How is it to openly share your grief and your pain with others; others, who like you are also recently bereaved. I had wondered what it would be like to spend the weekend cloistered away with parents whose children had also died. What would be it be like to be in a room potentially overflowing with grief and sadness, a room full of so many other tragic stories, a room where dry eyes would be the exception rather than the rule.
The short answer is a weekend full of kindness, much patience, understanding, even laughter, and an extraordinary sense of safety… but also very, very draining. This is what Jane and I experienced last weekend at The Compassionate Friends annual gathering.
The Compassionate Friends has been going for over 40 years in which time its work of supporting bereaved parents has answered a need right across the globe. If a charity has a USP it will be its ethos of honouring and remembering each child by name and in helping the parent to develop and maintain a ‘continuing bond’ with the dead child. And unlike other charities members of TCF are all bereaved – it is not run by people who ‘don’t know’ telling us how to cope.
TCF has local support groups up and down the country that meet regularly, but once a year there is a “gathering’ for a weekend of collective remembering and ritual.
Grief is a weird emotion. If only because it is actually very hard to pin down and it means so much more to different people. It is now 19 months and 27 days since Josh died and in that time we have experienced more ups and downs, more conflicting and confusing feelings and thoughts than I would have thought possible for the human psyche to bear. There have been times when I have completely and absolutely forgotten that Josh has died, only for that “harsh reality” to come crashing back into my consciousness. There was a day recently when, after a long cycle ride with a friend, I realized that I had gone a whole eight hours without thinking of Josh at all. What meeting with other bereaved parents does is to reaffirm that guilt, anxiety, loss of confidence, extreme recklessness, bad manners, are all normal behaviour of all human beings, only exaggerated big time for people who mourn. The TCF provide a space for that excess to be contained and to be made safe.
Jane and I were met at Norhampton station by Anna, a young 23 year old whose sister Jessica had been killed crossing the road five years ago. As I sat in the back of the car, listening to the ease of her conversation with Jane, it became apparent that Anna belonged to that generous section of humanity, that was good at listening, people who on first encounter would ask “…and who are you here for?”
One of the problems that face bereaved parents in particular is how to find acceptance among their friends and family for such extreme emotions and behaviours which will last perhaps for the rest of their own lives. When a child dies we as parents are fundamentally and radically changed, but this is not perhaps recognized, particularly in the culture where death is so often not talked about, where the funeral is seen as closure rather than as a rite of passage to a new and difficult period in our lives, and where mourning is seen in terms of a discrete time zone, something that we go through and then ‘move on’.
So when Jane and I walked into the hotel for the TCF ‘gathering’ we left all this behind. We were joined by our friends, Amanda and Gillian whose sons. Conrad and Bruno lost their lives in a coach crash in Thailand last year.
At times I did find the atmosphere intense but there was always space to get away. The weekend gave us focus with TCF providing a number of variously themed discussion groups .. death by suicide, sudden death, death abroad, the symbolism of tattoos– there was a fathers only group which I made a bee line for. Men as we know find it difficult to express painful emotion, and women are often left shouldering much of the burden of grief.
The sessions were perhaps a little short, discussion sometimes had just got going when it was time to move to the next event in the programme.
But in a way the specifics of any one session really didn’t matter. Whatever the subject, they all equally gave opportunity to meet talk and share. In the afternoon Jane and I co-hosted a discussion on losing a child abroad, in which we showed our film of Joshua’s funeral. A tenuous link perhaps between the importance of creating meaningful ritual and the issues arising from a death on foreign soil, but we all found common link in expressing the pain of loss and in discussing ways to survive it.
The TCF is primarily a parents support group but it has of late been trying to develop its services for those whose brother or sister has died. Although small in number, it was this sibling group who for me made two of the more significant contributions to the weekend. Adam Fouracre gave the keynote speech in which he outlined the work of his charity “Stand Against Violence”. Adam’s brother died in a drink fuelled attack late one night and the charity now campaigns in schools and young offender institutions. Using his powerful film depicting a reconstruction of the attack Adam is trying to raise awareness among young people of the choices they make when ordinary youthful high spirits turn to deadly violence.
The closing session of the weekend was a bit, shall we say, old fashioned, a beautiful candle lighting ceremony for all our love ones as their names appeared on the screen. Then a second contribution from the siblings. They’d spent the previous afternoon creating some very wonderful poetry which they read out in unison and to quite powerful effect. Finally it was a bereaved brother, Ben whose song with its words, ‘its OK its OK its OK…’ brought me closest to emotional breakdown.