joshua edmonds

Vietnam/Cambodia Diary Part 5 – shrines, temples and that ‘sleepy’ picture

That sleepy picture – the one that Josh used for his business card – the one that has become such a poignant reminder of who Josh was for us.  We take it everywhere we go and we took it with us to Vietnam and Cambodia.

It’s a photo of Josh pretending to be asleep.  He is not really asleep, he has closed is eyes on my request and in a sense I am in that picture too.   You can’t see me but I am there – as a father and as a photographer, two roles, two identities that I cannot imagine being without.    The photo was taken as a joke really.   I was in the middle of a project taking photographs of people, most of them random strangers I met in the street – but with their eyes closed – and one day, on a rare visit to London, we decided on the spur of the moment to do one of Josh.    We were with his brother Joe having a drink on the South Bank – that is Joes hand Josh is leaning against.    I thought no more of it until Josh turned up a few weeks later showing us the design for his business card with ‘that sleepy picture’ as the background.   It reminded me of the time many many years ago when my father took some of my photos and made some water colours from them.    I felt as if there could be no nicer a tribute to my skills and the way I like to see the world.   We all like recognition from a parent, do we not.  Well ditto in reverse with Josh – I had no idea he thought much at all about my ideas as a photographer (and maybe he didn’t) but to follow them through as a way of promoting his own work (he worked as a video producer for the Ministry of Sound) was very very gratifying.

There is so much in that photograph for me and I could go on for hours about what it meant then and what has come to mean since Josh died.  Of the moment we took it I recall being slightly surprised at how both brothers were happy to join in with my weird ideas.  But I also I remember how little I was seeing of Josh since he moved to London and how I would savour every moment with him; and I remember how much he had matured since he’d left home and how much I valued his easy unhurried attitude to life.   As with all photographs of loved ones who have died there is a terrible tension between that moment of their aliveness at the time the picture was taken and the photographs ability to live on beyond their death as a constant reminder  of their absence. There is both pain and joy co-existing in a way that has no equivalent. Particularly so with this image of a boy pretending sleep, the more poignant now depicting as it does, a young man in perpetual sleep.

For this and many reasons then, the photograph  now represents a real and continuing bond between the two of us.   Unable now to take any further photographs of Joshua I have reworked it in numerous ways since Josh died  (see this gallery here ) and from time to time, I take it out of my wallet, place it on a hillside or on a gatepost, or simply hold it in view and photograph it.     Somewhere in all this is the idea that if we have a record of Josh on our travels, its proof that we haven’t forgotten him – it is one of the many foolish ways we have of staying in touch with him.

Josh’s brother Joe – May 2013
Josh’s Mum, Jane – May 2013

This is Halong Bay, a four hour drive from Hanoi and one of Vietnam’s foremost travel destinations.    We wanted to go there, one because it is an amazing sight, two because you get to stay over night on a luxurious junk, but three because it was one of the places we knew Josh had been.     And we knew he been there because we have the photographs to prove it.

Josh (3rd from left) with friends at Halong Bay

Josh had traveled to South East Asia on his own but had met these young men in Laos and they rendezvoused again in Hanoi making plans to ride south on motor bikes.   Of the five friends pictured here, Dominique and Don (to Josh’s right) and Jesse (second from right) would be with him at the time of the accident.   They are the ones who sent us all the photos we have of Josh from his time in Vietnam.   They are the sort of photographs you would expect from a young man traveling the world, meeting new friends, seeing new places, and wanting to send a message back home – here’s me over there, having a brilliant time, I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.

But if they are the sort of photos any of us might take as a momento of our travels, as often as not, they aren’t photographs of the actual journey or adventure, or of the variety of moods or the emotions that would accompany it. More often they are of the moments between the highs and the lows, constructed to the give an impression rather than a record of a good time.  We take time out of whatever it is that we are doing, specifically to pose with thumbs aloft, or to gather together in a group and smile for the camera or in our case, to pose with our photo of Josh.  And for good reason, we are there for the adventure after all not to make photographs of it.  Or are we?  Is it possible that these days, our travels and our adventures have no validity and possible then no value, unless we photograph them?  As a friend mentioned the other day, they confer on us ‘bragging rights’ like stamps in a passport.  But it  is the one sure way we can prove we were actually there and I know that without these photos (and all the photos we have of Josh) we would be far more lost on our own journey and our own purpose of keeping his spirit alive.

Imagine that we didn’t have a single photograph to remember him by.  Not one. Not even as a baby or a little boy growing up. How would that be?  Would we forget what he looked like?  Did he have short hair or long hair?  Did dimples appear everytime he smiled?  Was that really a man’s beard or still the down of youth?    And without his likeness in a photograph, how long would it be before we forget him altogether?      But even if the power of his likeness is overwhelming, does the fact that these are staged pictures, mean that we might lose too soon the sense of who Josh was rather than what Josh looked like.    We have no pictures of Josh climbing the steps to that viewing platform or lugging his backpack on board the boat.   None of the stuff that would tell us more of how he was possibly feeling.  We have no more than the photographic evidence of his presence in Vietnam and they cannot really tell us how confident he was with these new friends; was he nervous about the bikes they had bought, weren’t they just a bit pissed off with cold and the rain.  He is not here now to tell the stories behind the photos and without his voice there is no anchor to secure what little we do know of his adventures.   He had told us on the phone just how cold the north of Vietnam was in winter time, how pleased he was to buy a replica North Face jacket at half the normal price, but  we must use our own imagination to complete a narrative  of their trip first to Halong Bay and then south on the Ho Chi Minh Highway.

We don’t know how long Josh spent on Halong Bay.   Given the price and the season we suspect his was a day trip.   We were visiting in summer and were able to make slightly more of it  spending one night on the boat, visiting some caves, eating some fine food and diving in for a swim in the rain.  Unlike January when Josh was here, the summer heat is oppressive.   It is also the start of the rainy season and when it rains, it rains.  It rained all night long and into the morning by which time we had had enough floating luxury.

