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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Thank you for reading
Jane and Jimmy
For an evocative set of photographs from the day of Granny Pat’s funeral please take a look at this gallery
‘I had no idea how to talk to the bereaved. Until then I’d mostly avoided those who’d lost loved ones. I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. In a culture that’s distinctly uncomfortable with pain, this is a safe position for many people. We don’t like to look that kind of loss in the eye for fear it might swallow us.”
So writes Jill Stark and the bereaved she is talking about is her oldest friend Fiona Hunter whose 5 year old son Jude died just three hours after being diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension just before Christmas 2011. Jill, is a journalist, and she was preparing to fly back from Australia just having received the news of the little boys death. On her way she found herself in the self help section of a bookshop searching for ways to support her friend and feeling at a complete loss as to how to respond to her friends grief. “My impotence was matched only by the abject futility of the titles – When bad things happen to good people, Beyond the broken Heart” It was she says “like trying to fight a firestorm with a watering can”.
And as I continued to read her article (Giving Grief a Voice) I was struck by the way that Jill was prepared to go that extra mile to try and make sense of something so senseless, so unthinkable. Something which also involved facing her own fears of talking openly about what is everyone’s worst nightmare, the death of a child.
And I know from the nightmare of Josh’s death that when a child dies everything is thrown up in the air – nothing is ever the same again. I will never ‘get over’ or ‘move on’ from Josh’s death, but some of my friends have reacted in ways that suggest they wished I could. Grief taps into emotions and feelings that I never knew existed either for me or my friends. Reading about what grief is like from the perspective of another bereaved parent’s friend, from someone who was, it seemed, prepared to face her own demons is therapeutic and comforting. Jill acknowledges her friends pain with an unabashed honesty. ‘Grief isn’t pretty and it’s rarely quiet. It can be a skin-scratching evisceration, that rattles through every nerve ending and rasps on each breathe. Denying it a voice isn’t healthy. And it’s an insult to those we’ve lost.’
One friend of mine admitted that for her it was scarey and uncomfortable to talk about Josh. She was afraid of upsetting us and deemed it probably safer to say nothing. I explained the ‘elephant in the room’ syndrome – when nobody talks about Josh it makes it so much harder for us to relax in social situations. Instead we put on a mask that says ‘I’m OK – please don’t bother yourself with my sadness’. This, it seems, only prolongs the silence. I know that to see someone grieving is not a comfortable sight. It’s unpredictable and raw and I use the mask to hide my pain. I’m sure that in the earlier stages of life after Josh, I must have seemed like an enigma to my friends. I’ve landed on a strange planet and they no longer recognize me. But I was seeing them differently as well.
In his new book ‘An Astronauts Guide to Life’, Chris Hadfield talks about what it was like to see the earth from the moon for the first time. He would, he said, never see the earth in the same way again. Grief colours your world differently and we are strange to others. But tiptoeing around the bereaved like they are aliens is not right.
Parents of Jude’s school friends hang their heads when they see his mother Fiona arriving in the playground. ‘I’ve gone from arranging play dates’ she says, ‘to a harbinger of doom, someone who was there just to remind them of their own mortality’. The fear of saying the wrong thing may well be a natural response when in the company of the bereaved, but it is not at all helpful. Grief needs to be spoken. ‘One of the hardest things in the aftermath of Jude’s death’ says Fiona, ‘was the feeling he was being erased. Some people would say anything to avoid talking about him …. (but) to mention his name doesn’t remind me that he died, it lets me know the people remember that he lived.’
I’m reminded of the early days of racism and disability awareness when instead of bravely addressing the discomfort felt whilst in the presence of black or disabled people there was an expectation that they themselves had to speak up to defend themselves and justify their existence. Since Josh died I have felt similarly isolated though I don’t think the prejudice is as overt, and it is important to say here that I am neither black nor disabled. On so many occasions I have longed for someone to speak out on our behalf, to meet us where we are rather than us having to educate or guide others around the new us.
As I wrote this article I thought I’d give it a reality test with one of the many close friends who supported us tirelessly with Josh’s funeral. Claire Schimmer told me ‘It’s probably unsurprising that we’re ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of an unexpected death in our own communities. We prefer our death to be Scandinavian noir where the murderer is always brought to justice in the end and we can watch the grief of the parent/spouse/child from a safe distance knowing that its actually only acting It’s difficult and confusing being with friends who are grieving, not just because of the lack of vocabulary but because, if we’re honest, one of the first thoughts is ‘thank God it wasn’t me’.
