series of small strokes he developed vascular dementia, a cruel disease that slowly robs the person of their capacity to reason and to hold thoughts in any meaningful way.  From our visits to see him over this time it’s difficult to say whether Gerry’s emotional being, his own personhood, suffered a similar decline.  The one question the family always seemed to be asking – how much of Gerry is still there? – was never really answered.  But death stalked that question at every turn as the frustrations of the disease and its affects on other members of the family began to take its toll.   That and the inadequacies of the care system that Gerry seem to be caught up in – all seemed to conspire to invite death’s continual refrain – when shall you summon me?

In fact Gerry exhibited super human strength in his will to stay alive.   Whilst in hospital he broke his hip twice occasioning major surgery both times and was later sent back to the ICU with a collapsed lung.  Gerry was fit.  He had incredible energy both mental and physical. Despite the progress of the disease Gerry remained bored out of his mind, and despite being confined in his chair, no longer able to walk, he remained constantly on edge with an almost manic inability to sit still.    Ironically it was this energy that would keep him living with the distressing effects of dementia for so long.

You can see something of Gerry’s life in this short film we prepared for the family to watch the day before his funeral.    An early scene in which Gerry recites one of his favorite poems was filmed shortly after he was admitted to hospital.   Click on play button in the bottom left of the screen.

Putting this film together was, as you might be able to imagine, a rather delightful experience, sad but rewarding and I was honoured to be able to do this for Gerry and for Jane’s mum Pat and her brothers.  It felt like I was contributing to the postscript to a long and successful life story.     What I was not doing was dealing with a trauma.   In that sense their was no distress, no break down of confidence, no insecurity, no fear, all of which were so present in the months following Josh’s death.     Equally and despite the initial shock of witnessing Gerry’s lifeless form, I suspect we will be able to ‘move on’ from his death in ways that we are not able to with Josh.   This I think has to do with the way that we as parents are changed as a result of the death of our child – fundamentally and irrevocably changed.

By contrast to Josh’s, Gerry’s funeral was a very small affair, this partly because of Jane’s mum’s wish to keep it very low key and private, but also because of the simple fact that by the time you get to 95 you actually don’t have many friends left to bid you farewell.   Josh of course was known by many, old and young.    If there over 300 who came to say goodbye to Josh, just 12 of us attended Gerry’s funeral not including the celebrant and the funeral directors.   But it was no less meaningful for that.    There was something poignant in its very ordinariness that gave comfort to the idea that death is survivable, no matter if it’s your grandfather or your son.

Jimmy (Feb 2013)

photos by Jimmy and Rosa

 

 

Click here to see more photos from Gerry’s life

….  and for our film about Josh’s fundraising efforts for Alzheimers Scotland

click here JUMPING FOR ALZHEIMERS

 

Beyond Goodbye – film to be shown to new audiences

 

Part of me still can’t believe that I’m writing this but our film of Josh’s funeral has found some new audiences.     In the coming months we have been invited to show ‘BEYOND GOODBYE’ at The Compassionate Friends Annual gathering (that’s on 8th September) and at the Dying Matters “Day of the Dead” event in November.      The Compassionate Friends is a support network for bereaved parents and siblings and Dying Matters is a coalition of all sorts of people connected with end of life care.      Each screening will be followed by a discussion.

Are we nervous?   Yes.   Are we pleased?    Kind of.   Does it matter?  Guess so.    But two years ago who could have thought that we would be showing a film about our son’s funeral to audiences like this.   I am sure we will be received with kindness but my stomach sinks when time and again I have to rethink that terrible day we heard the news that Josh had been killed.     For many a journey through grief is essentially a private matter but from the moment Josh died we have needed to reach out to friends and family for support.     Documenting his funeral for what many have found a very moving film, was part of this process.   Josh’s sister Rosa remarked “Josh wasn’t just ours”.    How right she was and we have found real solace in getting to know so many of Josh’s friends both from his life in Gloucestershire as well as in London.

But to take this openness to another level that includes a wider public provokes some pretty weird feelings.    Yes, it is gratifying to be asked to show our film but the idea of sharing our grief on such a public stage is a complex one. On the one hand we  want to share Josh and to share the burden of our grief.    But part of me also wants to keep my relationship with him private lest my memories and all my thoughts about him now become somehow adulterated.    Both Jane (Josh’s mum) and I also have a nagging doubt that going public is a kind of diversion from grief proper (whatever that is), or at least a distraction from the pain of our loss. I know that when we attend these events, many will admire the strength and courage we show, but obviously that’s a bit of a mask, and the actual chaos of our mourning lives will be carefully hidden (or at least held in check) by the civilised practicalities of putting on a good show.

But we have been changed by Josh’s death.  For good or for bad we are who we are now and I’m glad we have been able to open up like this because the rewards have been many.

Now comes the news that we have also been nominated for the Good Funeral Guide annual awards (a kind of Baftas for the death industry) to be held in Bournemouth later this month.      This is for the “Most Significant Contribution to the Understanding of Death in the Media” ….  that might sit nicely alongside my real Bafta, but oh, how I wish our skills had not been called upon in this way.

I’m afraid the Compassionate Friends event is for members only  but if you’d like to attend any of the others here are the details –

The Dying Matters – CELEBRATING THE DAY OF THE DAY – event is on 1st November at  Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1 7HU (near Euston Station).      The full programme is not published yet  but you can keep up to speed by visiting their website here DYING MATTERS .

The Good Funeral Guides Annual Awards is part of THE JOY OF DEATH FESTIVAL to be held in Bournemouth from 7th to 9th September – that’s next weekend so if you want to attend you better get your skates on.   Here’s the link for tickets GOOD FUNERAL GUIDE ANNUAL AWARDS at THE JOY OF DEATH FESTIVAL

Joe will be representing the family at Bournmouth.

 

 

GOOD GRIEF – Sifting for Gold a review by Jimmy

GOOD GRIEF!

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.

CONTINUING THE BOND

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 – mailto:fionarodman@gmail.com

 

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

 

Beyond Goodbye at Southbank festival – a review

Here’s a great review from our friend Jack Nathan about Jane and Joes talk at the festival of death for the living …………………………………………….

 

Attending the ‘Everything you always wanted to know about funerals (but were afraid to ask)’ session was always going to be painful. I went in dread and ‘excited’ anticipation as I knew I was going to hear from two panel members, Jane (mother) and Joe (brother), talking about surviving the profound and still raw grief of losing Josh: a young man lost to an arbitrary event, euphemistically labelled, ‘a road traffic accident’, thousands of miles from home, whilst on a ‘trip of his lifetime’ in Vietnam. Continue reading

The Daily Undertaker interview with Jane and Jimmy

Here’s a link to an interview we did with Patrick McNally of THE DAILY UNDERTAKER Patrick asked some very interesting questions about how we organised Josh’s funeral, why we chose to “do it ourselves”, what it meant for us to create our own funeral rite for Josh.


“I was so driven by the wish not to be afraid that Josh was dead but had no idea how to do that but by the end of the celebration of his life I somehow felt a lot less afraid than I had done.”
Jane

“Two young police officers had brought us the news of Joshua’s death and for his body to be committed by more unknowns felt just too much – you can’t hug a policeman, neither did I feel like hugging an undertaker – it felt like the only way to properly deal with this was to gather family and friends around and share our grief, and not just for half an hour at the “crem”. Jimmy