Crew members – late afternoon Halong Bay
Crew members – early morning Halong Bay
Joe – Early morning Halong Bay

On our return to Hanoi, we decided to mark Josh’s presence there by scattering some of his ashes in Hoan Kiem Lake.     Translated this means The Lake of the Returned Sword after the legend in which the then 14c King was ordered by a holy turtle to return the sword that had helped him defeat the Chinese invaders.    The turtle’s descendent is said still to live in the lake and like (or maybe unlike) the Loch Ness Monster, there have been numerous ‘sightings’. To the north of the lake is a small island on which stands the Ngoc Son Temple connected to the shore by a pretty bridge.   It was here we felt most appropriate to stand again for a moment, to remember Josh, and to feel a little more connected not just to him but also to the Buddhist traditions that are everywhere part of Vietnamese life.  Josh of course was not a Buddhist and nor are we, but being in a country where Buddhism is so strong helped us to understand and to be more comfortable with his death.  Remembering and honouring those who have died is such an ordinary part of everyday life in here, that our little ritual, public as it was, provoked little interest with passers by. It was hard to feel grievous, or even that sad. Such has been the welcome we have received in Vietnam. it wouldn’t be until our return home, that I would again feel the full force of Josh’s death, the sharp ache of my boy’s total and forever absence.

To give our ceremony more substance, we again drew on the power of Josh’s photo. We tore the pictures of him from one of the Order of Ceremonies we had used for his funeral and watched as they drifted down in swirly gig fashion to float on the surface.  If there had been a current no doubt we would’ve rushed to the other side of the bridge and wait for them to appear as they continued their journey downstream.   As it was the ripples on the lake gradually softened these shreds of a life, and Joshua’s image slowly sank beneath the surface and disappeared from view.  At the same time we let his ashes trickle through our fingers and into a slight breeze that had quietly begun to stroke the water.

How many times in the last two and a half years have we said goodbye to Josh?   Somehow it did feel easier this time. Now that we have witnessed the place where he died, I think we are more secure to let him go. Now that we have found a tradition that allows the dead to continue living without embarrassment, we are more comfortable with the pain of our loss. Now that we have scattered a small part of him  in a strange land we are more able to nurture our memories and to construct anew our own special rituals.  And as Josh and his death find their place in  our own family mythology, so perhaps, we can accept them as a more natural part of the human condition, part of that continuum of stories and legends and narratives that we all need in order to make sense of our lives, whatever our culture.

There was,however, no sign of that elusive  turtle.

From this moment, we would leave Josh’s card along with others’ offerings and gifts at shrines and temples all across Vietnam and Cambodia.    Buddhism has granted us a gift, and even if we don’t share a belief in an afterlife, the opportunity to borrow from other traditions and other customs has been (excuse the pun) a  “godsend”.    Because of Josh and his travels, we have been able to reflect on the many ways in which people find a connection with in an inner spirit world, to wonder at the power of collective imagination, and to discover how it really is possible to live with death in your life.     Being human has come to mean something so much more since Josh died.

Standing as it does in the centre of Vietnam’s capital city, the Ngoc Son Temple is as much a tourist attraction as it is a religious venue.  And as tourist are, so tourists will be.  Just inside the front door, sat an elderly man earning a living as a scribe; selling his skills to worshippers and visitors alike.    For five dollars we commissioned this beautiful example of calligraphy – we chose the characters with care but I’m afraid I have now forgotten what they mean.

The next day Joe had to fly back home.  Jane, Rosa and I flew to Siem Reap in northern Cambodia. There was of course sadness in our parting as well as a certain anxiety that has become part of the baggage of our family life whenever we, as we must, go our separate ways.   To let go of the sight of each other has and, I suspect, always will be much more of a wrench since Josh died.

Josh’s plans once he had traveled through Vietnam, was to continue on to Cambodia, back to Thailand and then on to Nepal.   Our two weeks in Cambodia represented that part of of his trip he was unable to do.   We visited the temples of the Angkor Archaelogical Park and then travelled south to Kampot on the coast and the capital Phnom Penh.  There follows, as a conclusion to this post, a selection of photos of scenes and people we met during our time in Cambodia.    I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.   Since a young boy I have been drawn to the magic of photography.    Hyperreal and pretending veracity it is, I think, the most surreal of artforms.    A photograph has the unique ability to capture life, collapsing it into a single moment, while at the same time casting a spell that will outlive us all.   Photographs can tell big stories and little stories but  always from the past.   A photograph always was, though it alludes to being now.   It can never be the future yet it breathes with possibility.     In a sense then photographs defy time itself and in a sense, you could say that  photography is always in ‘Joshua’ time.

Look in any travel guide for Cambodia and you can see fantastic photographs of the temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, Bayon etc.   Recognised as one of the seven wonders of the world, they are part of a huge area that was once the centre of the Khmer Republic (9th to 15th c).   This was a period of great prosperity but also of continual change, politically and spiritually, with Buddhism and Hinduism alternating as the predominant  religion.   The ruins are covered with carvings and reliefs depicting various myths, legends and bits of propaganda.   Highly symbolic and full of narrative they read like a storyboard for an epic Hollywood blockbuster and they must have expected to be seen as such.   Not unlike photographs they are still images that have outlived both their makers and their subjects.


As I wandered around the grounds of Baphuon, this butterfly settled on my hand.   I know many people who would say that this was a little bit of Josh’s spirit visiting me for a while.  Well maybe, but probably not.   And actually it matters not because in that moment I could believe that too; for the comfort it brought,  and the stillness it represented.   And it hasn’t been the first time I have been seduced into relinquishing my disbelief in some kind of afterlife;  the tiny green frog that appear at the foot of Josh’s tree on the day we spread his ashes there; the crow that sat and watced as I ate my sandwich in a motorway service area on the M6;   a white butterfly that accompanied us as we walked to the hill village of Tiglio near Barga in Italy.   This little butterfly stayed with me for a good half an hour, occasionally flying off to circle around me and land again.   Long enough for me to take a few snaps so I could share the experience, authenticate it, tell stories about it – to ‘brag’ about it.