Jimmy and I made a conscious decision to speak out and write about what it is to experience the death of a child. While many of our feelings still remain private there is much that we want to be more public about, hence this website. If sharing means we might ease our own burden, it also might just help others overcome their own fears about untimely death, or any death for that matter. We might then feel less isolated,
Claire again: ‘I’ve also learned that it’s reasonable to be curious, to ask questions and not feel that somehow the interest is obtrusive or even unhealthy – and that’s the unexpected bit; I feel that what I’ve learned from this hasn’t made me more anxious about death, but rather the opposite. I’m still very glad it wasn’t me, but I don’t feel guilty about that any more, and I understand now that it doesn’t get easier and you don’t move on, but that shouldn’t stop the friendship as it might bring things you otherwise wouldn’t find.’
Jude’s mum Fiona probably puts on a similar mask to mine. She also wishes people wouldn’t misunderstand her sense of being okay. ‘They shouldn’t decide that I’ve moved on, accepted my loss or (god forbid) replaced my precious son. Instead people should know that it’s possible to choose to be okay whilst at the same time living with a broken heart.’
I am changed and in many ways I’m OK with that. Perhaps it’s the passage of time. My hope is that others will take the risk to find out a bit more about what this change means. As Fiona’s friend Jill Stark has done: ‘I can promise my friend that I will never say “enough now” I will never tire of hearing her talk about Jude and I will continue to remember her crazy-beautiful boy and say his name out loud for as long as I have breath in my body.’
This journey has not been easy for me or for my friends. Many have had to bear witness to my grief and our friendships have been tested but most have survived.
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.
Now 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 bereavement 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.
First off, I’m so sorry about the sudden death of your sweetheart – I do know something of the pain and confusion, the despair and deep anguish you are going through, so I want to send you my own feelings of compassion and love at this time. I haven’t read much of your blog yet but the fact that you are sharing stuff so soon after Claire’s death is, I believe, not just a brave thing but a healing thing too and the hopefully the best way forward. As you say, being public about your grief helps you to feel normal, that you are not alone and from that we can all take huge amounts of comfort.
Our son Joshua died in early 2011 and I too immediately started to write and muse about how my interests in photography could help see me through. I didn’t publish anything at first, but then we started our own website to honour and remember Josh – www.beyondgoodbye.co.uk – and that has led us to get involved with a number of charities dedicated to helping people through grief, and try and get a bit more acceptance in what people describe as our ‘death averse culture’. Have to say it has not been easy, but then it was not really a conscious decision to go ‘public’ with our grief – it just happened cos that’s what we do and we wanted to able able to stay in touch as much as possible with all Josh’s friends – and where better than on-line. The difficult bit has been the way many of our close friends (in the ‘real’ world) seemed to have been scared off but our continual mention of Josh and the public things we have done for him since he died – grief is traditionally seen as a private matter – it does afterall get in the way of life’s day to day business of earning a living, cleaning the car, watching footer, having sex and generally being happy and productive. Or does it? Possibly, but only if you see grief as something in which we shut ourselves away in a darkened room so that we can be miserable all the time. Which of course it is not. And that said, two and a half years after Josh died and all those difficult feelings that we and our friends have experienced have now begun to ‘normalise’, I think that by not hiding away (although I still do that a lot of the time) we have been able to face fears (for many the worst fear they could imagine – the death of their own child) by sharing them and in doing so all our lives are enriched – at least I hope so.
So thank you for sharing your grief – its not a shameful thing and these days I believe its not such a difficult thing – the internet has given us such great opportunities in this regard – you have made us feel a bit more normal and I hope you feel the same.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We’ve done it. We’ve been to Vu Quang where you died in the middle of the road. It feels nearly as hard to say that as when we first heard the news of your death. But it is real, just as your death is real so we really have been to see the place where you died and to meet some of the people who were there at the time. In a sense these are the facts, what we make of them, how we remember them, what stories we tell around them and where we put them in the timescale of our own lives is another matter.
