Ride London is an annual event attracting over 25,000 cyclists riding 100 miles through London out to Surrey (climbing two famously nasty hills) and back again to finish on The Mall.
… and we have taken up the challenge to ride with them
WE are TEAM JOSH and we have entered this year as part of our fundraising campaign for THE COMPASSIONATE FRIENDS. We are hoping to collect £1500 in donations in support of the hugely valuable work that TCF does. TCF helped us – they have been helping us ever since Josh died and we want to give something back in return. And if you want to help us help them then please trek on over to our JUSTGIVING page where you will find the easy peasy way to donate.
Just a little background re TCF
Over 6000 young people under the age of 25 will die in the UK very year leaving tens of thousands newly bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents. (When Josh died in 2011 we were some of that number). TCF is an international charity that started life in Coventry in the late 1970’s and is the only peer to peer network of bereaved parents and families in existence. All the charities staff, management board and volunteers are themselves bereaved. As such they/we are especially attuned to the needs of the newly bereaved.
But resources are limited and the charity we can’t reach many of the people who so desperatety need our help without developing its profile along with all the publicity it can get. And this is where our Ride London comes in and how you can help us in what is bound to be a hugely publicised event. But remember we are only human and it is 100 miles and legs do tire … moral support for us is invaluable and financial support for TCF is … priceless. If we can do you can do it by DONATING HERE.
So who is TEAM JOSH –
With a total age of over 200 (thats two years for every mile we ride – yikes!) we are all family and friends of our Josh
Jimmy (66) is Josh’s Dad and still riding hard and the most ‘senior’ of the team.
Although this picture could tell a story it’s not really true one. We did make it to New York last year but sadly without the bike and John o’Groats will have to wait awhile – 874 miles feels a tad over the limit. I’ve never even riden 100 miles in one go and this is my first attempt at Ride London 100 – something of a challenge.
But I’m totally committed – I’ve riden the pain of Josh’s death so frankly these days I can ride anything!!
JOE (37) is Josh’s older brother. He is our team leader, team coach and general alround inspiration.
As you can see Joe has done this before so at least one of us knows the way!! Joe is looking for a fast time this year – trying to crack 5 hours – but the rest of us hope to ride with him for at least some of the time… maybe the first 100 yards.
Joe is currently in Mexico preparing for a Triathlon on 21st May – we wish him luck
Tom (37) has the biggest heart and the biggest smile in North London. Originally from sarf of the city Tom knew Josh from a baby, has and will always have deep connections with our family. We’ve riden and hiked and overcome many obstacles together.
I’m relying on Tom to help me get up them hills.
Billy(Andrew)(Wiggo)Baxter (3?) is our secret surprise. An unknown quantity is Billy but make no mistake he has some very powerful legs.
We are hoping he can keep his eye on the road and not be distracted by thoughts of a new arrival to his family – due sometime in late June.
Good Luck Billy and Bel on all accounts.
Ride London happens on Sunday 31st July and the countdown has now begun – we train in earnest and put in the miles every week and especially the weekends – in total I expect to cover over 100o miles between now and then. And while this is enjoyable its no laughing matter – our legs need to work hard but fundraising for our charity can also be a gruelling task. How many times have you been asked to donate to a good cause this year? We do understand that pockets are not a bottomless unending pile of cash, but we also ask that in honour of all those children who have died before their parents and in honour of the help that TCF offers them, that you can spare a little to support this amazing charity.
The following is our report on a photography workshop Jane and I ran at the TCF National Gathering earlier this year – apologies if this appears a little late but life work and other things do tend sometimes to take over from our tasks of keeping you informed of all the things that have happened since Josh died. In any case time for us doesn’t really feel like a series of moments that gradually disappear into the ether, or off the bottom of a blogroll, so we hope that this account will be as relevant to you in a years time as it does now.
Saturday 11th October 2014 … it’s the annual Gathering of The Compassionate Friends and Jane and I have an opportunity to share our joint skills in photography and therapy. We are running a photography workshop for bereaved parents and siblings – EXPLORING GRIEF WITH PHOTOGRAPHY. Our two disciplines seem to gell together seemlessly and the first part of the course is going well – the participants have split into groups and and are sharing the photos they have brought along. We have a good turnout – two 90 minute sessions both completely full – most with very little practical experience of making photographs but all with a huge amount of stories and memories to share. The room is buzzing with emotion. Both therapy and photography are ways in which to seek beyond the surface layers and discover hidden emotions. And while photography can have a more tangible result they are both very much processes in which everyday realities can be tested and revealed anew. At least this was the approach we hoped to explore in the new photography course we have devised and for which this is its first outing.