As tourists (as opposed to travelers) it is difficult to engage properly with the history we are walking through, but we do love to brag about our visits to historical sites and monuments.  All the more so now that we can achieve this within an instant. Modern technology has given us license to record our presence ‘in’ history, but often only to the extent that we agree with its potential to make it and us into commodities.    In many ways we have sacrificed who we really are and where we come from, to a generic and ubiquitous ‘facebook’ image that does no justice at all to the moment or the place.

5 am – sunrise – Angkor Wat
Bayon Temple – 1190 AD
Agkor Wat – central courtyard
East Mebon Temple
Tourist police – Preah Khan Temple
Relief Carvings 12 c – Digital Montage 21 c

In common with many cultures, I suspect that I have an unconscious wish to believe that Josh is not really dead, merely sleeping – sometimes I can imagine him opening his eyes any moment now, if only to wink at me.    In any case, I have found that my images of people asleep, while the world continues around them, speak to that sense of ambiguity we have between sleep and death.

East Mebon – midday
Angkor Thom – midday
Boat Journey to Koh Rong Samloem – late afternoon
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – early morning

We are grateful that Josh did not die of hunger or violence, from hatred or in war.   In the late seventies, during the time of the Khmer Rouge, over one million Cambodians including many children did suffer such a fate.  (this actually represents 1 in 8 of the total population).    It was a humbling experience to visit  Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Memorial (one of roughly a hundred ‘killing fields’) near the capital Phnom Penh.    Most haunting are the thousands of photographic portraits that line the walls of the Museum, originally the Tuol Svay Pray High School which was turned into a torture, interrogation and execution centre by hardliners of the Khmer Rouge.    Of the 14,000 people known to have entered only seven have survived.   The vast majority were carefully photographed before being brutally tortured and forced to confess their ‘crimes’.    Inevitably we will draw a comparison between our tragedy (a single personal death) and the horrors of this mass killing.   Not all, but most of these portraits are nameless, their anonymity to a certain extent, protecting us from their real lives, and their real deaths.  This is forensic photography at it’s most clinical but also at it’s most revealing.  Look at that mother and child, she will know they are both soon to die.   And rows upon rows of children and young adults staring forever long past their execution date, maybe the only photographs of them that survive.   See how fortunate we are to have so many photos of our Joshua – particularly the one in which he is feigning sleep.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
School visit – Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Choeung Ek Memorial Stupa
Station 12 – Choeung Ek Memorial perimeter fence
Family selling trinkets – Choeung Ek Memorial perimeter fence.
The ‘killing tree’ against which babies and children were  smashed to death.

Cambodia is now a young country.   96% of its population is under 60 and only a very few remember the civil war at all.   The following photographs are the result of mostly very brief encounters.   As portraits they too hide real identities, though their very anonymity may help us connect to a common humanity in which life and death can be, should be such an ordinary events.


Thank you for reading

Jimmy (July 2013)

USEFUL LINKS

RELEASED (standard version) by Jimmy Edmonds    – for more of my thoughts about that ‘sleepy’ picture see RELEASED the book I published soon after Josh died

Angkor Archaeological Park travel guide – Wikitravel   – for information about Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

Tuol Sleng | Photographs from Pol Pot’s secret prison (1975-79)    – for the photographs from the S21 prison

Killing Fields – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia   –  Wiki page for the Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial

Sala Baï|Cambodia|Siem Reap    – The nicest hotel in Siem Reap,  and a school for young Cambodians from underprivileged backgrounds looking to work in the hospitality trades

Vietnam Diary Part 4 – Hanoi: looking for Joshua


It’s nearly four weeks since we visited the spot where Josh was killed.  It was a big moment and has taken us all a while to take stock, reflect on what it has meant, and to fit it into the story of our travels.   Does that sound strange?   After all that was our main purpose for going to SE Asia.   But we have done so many other things too both in actual practical memory of Josh as well as stuff that had little to do with him.   As well as our ‘pilgrimage’ we were also on holiday and discovering many, many, wonderful things about Vietnam and Cambodia; about their peoples all whom we met were so generous in their dealings with us; about their culture and history both recent and ancient; about their food, their transport systems and their weather, all so foreign to our European sensibilities but so revealing of the spirit of both countries.     Any way as a final posting (or series of postings) we’d like to share with you some of the photos and the stories behind them from the days following our visit to the roadside near Vu Quang where Josh’s life came to an end.

Our journey to Hanoi was in effect the reverse of Joshua’s last few days of his road trip.      Along with some friends he had met in Laos, Josh spent much of his time in Hanoi looking out for and buying motorbikes that would take them on the 1800 km journey south to Saigon.     Josh made just under a quarter of that journey and now we were taking a bus that would take us as far in 4 hours that the boys travelled in 3 days.     Our mood was buoyant.     Surprisingly so given that the day before we had been experiencing the sickening reality of the place where Josh had died.  Maybe our good humour was a relief.   We had survived the ordeal of physically being in the place where Josh breathed his last, along with the anxiety provoked by thoughts of whether this was the ‘right’ thing to do, of the fear of not being affected by that level of ordinariness that we were hoping to yet scared to find.    That we had survived it with our emotions intact,  it also had so much to do with Uoc and the generous nature of our Vietnamese hosts.    Uoc (the English speaking schoolteacher who was called to help translate for Josh’s friends) really had done everything to make our visit to his town and to scene of the accident as easy as possible.   I can only imagine what we might have felt like had he not been there to shepherd us and to take care of us in what would otherwise been a such an anonymous, unknown and potentially empty experience.   Because of his planning and because of the humanity he brought to that moment, our visit to Vu Quang was in the end, as much about life as it was about death.  (see our previous post – a letter to Josh)

Uoc’s final act of kindness was to book and make sure we got on the bus at first light of day.   After walking us back from his village just outside Houng Son the night before, he was up again at six organising the pick up from the hotel.   I had never been on a ‘sleeper’ bus before but they are common throughout Vietnam and are often used for long journeys even in daytime.   And this bus was ultra modern, air con. comfy bunks and  pure joy.  We dubbed it the ‘playbus’ – there was an area at the back with no seats; just a space to loll around in, play cards, go to sleep, whatever.    Personally I could not be tired and spent most of the trip getting to know, or trying to get to know the other passengers.    When language barriers are so high, I find having a camera is a good way to break the ice.