Our day began on the morning after the night train from Hoi An to Vinh. Actually this final part of our ‘pilgrimage’ to see where you took your last breath really started as we boarded the train with that sense that here we are at last; after more than two years we will soon be connecting with you in a way that we never wished we’d have to.
The train is cramped, crowded and noisy and we get very little sleep but as the morning light comes up, we now know that we are in Ha Tinh province, up until now only a name on a map, a name in a police report. We are glued to the window as the countryside lumbers past, spellbound by the sheer number of lotus flowers and paddy fields all with peasants in conical hats working the land. Our first opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of rural Vietnam.
Next door to us is a family of 10 happily cramped in to their tiny compartment. Their two youngest boys have spent much of the journey (irritatingly and charmingly) tapping on our window and pressing their noses against the glass and then running off down the corridor chasing a tennis ball. Squeezing past them is the steward and his trolley offering up rice and soup for breakfast which we decline politely. The last timewe were on such a sleeper we were on our way to Italy. You were eight and Rosa was three. We were going to spend a week with Sam and Doone and their Mum Adrienne. Remember the dead snake they were so keen to show us as soon as we arrived. To feel you so close yet to know you couldn’t be further away is so hard. and we wish with all our heart we could hug you one last time.
We are met at Vinh railway station by Uoc, the Vietnamese secondary school teacher who helped your friends after the accident. He is one of very few fluent English speakers in this remote part of Vietnam. Josh, we want you know this about Uoc; he is a complete LEG-END. One of the kindest, most thoughtful people we have ever met. Before our trip, and when first we contacted the British Embassy in Hanoi we asked how we could find the man who was called out from his class to translate and help with the police reports. We received an email almost by return from Uoc himself – it was as if he’d been waiting for us to find him. Now as we step of the train (which is running nearly and hour late) he is there to greet us. He has spotted us immediately (mind you, we are pretty easy to identify as the only white people on the platform) and guides us to a food stall under some trees near the taxi rank. Uoc has the look of a young boy, with wide eyes that are hungry for knowledge and as we sit drinking sweet cold sugar cane juice, he begins to tell us what happened when he arrived at the scene of your accident. But it is all too much too soon. We have only just stepped off the train and we need to adjust a little more to being in the presence of the man who would’ve seen your body lying in the road. The enormity of what lies ahead for us, is, we realize, only now beginning to sink in.
We arrive at Uoc’s home town Huong Son after a two hour dusty car ride through countryside that we imagine you too would have been familiar with. Not that many cars on the road but so many motorbikes, so many trucks and buses, all with horns blaring, weaving through potholes, overtaking, undertaking, this side, which side of the road, all avoiding each other and all surviving, all somehow staying alive to do the same tomorrow. It is midday and Uoc takes us for lunch. Huong Son is not the sort of place for restaurant so you get and you eat what you’re given. Soup, noodles, pigs foot, some spring rolls (as you will know you get spring rolls of varying quality everywhere in Vietnam) and some strange pickled berry things that are common fare for the indigenous peoples from the hills not far from here – (not that nice!)
Huong Son buzzes with life but it is far from the tourist trail and the rooms in the hotel Uoc has booked for us are dark and decrepid; a Turkish jail would have more charm. Very basic really, particularly after the luxury of the house in Hoi An but again the sort of place you would’ve taken it in your stride – (note to selves – must look up that footage you took of deciding who should get the beds by playing paper/rock/scissors – you lost we think). But Uoc has planned everything for us with real sensitivity and he wants us to be fully rested before he takes us to Vu Quang. Jimmy and Joe doze, Jane stays awake. It is late afternoon when Uoc comes back to collect us.
Vu Quang and the moment on Ho Chi Minh highway where you swerved to avoid an old man walking his bike up the hill, is a short half hour journey away. In the car with us are Uoc, his sister and his two year old baby daughter Sami who bounces around between front and back seat. There is something normalising about them being there. For them just another ordinary day out. Rosa points out Vietnam is so spiritual there is room for both life and death here.
We are now traveling down the same road you and your friends were on two years ago and we can all sense the exhilaration and the real fun you would be having on your motorbikes as the countryside, this beautiful countryside sped past. The road rises and falls over a gently undulating landscape of forest and farmland both meeting the roadside as abruptly as past meeting the present. The driver narrowly misses a water buffalo which has decided to resist its owners attempts to prevent it taking a shit in the middle of the highway.