Two of the three drivers
She’s his “sister” – I think he said
Josh’s sister Rosa
Hanoi – the ‘old’ quarter
Hanoi – the queue for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Hanoi – Poster shop

Hanoi, Josh had told us, was the most exciting city he had visited  in his three months of travels.   With its tightly packed streets, it is noisy, crowded and vibrant with an energy that truly is like no other capital.  One of the things we wanted to do there is to find the hostel where Josh had stayed.   I’m not sure what we were expecting to find.   Some clue perhaps, some material form of connection to his few days here, to know that he had stayed in this room, slept in that bed, we’d be somewhere where he’d been enjoying himself, a newly independent soul traveling the world.    Whatever going to Vu Quang was about it was a place where Josh had died – now we wanted to find some place where he’d been alive.

There are only two backpackers hostels in Hanoi so it wasn’t going to be difficult to find the one where Josh had stayed.    It was the second one we visited that turned out to have a record of Josh booking a place there.   We took a look around.  Plenty of young folk at the bar, lounging round the TV set, here was a pool table and a notice board with adverts for motorbikes for sale – nearly all of them Honda Wins!   In the two and a half years since Josh bought his second hand Honda Win, nothing seems to have changed much in the way young people are  traveling and trading their way round Vietnam.     As much then as now the Honda Win is the favoured method of long distance transport  and today as it was yesterday,  the bike is in the temporary ownership of every other backpacker – bought for a couple of hundred dollars in Hanoi and sold a few weeks later in Saigon.   That Josh should be riding one when he had his accident now feels less like a cruel twist of fate, more like an ordinary accident in which he was the tragic participant.

Hanoi Back Packers Hostel – Honda Wins For Sale
Hanoi – traffic

Our current knowledge of the traffic system (so horrendous,so impenetrable and seemingly so dangerous on first sight) also helps to allay our misgivings that somehow it was the crazy way people drive in Vietnam that was the cause of Josh’s death.  For one thing, it seems as if there are no rules. But does that mean there are more accidents? In the four weeks we were in SE Asia, and after spending many a moment mesmerised by the amount of motorbikes criss-crossing at various intersections, we saw no accidents, not even a near miss and I have come to the conclusion that ‘no rules’ may not be such  a bad thing when it comes to traffic control.    In fact I think its probably a good thing.   In the UK, for instance,  a driver will defer to the rule of road – give way to on coming  traffic, claim priority at a round about, indicate when turning right and so on.  And being a conscientious rule observer himself,  this allows him to get irate when someone else breaks a rule.    But being a conscientious rule observer doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a conscientious people observer.   At home in Gloucestershire,  if I take a slight risk and start to overtake a lorry lumbering up the hill, an on-coming car is more than likely to engage me head on with a full blare of the horn and flashing off headlights (oi fucker get out of my way!!! – you are in the wrong!!! – you have broken the rule!!). And he would be right, even if his attitude be offensive. But his emphasis is on the rule not on the person he is about to collide with. Not so on the highway or at intersections  in Vietnam (at least as far as I could discern).    I never saw one moment of road rage. In fact the traffic in Hanoi and other towns we visited seems to work on the idea that you do everything to avoid running into another road user even if that means slowing down to a stop. The best way to imagine this is as if you are in a pedestrian shopping precinct. Here there are of course no rules or rights of way for people on foot, and yes there might be a slight altercation now and then as shopping bags clash, but no one gets hurt or injured because most times people observe and avoid each other. And thats kind of how it works on a Hanoi intersection – although people have a little motor and two wheels between their legs they don’t have a whole raft of rules to go with them, let alone rules to hide behind when things go wrong, leastways, the rules that they do observe are the basic ones of human interaction and consideration. And it works, it must work or they’d have invented rules, and rights of way, and sanctions and punishments to make it work. But they haven’t. Instead the Vietnamese are masters, not only of loading their bikes up with as much as possible, (people as well as baggage), they are very adapt (sometimes in very skillful, even acrobatic ways) at avoiding bumping into others and avoiding injury.

In our remaining weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia we would be traveling many hundreds of kilometres along highways such that Josh would have been riding.  On numerous occasions we witnessed overtaking (as well as undertaking) manoevures that would have had European hairs standing on end, but each time the on-coming vehicle slowed down and gave way.   This may be reckless of me to say so, but it feels like on Vietnamese roads there is a great observance of life than there is of rules and it reminds me of something my mother always used to teach us as we were learning to drive – ‘He was quite right as he drove along, but he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong’. Be that as it may, if ever there was a rightness or a wrongness to Joshua’s death, our own experience of Vietnamese traffic comforts us to know that neither its crazy rules nor his own possible carelessness have  anything to do with it.

Four up – or even more. Not an uncommon sight
As long as Joe was standing still while he took photos, he was in no real danger of being run over.
Front steps – Hanoi Downtown Back Packers Hostel

Although Josh had booked into the Backpackers Hostel it wasn’t actually this one he stayed at.  This one here, we were told, was ‘downtown’ Hanoi; we should be looking for the one in the ‘French’ quarter.   At this point Jane told us she really didn’t want to pursue this search much longer.  People grieve differently and situations can throw up very different challenges for all of us.   We are both parents whose son has died but our mood swings differ and we are still learning more about how the other responds or reacts to new situations.    So it is that Jane and I have  different responses to to seeing or meeting people of Josh’s age, doing the things he wanted to do, doing the things he should be doing now.  Jane finds it too painful.   I can enjoy seeing Josh in their faces.  Unaware as they are of the trauma we have been through, I like to imagine him in their clothes, wondering what they are listening to under their headphones, what they are planning for the next stage of their journey.  This is different from two years ago when the hurt and injustice of all that he had lost would have filled me with an inconsolable resentment.  Now I am edging towards a more conciliatory response and can be thankful, happy even, that  these young men still have their lives. For Jane though seeing their tanned and healthy bodies, and hearing their laughter is still so difficult.

Josh – January 2011
Joe and Trang –  May 2013

 That evening, Joe and I walked into the ‘other’ hostel in Ngo Huyen Lane just north of  St Joseph Cathedral in the ‘very’ French part of the town.  The first thing I saw was the map on the wall and I recognised it beyond any doubt as the map Josh was sitting in front of in a photo sent to us by his friend Dominique. Somehow and for some reason I felt we had arrived.    Our bus journey and our entry into Hanoi had given us the flavour of Josh’s own journey, but here we were now actually standing in the spot where he had actually been – no doubt about it.     As important as it was to make our pilgrimage to Vu Quang, for us to be alive and breathing in the very same space as Josh had been alive and breathing seemed to give more substance to our connection with him.   Over there was a line of travelers tapping away at the internet, and behind us, with similar disinterest, a steady stream of plump, pink yet scantily clothed young things traipsing through the lobby.  We introduced ourselves to Trang, manager on duty that night, and told her our story.  Trang has worked here for over three years but with so many travelers checking in and out every night, she couldn’t remember our boy.  Not that that would stop her fully engaging with our purpose – it was her suggestion we should add  Josh’s name to all the others on the wall.  This felt like a gift to us, a gift from a stranger, who for a moment became our friend.  We were discovering as Josh had done, that when you travel it is really quite easy to establish quite close connections with others, albeit briefly.

In our case of course death is at the centre of any such encounter.   At home I have sometimes found talking about Josh and expressing my grief with close friends a difficult and uncomfortable experience. Whilst traveling though, it has been relatively easy to talk about our loss with people who don’t know us.   There is I guess less baggage around – of the emotional sort.      It may  also be true that in cultures like those of both Vietnam and Cambodia, talking about death is a fairly ordinary (and therefore less threatening) conversation.  Certainly  there have been only a very few who have not responded to our story with genuine empathy and understanding.   If there is still a healing to be done, then this comfort of strangers has played a significant part.    When Joe and I told Jane about the hand prints she and Rosa now felt able to join us at the hostel.

The French quarter in Hanoi – Ngo Huyen Lane (the hostel in the distance)
Scenes in Ngo Huyen Lane, Hanoi’s “French quarter”

Thank you for reading thus far – it helps that we can share our experiences in this way.   In the next posting we decide how to distribute some of Josh’s ashes, take a visit to Halong Bay, and engage the services of a caligrapher.

With love

Jimmy (on behalf of all the family)

22nd June 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

 

Joe did his TRI for TCF

6.30 am, its still dark and the day does not look promising.   Leaden skies hang low over the sea front and Joe and I have got lost in Brighton’s oneway systems.    The marina, venue for this years triathlon, is further out of town than we thought.  With just minutes to go before the off, we’re hustling through another 130 wet suit clad athletes in a rain soaked Asda car park, just in time for a briefing by the guy who claims to be in charge.

Despite the weather, the crowd is good natured and responds heartily to the head honcho’s attempts to liven them up with a few jokes about the Olympic spirit still dripping over us, a bit like the rain.   I didn’t get it but then I didn’t yet understand what drives people to get up so early and dive in the sea.    Neither did I quite understand the level of organization needed to put on an event like this.    Nor it seems did the folk supposed to be doing the organizing.    Start time, the starting line and the starting signal had clearly been predetermined – like ‘ go jump off that there harbour wall’, but nobody seems to sure of where the finish might be.

So off they go, 200 flailing arms churning up the less than appealing waters of the marina (I notice more than one dead sea bird bobbing about on its oily surface).    By the time the field returns to the pontoons, Joe has forged through the pack and is in the lead bunch.   I’m gobsmacked – I knew he was fit but really, that fit?    We have some seriously sporty alpha males here and Joe’s up with the best of them.    This event was turning out to be more of a heart thumper than I’d expected.   Instead of sloping off for coffees at Macdonalds while the lads head out over the downs (downs in Sussex are really ups) on their bikes, John (a friend of Joe’s who has also braved the weather to support the goodness of this cause) and I jump into his car and follow the riders as they start the climb on the first of two laps of a 20 km circuit.

We are now TEAM JOE/TCF!   Leaning out of the side window I take a few photos and scream encouragement.  John as driver does a good job in helping to pace our boy.     Not that he needs our help; Joe has found two other riders to ‘draft’ with and they are slowly making their way through the field.    The conditions are far from ideal, the rain continues to slant in from the English Channel, the roads are greasy and on the way down Wilson Avenue (40 mph) we notice blue lights flashing at the bottom of the hill ahead.   It looks bad, one crumpled bike and a gurney being lifted into the ambulance.     We decide to stay with Joe as he gets up on the pedals for the start of lap two – this is a safety concern now, as much as support and encouragement.   Joe manages to stay upright but, as he told me later, he had some serious wheel spin on the steeper gradients and his only worry was that having only the ‘team car’ with him might have given him a slight advantage … shiiiiiiiiit … we were having fun.     John and I take a short cut and we’re back at ‘transition’ in time to see the first of the riders enter the car park.