A mile or so later we begin to recognize the landscape from the photos of the area we have seen on Google Maps. The road divides into a dual carriage way and the line of lampposts on the central island stretch into the distance. The driver slows and pulls over to the side as we approach what looks like a roadside police check and our first thought is we have been booked for speeding. But Uoc has arranged for us to meet the cop who attended the scene of your accident. This is amazing. Uoc really has thought of everything to make this journey of ours as meaningful as possible. The policeman looks at Joe and then at Rosa saying they must be your brother and sister as they look so much like you. He then follows on his bike and a couple of miles later we again pull over to the side.
We are here. The heat blasts us as we step out of the car. (All new cars in Vietnam have air-con – but we guess you know that!) It’s like walking into a wall of solid hot air but we also have a very real sense that we are stepping through a curtain of time, to a place where time itself no longer has the power to order our lives. The early evening sun throws long shadows as we clamber out onto the tarmac. We are a now family of five again, together in spirit and bound by love and our completeness spreads out across the hard gritty surface with an unexpected and soothing calm. Here at the place of your death we can feel the chains of mourning beginning to loosen just a little. At first there is nothing to say. Then our wondering becomes wandering and silently we begin to explore the scene, each our own archeologist superimposing previous imaginings onto this very real, this very actual roadside . When did we-five become we-four? How did five become four? Why, oh why did we lose you? In some ways we already know the answers to these questions so what we learn here is confirmation not of the facts of your death but a sort of joining together of our own stories – stories that were ‘then’ becoming much more stories that are ‘now’, and stories we can now perhaps stitch together into the fabric of what has to be – our lives continuing on while yours does not.
A constant stream of dumper trucks labours up the hill from the nearby quarry. Past them and on either side flow motorbikes with a variety of loads, hay bales, water canisters, mattresses. Did you see them like we see them now? A farmer harnesses an ox to his cart and leads it across the road oblivious of the traffic. Did you notice him? Somewhere behind a gateway a dog barks. Did you hear it? And did you see, did you sense, were you aware of the people rushing to the roadside as you fell? Because Josh, just as two years ago when they came to witness something out of the ordinary on this unremarkable stretch of the Ho Chi Minh Highway, so now they are gathering to watch and observe us, a party of Europeans with their cameras and their sunburn and their somber looks. There seems to be something vaguely amusing in this spectacle until Uoc explains our presence. He thinks he has discovered someone who actually saw your accident: someone who then explains at length the events of that day. The crowd assembles while we wait for the translation, but it turns out he is only a friend of the person who saw it. As would happen anywhere, everybody wants a piece of the action, a claim on the tale to be told; especially when death is one of the players. This is of no consequence. It is clear that all the stories of that terrible day do tally and we are content just hear the sound of voices and be in the presence of strangers that have also been marked by your death.
And Josh, they have been marked and they do remember. On 16th January each year since, a small shrine appears by this roadside. Wherever we have gone in Vietnam, people remember their dead by bringing offerings, (you will like this Josh) of sweets, beer, chocolates, fruit and cake! – and of course incense. Uoc says he too comes here on that day bringing as he does today a box of cakes. We begin to prepare our own shrine for you. We have brought a few momentos; some photos, one of your business cards, a Ministry of Sound CD, a card from the Gales, a string of shells that Hollie and Charlie have made. One of the villagers runs over with an old yogurt pot filled with sand. This is to place our incense sticks and at first he wants to put it in the middle of the road, on the actual spot where you lost your life. Others are walking out into the highway to debate the point. Is it here, no more likely it is there, perhaps it was here; we can see them becoming quite troubled in their need to get it right. Would you know, would you care?
In the end we call them back to the verge and the yogurt pot finds what feels like its rightful place under the safety barrier. Uoc leads our little ritual and lights the incense sticks which we take turns to set in the sand. This is our biggest moment and it is not without tears – and a long, long group hug. In the purest and simplest way possible we are honouring you and we are remembering you with a small ceremony that is and will remain as important to us as your funeral. But this time we are borrowing from another culture and another set of beliefs where people are expected to live on, to be reincarnated, where karma is of utmost importance to life and death, and where the spirit of ones ancestors have a sacred place at the heart of every home to be looked after and revered for all time. 80% of Vietnamese are Buddhists and practicing or not there isn’t a house in this country where the first thing you see as you enter is a shrine to the departed.