Way out in front is an obvious pro – all sinew and muscle and the skimpiest of shorts.   It’s a long agonizing wait and eight more riders  before Joe slides into the transition area.    However good you are as a swimmer or cyclist you have to get your transition right and that’s a skill in itself.    And Joe is fumbling and fumbling and … fumbling with his shoe laces.    In changing from his bike shoes to his track shoes, he’s losing precious moments in what has been an incredible performance so far – we hadn’t counted for how cold and numb his fingers would be.    Please please don’t blow it now.     There’s no-one looking and I’m about to duck under the wire and give him a hand.     Luckily, any moral scruples I might have about assisting a competitor, are not put to the test.   At last he’s away and charging along the ‘undercliff’ (it actually is under the cliff, not over it ) he disappears into the mist.    This is the really tough bit – only 8 k’s but its lonely out there and by now the field is well spread out.     It’ll be over half an hour before he returns so John and I take it upon ourselves to check exactly where that finish line is.    There are a few yellow jackets about none seem to be too sure … over there? Nah over there.   We follow a guy with a some kind of electronic clipboard and it turns we’ve made the right call.     There’s this high wire fence and a gate that leads to a small construction site with lots of Danger Keep Out signs … this the finish line and few moments later Mr Tight Shorts whizzes past to thunderous ….. well not quite applause, more like a quiet ripple of appreciation from those in the know, which I assure you is not many.     Again a long, long wait.    No 2 comes in, number 3, 4 & 5.   And there he is – our Joe has made up two more places and he strides in with a personal best of 1 hour 48 minutes.

We both had a brilliant day.     Why?   For me, I was well proud of Joe.  He’d trained hard, committed to the
cause, and raised over £1000 for The Compassionate Friends, a charity we’d never have got involved with had it not been for our Josh.     For Joe though it’s as much about honouring his brother as anything else.    Since staring at Fight for Peace, Joe has learnt more about what it means not to give up.    You can always put in a little bit more effort, go better than your best.    And Josh is always with him as a reminder that there are still great rewards to be had in life, even though we miss him so.


If you haven’t already done so, there’s still time to make a donation to the TCF – its easy peasy – click on Joe’s JUST GIVING page and hit the donate button.      But so many thanks to all those who have given so generously – the total to date is a massive £1131.00

And for the complete photo story of Joe’s Tri, feast your eyes on our GALLERY PAGE

Jimmy

 

 

Journey to Jura … (with Joshua)

This summer Jane and I visited Jura, that enigmatic Hebridean island just to the west of  the Mull of Kintyre.   Jura is perhaps best known for  its ‘paps’, three breast shaped mountains that dominate its skyline, and from whose summits you can experience some of the most spectacular views of Scotland’s highlands and islands.

Possibly lesser known is the fact that, in the years after the 2nd World War,  George Orwell found refuge on Jura and it was here that he wrote 1984.   (Orwell changed his original title for the book ‘Last man in Europe’  simply by reversing the last two numbers of the year he finished the book 1948)   I guess its debatable which of Jura’s illustrious visitors, Orwell or St Colomba who passed by on his way from Ireland in 563 or thereabouts, to spread the Christianic message, had the greater impact on modern life.   At school I read 1984 from cover to cover – can’t say the same of the bible.

You could say that both are now outdated.   There are just two churches left on Jura and one of those has been converted to a holiday home, which is where Jane and I stayed while we were there, along with our good friends Alison and Aggie.

As always Joshua was with us.  Here are some words and pictures that reflect our time on Jura.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Church
You stand alone
Above the track
Between one house and another.
From across the bay
I can see only mist
Swimming towards the dawn
That will always change with the tide
Of  being.

Jura
You float in the must of strange weeds
Drifting upwards like strings of
Semen
Broken, dispersed and afraid of
Belonging
To the swarm that begins and ends with
Every dying
Breathe

Bell
It must have been an age
Since last you
Spoke to those who cared
To hear the news of distant wars
Perhaps sixty years or more
When Orwell wrote
Nineteen
Eighty four

Ungetatable
He said when he found Barnhill
At the end of the path
Past deserted forests of a thousand
Crucifixes hung with children
Blindfolded and redacted
Forbidden from
Crying out
Pain to pain

Corrievreckan
Baptismal whirlpool
When Colomba came with the child
On the way to Iona
Was it already mute
Never to be mine
Never to be yours
Never really to make it
Through the night

Beinn an Oir
Barren, broken breast
With your crusts of scree
Mecca for many and I
Who would break an ankle
For just one peek
Behind
Your veiled
Horizons

Watch me boy,
Watch me dive below
Dark brown blackish
Waters of Jura’s lochans
Stain glass shards slipping through my fingers
Naked now
Pulling me closer to that
Cloistered void
Called death


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Josh’s 24th birthday

Last weekend we celebrated Josh’s 24th birthday.   We also had the real pleasure of having the two Dutch guys who were traveling with Josh at the time of his accident, come to stay.    Dominique Zondervan and Don Zweedijk”s visit was a very special moment as they were the last people to spend time with Josh before he died.   They had only known Josh for two weeks so it was also a good opportunity for them to find out more about him from all his friends here.

(click on any photo to go to gallery)

seated on the bench - Don on the left and Dominique

 

one of the hottest days of the year so far ...

 

hot enough for a quick dip .....

 

before a walk to the pub

Making it Real – Death and Photography … by Rosa

Joshua’s younger sister, Rosa is currently studying on a Foundation Art course at Oxford Brookes University. We are reproducing here an essay she has written as part of her course which explores the themes of photography and death and the way we use the medium as a way of creating memorials to people’s lives. In this essay Rosa posits some very challenging questions – how far, she asks, is the act of taking someone’s photograph a subconscious attempt “to protect ourselves for when that person dies?” To answer this she examines the work of  three very different artists – the American photographer Nan Goldin who captured some of the most intimate and moving images from New York’s gay scene of the 1970’s and 80’s – London based photographer Briony Campbell’s whose “The Dad Project” was a way of saying goodbye with her camera to her father as he lay dying from cancer – and the work  I have produced since Josh’s death, in particular my book “Released”.

I am seriously moved by Rosa’s ability and her desire to use her university projects as a way of understanding what her own work now means in the light of Joshua’s death and for being prepared to share those thoughts with us.    (Jimmy)

 

Making it Real – Death and Photography

In my essay I will be exploring how we take photographs of loved ones with the possibly subconscious aim to memorialise that person after they have died and look at the ways in which we can turn found photos of a lost loved one into prominent memorials of their life.

How far is taking a photograph of someone a response to our fear of death? Is their fear their fear or is it ours? What power does the photograph hold? Does it comfort us in our grief and why? When images of death are all around us, why do we shy away from post-mortem images of people we have known and loved?

I will be structuring the essay around the three stages of taking images as a memorial that I have concluded from some of my research:

–      Taking images before someone has died, when they are certainly alive and healthy yet, with the subconscious idea that the photograph will almost certainly outlive them.

–      Taking images of someone as they physically die, a concept that is almost unheard of in our culture. I ask could this be a way of helping us prepare for their death?

–      Finally, taking and using images of the person after they have died.

 

NAN GOLDIN – keeping the memory alive

 

For a long time the work of New York photographer, Nan Goldin has inspired and influenced my own work. She takes very personal and intimate images of her close friends. She photographs them relaxing at their houses, their drug use and abuse and during sex. Nan Goldin’s body of work is often very shocking to the greater public and has frequently acted as an expose of life during the AIDS epidemic. She recorded some of the most intimate moments of herself and of her friends’ lives.

Goldin grew up in Boston, “in the very middle” of a middle class neighbourhood. When Nan was 11 her older sister who was 18 committed suicide. In Goldin’s documentary film, ‘I’ll be your mirror’, she implies that her sister’s death was a catalyst not just for her photography in general but also for the intimate and personal style of her images.

After leaving college she moved to New York’s lower East Side where she began documenting the post ‘stonewall’ gay scene of the late seventies –“instead of dying at 18, I started to photograph.” Goldin now acknowledges that her sister’s untimely death really shaped her photography in a very subconscious way. She reflects on her photography in the documentary commenting that she “became obsessed with never losing the memory of anyone again”. The irony of course was that by the 1990’s many of her subjects were dead either from aids or from drug overdoses. Goldin’s photographs use an intimate snapshot aesthetic and read rather like a private diary made public. The images all show real moments and real people and let the viewer into her life.

 

Iniatially Goldin took photographs for her personal use. But do portraits taken as a commission or for more public viewing  have the same ‘death instinct’? British photographer David Bailey believes they do: “Photography is all about death really… you look at [old] pictures-they’re always dead. You don’t look at a painting and think ‘she’s dead’ but you look at a photograph and think ‘she’s dead!’

 

Do we all take photographs of the people that we love to capture them in case of death or to protect ourselves for when that ‘subject’ dies? When you are taking an image of a loved one it transforms from just a photograph into a memory, a character and a relationship. This is the element for me, which makes the works of artists such as Goldin so significant and so beautiful.

 

 

Cookie Mueller – 1981

‘The Cookie Portfolio’ as Goldin names it, is a series of fifteen photographs taken over thirteen years of Cookie Mueller – “the starlet of the Lower East Side” and the “queen of the downtown social scene”. The images illustrate Cookie’s character and vitality yet also captures her deterioration and eventual death from AIDS in 1989.

“I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. I put together this series of pictures of Cookie from the 13 years I knew her in order to keep her with me. In fact they show me how much I’ve lost.”


“The Cookie Portfolio” is an excellent example of the way a photographic record of anyone can come to have such a power after they have died.

Goldin’s dilemma highlights a basic contradiction in all photographic portraits especially those of people who have then died; their photograph has an incredible likeness of being to the subject, it invites us to accept consolation from their living image yet, it can also a painful reminder that they are now gone.

The last image in Goldin’s Cookie Portfolio is of Cookie in her coffin. It is extraordinary that in a series of photographs intended to keep the memory of her friend alive that she would include a photograph of her corpse.

Extraordinary not just because of Goldin’s fear of losing her friends ‘living’ memory, but more because in her life and her art she is surrounded by the deaths of those close to her yet, this picture of Cookie in her coffin is one of only a very few she has published of a dead friend. Sex, drugs, deviance, yes – death, no.

However, rewind to the nineteenth century and images of dead people, especially babies, were very common, socially accepted and even valued. At this time, infant mortality was very high and a lot of the time there wouldn’t be enough time to make a photograph of the child before it had died. So the families would photograph the deceased openly and unfortunately this occurred often as in those days infant death was more commonplace.

While images of death as part of our daily news intake, such as the killing of Bin Laden, are quite acceptable, people who now want a post-mortem record can face social opprobrium if they were to take a picture or commission someone to do so. People on the television and in the newspapers remain characters and don’t seem to be real people but people don’t want to acknowledge the death of someone close to them by taking a photograph. Similarly, a lot of people live in the mindset that if we don’t acknowledge death by photographing it then maybe it hasn’t happened.

When my own brother Joshua died last year and I went to see his body in the funeral parlour I didn’t take a photograph. It was impossible for me to do so not only because I was using all of my emotional energy to process what was happening leaving no room for the camera, also it simply isn’t the done thing nowadays.

Perhaps for Goldin who lived through her camera and often shielded herself with it, taking the picture of Cookie’s corpse was a necessary confirmation of her death. For me, the support of my family meant that there was no need to record his lifeless form for posterity – above all it was just too painful.

From personal experience I’ve learnt that we tend to shy away from photographs that depict images of the dead especially when the deceased  is a loved one. Yet, it is surprising that in popular contemporary culture, there are still few acceptable ways of recording the rituals surrounding death and mourning process. When families get together it is often around important moments such as births, marriages and funerals, the latter being the event least photographed. Unlike weddings, there is no industry for funeral photography or videos. This seems strange to me, as death is the only inevitable event in someone’s life. After my brothers death, we as a family collected all the pictures of Josh that we could – a hugely important part of our efforts to come to terms with our loss; these were of course all pictures of Josh alive. Overnight, they had all become memorial photographs – each snapshot acquiring more poignancy… and over time these ‘found’ images of Joshua have gained even more significance being used over and over again: at the funeral, parties, memorial days, and given to people as gifts. For example, the images below were both images which gained significance from their first use as his business card, now as a memento for people to put in their wallets and on their walls to remember Josh. Like Goldin we were using his photograph as a way of keeping Joshua alive.