Uoc, his sister, and 2 year old and the policeman are squatting by the roadside. They are watching Joe as he ties some Tibetan prayer flags onto a lamppost (another gift from the Gales). Below it he scratches your name. Rosa scratches a kiss. Uoc promises that he will continue to come here every year on January 16th – and we believe him – absolutely. ‘This is’ he says ‘your day of the dead’. We are not Buddhists and we don’t believe in life after death, but what we did last Monday was deeply affecting. We will carry this moment and make it part of our goodbye to you… our forever.
With so much love
Mum and Dad
Ps – later that evening Uoc invited us around to his house for dinner. Afterwards some of his students came round eager to practice their English. Joe was more than happy to oblige with an impromptu evening class.
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.
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.
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.
Josh’s death has inevitably resurrected memories of past losses, of other tragedies, of other deaths. As part of remembering and honouring Josh I also want to remember them. Over the past few days I have been giving quite a lot of thought to two friends in particular. Gillian Burnett was a girlfriend of mine who died in 1971, and Bob Trattles, a very good friend from my London days, who was killed in an airplane crash in 1983. I was still very young at the time of these deaths and I have begun to realize that given the circumstances of the time, I was not able to mourn them in ways that enabled me to fully accept my loss. In many ways I don’t think I was emotionally equipped to handle the pain, neither did I have the support network to help me recognize some very confused and conflicting feelings that grief inevitably provokes. So what did I do? I hid the pain, repressed my feelings, tried to be strong, and focused on getting on with the rest of my life. But both Gillian and Bob have always stayed with me, although nearly all of our friends from that time have not. I can’t really remember how it came about that I should lose contact with most of the families and friends who also knew them, but I’m pretty sure that the difficult emotions we would all have been experiencing must have played their part.
This image of Gillian is a reworking of a photograph I took on a trip to the highlands of Scotland. She was a darkroom assistant for two well known photographers and we shared an interest in the dark art. I loved the calm way she engaged with her photography – it seemed to come so naturally. Her talent had not fully developed but her ability to capture a scene unselfconsciously was already apparent. And in one of her employers she had an excellent tutor, Philip Jones Griffiths. At the time Philip was working in South East Asia and one of Gillian’s duties was to prepare his photos for publication. I remember visiting the house in West London, with its darkroom on the top floor, where she was responsible for duplicating his original negatives. At the time I had no idea how much skill went into finding the right colour balance, the most effective shading for a photograph’s emotional impact, when to crop when not to. For Gillian this was becoming second nature, for me these were my first lessons in the power of photographs to tell stories. And what lessons they were. The images Gillian was working on would become Philips seminal book – Vietnam Inc. which, with its graphic black and white depictions of the effect of war on the civilian population were first to clearly show the mismatch of American soldiers in a place they didn’t belong. Vietnam Inc. is now credited for having a major influence on how Americans viewed their war in SE Asia.
What I remember of those days though, were feelings of intense envy as Gillian left each morning to go to work, knowing that she was somehow closer to things that really mattered. We were both curious about the ways of the world and started planning a journey to circumnavigate the shores of the Mediteranean Sea. This would be our first big adventure together and like Josh the prospect of a million discoveries overtook any anxieties we might have had. We had traveled as far as Mostar (now in Bosnia, then in the former Yugoslavia) when the accident happened. The car we had hitched a ride in was hit by another, ran off then road and fell into a deep and fast flowing river. Gillian could not swim. She died. I survived. The year was 1971, we were both 21, a year younger than Josh when he met his death. We had begun our trip in Norway where we had been working on stone age archeological sites. Our friend, Bob was also there, in fact he had found us the jobs. When I returned to London after the accident, I found it difficult to fit back into our friendship group. At that age things move on quickly, new friends are formed, old ones easily lost, but in any case talk of death and bereavement is not high on people’s chat list. Bob was slightly older than the rest of us and understood things better and so within weeks I had flown back to Norway to rejoin him on the digs. We began planning another ‘world tour’, working and saving hard to buy the Land Rover that would take us round the globe – and barely a year after Gillian had died I was off again – first stop North Africa.
Bob became my closest and best friend – he had known Gillian well and understood better than anyone else I knew what it meant to lose someone close, but I wonder now how much of our desire to travel was a need to journey away from pain. But the extraordinary daily and hourly revelations that overland travel can bring, especially on a continent that was more foreign than foreign, soon rendered memories of my life with Gillian, and the horrors of her death, to a more obscure and more forgetable part of my soul. The world trip didn’t quite come off and for reasons I don’t need to go into, we returned to London, I to start work as a bus driver, Bob as a town planner. We both ‘settled down’, found partners had children, Joe was born, we both discovered we weren’t in the right relationships, found new loves – continued to holiday together – and then in November 1983 Bob was on a flight to South America with his Chilean girlfriend Martha, when the plane crashed on its stopover in Madrid. Of the 200 people on board only 11survived. Martha and her young son Diego were lucky, Bob was not.
How to remember these two friends now. Their deaths were so long ago and I have few around me now who knew them well enough to keep their memory alive. Gillian, quiet and unassuming, was my first real love and perhaps unfortunately for her, is forever trapped in that romantic dream of a relationship that could only develop and blossom as we explored the world together. But who knows how long we would actually have stayed together.
Bob was a kind of older brother to me. A Yorkshire man from a small village near Redcar where his Dad worked in the steel mills, he was the first of his generation to attend university. Bob introduced me to working class politics – I admired his empathy with the socially deprived and his commitment to fighting injustice. Together we joined the Revolutionary Marxist Leninist League, one of the many far left fringe groups active in the mid seventies. Our cause was the overthrow of imperialism, our God was Chairman Mao who had led the Chinese in a utopian vision of a liberated mankind. Our moment was to show solidarity with the Vietnamese whose struggle had been so eloquently revealed in the book Gillian helped to produce. Had she lived, would she have joined us? I’m not sure she was the one to take sides, but I like to think that the world is poorer now for not having her photographs or her commentary on our political activism.
Joshua of course, knew little of this. It was years before he was born and like many today, he saw the idea of protest and demonstration a little, shall we say, pointless. But the country he was travelling in when he died, is now a free country, independent of foreign influence with one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Our chants of ‘Ho Ho – Ho Chi Minh, We shall fight and We shall win’ are now a distant echo but my friends Gillian Burnett and Bob Trattles helped me discover how exhilarating it is to be part of progressive movements and I am still very jealous of Joshua that he got to go to Vietnam before I have.
Josh died on the Ho Chi Minh Highway; Bob died as he accompanied his partner on her way back to Chile; Gillian died before she had found her own direction. They all died too young but I remember them all now as three of the most significant influences in my own life and I am so proud to have known them as well as I did.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 deceasedhas 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”.
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.
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:firstname.lastname@example.org
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
In the 15 months that my brother has since passed I have experienced a wave of different emotions and a sense of huge loss. A loss of my brother as a person, a soul and a presence in my life. I have also sensed so much loss within my own perspectives and feelings in life as it has continued. What is deemed important or worth concentration has skewered from the path it once was on and feelings of real joy, happiness and love, suffocated and laid aside to a point where at times forgotton. Forgotten to the point where it has been hard to believe that they can ever exist again?
I was travelling to work this afternoon listening to my Ipod as I walked across the concourse at Stratford listening to the playlist I have of 10 tracks that I now associate most deeply with my brother Joshua. I was in deep thought thinking of Josh and my loss. This playlist supports me in my way to be with my brother and often brings emotion with it…..sadness, pride and most importantly of all, a feeling of closeness that I can only now hold onto as best I can that re-connects me with Josh.
As I approached the stairs I had to stop in my tracks as for what certainly felt like the first time, I felt an acute sense of love for the world and with it, a realisation that I have an ability to love the world. To love the world whilst still being able to grieve for my brother.
For a moment…..I felt a clarity that I had not felt before between my sadness of my loss and my ability to love and see opportunity ahead for what life has.
I wanted to share this experience as it seemed at the time a very new sensation and one that I feel was and hopefully will be important for me in days, weeks, months ahead. To be able to re-visit and also move forward with where possible.