 

Above – the photograph Josh used for his business card

This image was reproduced and given to mourners at Josh’s funeral

Images, like the ones of Josh, seem to become an icon of a person’s life. On the surface we take images to represent memories and relationships but, when a tragedy happens, I have realised that maybe we take images to prematurely memorialise that character and protect ones self from the inevitable. The images grant us with satisfaction by showing an exact visual replication of that person whilst still alive but at the same time the photos will now always be a reminder that they are now not alive.

 

JIMMY EDMONDS – RELEASED – the photographic illusion

A few weeks later after we received his ashes back from the crematorium, my father, Jimmy Edmonds, started on a photographic project that would be both a memorial to my brother and a record of the way our family was dealing with our loss.

RELEASED - ash clouds §6

This project was published with the title RELEASED.    It can be seen in full here.  He started by photographing Josh’s ashes; he captured them pouring through the air and the clouds of dust that they created.

He then experimented with laying the ashes on top of the photograph shown above of Joshua that had gained significance from being used at the funeral and over and over again. When put together, the ashes and the image formed conflicting ideas: on the one hand, we can see Josh alive, with him looking back to us, placing us in an illusion letting us believe that he is still alive, but the ashes tell us that he is most definitely dead.

 

The thing about a photograph is that even though it captures a moment in time it will almost always outlive its subject matter. My Dad wanted to find a way of making images that more accurately reflected the long process of mourning. Again using a photograph he’d taken of Josh, the one used as his business card, he hand printed them using a nineteenth century technique that used vegetable juice and sunlight – anthotypes. He then combined these bright red images with the ashes and physically stuck the two together. There is no way to fix an anthotype print – in time they will fade. Over time all that will remain will be the ashes of Josh. Nearly all photographs act as an aide-memoir and as such are deceptive. This series of images speaks more to our current reality of life without Josh.

My father was able to use the ashes as a creative material and make some beautiful images not only for the people that knew Josh but also for many people that did not know him. They felt privileged and touched that he had ‘let them in’ to such a tender and normally private part of  our family life by witnessing Josh’s actual ashes as a piece of art.

“All that remains will be – all that remains.”

 

 

BRIONY CAMPBELL – saying goodbye with her camera


My father had time to think about his project – (when someone dies, it is after all forever!). When Briony Campbell’s father was diagnosed with cancer he was told that he had just nine months to live. Briony decided to document this with a series of photographs and an accompanying video called The Dad Project. Unlike Goldin’s work, this was a very much conscious process where both father and daughter collaborated. Each of them had to think carefully about what doing this project would mean for them both:

“I agonised for months over whether I should attempt to photograph our relationship at all”.



We learn from her video that for her father the project meant getting to know his daughter in new ways and spending the last of his days doing something worthwhile and productive. For Briony it was more of a way to say goodbye. She was able to use her camera as a medium to do this, but I suspect that at times it was also a way to distance herself from the reality of the situation.

“Each day that brought his imminent death into sharper focus, my project became more of a crutch, and more of a member of the family. When we had nothing to be positive about, the project gave us a way to be productive”

For my father the photographic process he undertook was more of a reflection on my brother’s death once he had already gone. Campbell’s project was of the moment and dealt with the emotions she had as her father was dying. She did not know what was going to happen next or when exactly he would die from his terminal illness:

“When you find out you’re going to lose someone you love you don’t know what the story is, so you really can’t plan how to tell it.”

When we think of images of a dying family member many people are likely to conjure up stereotypical images associated with death – morbid and painful images that could capture pain, suffering, fear or a variety of other negative emotions associated with death. Of course Campbell’s ‘The Dad Project’ series includes those images. But Campbell also creates a story about love. She does this by creating beautiful photographs in a hopeless situation. The video includes humorous chats with her father and I found myself smiling whilst watching it. Similarly, amongst the heartfelt, painful images are picturesque images of light and colour.

“If it were a painful moment, I tried to make the picture more aesthetically beautiful”.

“Today we knew he would die soon. I went outside and looked at the sky while we waited for the ambulance.”

The series contains both pictures of Campbell’s father as well as some self-portraits although, I would argue that the self-portraits are images of her father dying too. I think these are some of the most important images in the series as they show her bravery. To let people see you at your weakest and most vulnerable I find really incredible. In my opinion these self-portraits fuse the series together as they put the whole thing into context by showing not only the experience of the father’s illness but also the impact the illness has on his daughter. This has the result of humanising the whole process. Death here is not a news item, but an everyday occurence.

 

By taking the images of her father with the conscious aim to memorialise the pictures even before he died, to then take images of herself shows a great understanding and coming to terms with death in general. By photographing herself she is essentially preparing herself for when she dies and exploring this through the images – for me, she is memorialising herself in the images using the same idea of taking a photograph to be there when you are dead.

Most of memorial photography exists of images of smiling people aiming to remember the happy times of a person’s life. Campbell’s work is more of a realistic representation of death and includes photographs that are undoubtedly hard to look at, though the series does also include happy and amusing images. By creating a more rounded view of death and dying, Campbell has somehow reduced the fear that many people have of death. I was able to relate to this by thinking back to the funeral we held for Josh. On the day I felt a bit strange that I wasn’t sad all of the time and I felt quite at ease and cheerful at points through out the day – a lot of our friends said they enjoyed the day and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.

Part of life is that everyone has to die. It is inevitable. At the very least, The Dad Project, opens a door to people and lets them in to this delicate journey.

What becomes clear is that although all three photographers are responding to their encounter with death in very different ways, they are all using photography as a way of coming to terms with loss. For Goldin, photographing her friends is a kind of insurance policy, creating mementos for when they are no longer here. Campbell documents the journey into death in a truly collaborative way and my father is trying to produce new images from my brothers actual remains. And by confronting death and making it real they all go some way to dispelling our fears.

Rosa Harris Edmonds

April 2012

 

Links

Keep up to date with what I am doing at university and in my personal projects here and here.

Briony’s film, ‘Saying goodbye with my camera’ can  be seen here.

Briony’s photographs of ‘The Dad Project’ can be seen here.

Jimmy’s ‘Released’ photographs can be seen here.

 

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