The Compassionate Friends is a charity we have now become quite closely involved in and attached to. TCF is important to us, not just because of the video we produced for them (SAY THEIR NAME) but because it truly is a peer to peer network run by and for bereaved parents. Not only do we share our grief (it makes life so much easier when we do) we can also share our skills and for us this represented a very special opportunity to contribute something of our own to a community that had, I suspect, not given much thought to the potential of photography as a therapeutic tool, especially for the bereaved.
So how do we and how can we use photographs to help us as we grieve? Both the photos that we already have of our child and the ones we intend still to take. We asked everyone who signed up to the sessions to bring along at least three photos of their child, pictures that have a particular resonance or evoke a special memory. Further into the session we will be asking them to choose just the one picture in order to ‘reframe’ it in a way that will bring it more into the present. Our purpose here is to experiment with ways in which we can keeping an on going relationship with our child by employing one of memory’s most valuable assistants – the photographic image.
In preparing the course, I began by looking for some good examples of what others had done in this area. As Josh’s sister Rosa has pointed out in her article (Making it Real – Death and Photography) every photo we take will outlive its subject and as such has enormous potential to transcend that final moment between life and death, a fact well recognised by artists and photographers ever since the medium was discovered 200 years ago. But by googling a combinations of various words; GRIEF, PHOTOGRAPHY, DEATH, BEREAVEMENT etc, I found little that spoke to my own experience of life since Josh died. Beautiful photographs as they are, mostly they seem to fall into high art or reportage, neither of which seem to be of much use to anyone looking to express their own very personal feelings in the days months and years following the death of a child.
Typical would be this photo of grieving parents following an earthquake in China. Although as a press photo it has the potential for a sort of anonymous association for the viewer (we can feel their pain) it does little, I suspect, to help the mum and dad who have just lost their daughter. Why? Well I think its because they haven’t been involved in the real work of taking the photograph. Did they know the photograph was being taken or did they pose suitably grief stricken in the rubble, their daughters image conveniently arranged so that the world can see her in full view. Whichever, this is an image of tragedy for public consumption and feeds a very common place idea of what grief should look like but, buried as it is in the historicity of the moment it can never convey what grief really feels like as one of life’s longest lasting experiences.
A little closer to home (in the sense of a personalised photography) I found this remarkable website NILMDTS – Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep – a sort of photo agency that will record for you a moment with your child who has died at birth. This is a free professional service and is in the tradition of post-mortem very popular in the States at the end of the 19th century, a time when child death in the family was commonplace, though we can assume no less traumatising..
Now as then these photographs carry a huge emotional charge both for the bereaved families and for us strangers looking on. Unlike a press photograph and in common with all portraits they have demanded the active participation of the sitters. Mother has taken her dead baby in her arms and posed specifically for the camera. She is performing a drama with the shortest of stories but one which will have lasting impact and as such has the potential for huge therapeutic effect. The moment is both real physically and emotionally and she is in effect taking the first step in a life’s work of continuing her bond with her child. This is a lasting image that has captured a hugely significant moment and one in which she can return to time and again as she remembers and try to construct what (or who) might have been. But again, as artefact, these post-mortem pictures are and can only be, locked into the past, even while they generate very current as well as very healing memories and emotions.
It was with these thoughts in mind, that we began our workshops with an invitation to explore ways in which we can use photography to generate a continually evolving set of stories and impressions following the death our child. We had each of us brought favorite photos and were now explaining the stories behind them and the memories they evoked. In the small groups we had formed words spilled out and across the room in a veritable hubbub, a cacophony even of voices all (and I think this is the really interesting bit) trying to describe their feelings, all trying to convey their emotions. But at the same time the mere act of vocalising our thoughts, of telling the narrative seem to get in the way of really connecting with these photos and the child within. In a sense words were failing us.
At this point then we asked people to remain in groups but to sit quietly and merely observe their images, together and in silence. In the hush that followed Jane used her ‘mindfulness’ techniques, encouraging us to stay in the moment however difficult the feelings, to try and lose a sense of time and to find a connection with our child that is now and something more than just memory. It was extraordinary, as the words disappeared and the emotions took over, hands felt for another to hold, an arm went around another’s shoulder, tears began to form and frankly, I was stunned.
Photographs of course are always memories – they are always of the past; of something that has already happened. You cannot take a photo of the future. But while they are always of the past, they are also always in the present. And like memory their meaning or the meaning they have for us, can evolve with time, sometimes radically and overnight. We recognised this in the photos we had brought of our children … innocent snapshots that have now become overloaded with longing and painful fantasies of what might have been. In my book RELEASED I wrote about how an image of Josh taken as part of a series of portraits of people with their eyes closed, had now attained a kind of iconic status in the way in which we remember him – and the way in which we ‘reinvent’ him in a continually shifting process of trying to find meaning in our lives and in his death. Personally, I have found much comfort in being able to re-photograph Josh’s image – it has taken me from the raw pain of remembering too much to a newer sense of a continued relationship with him. No longer here and forever dead, Josh still remains a huge presence in my creative endeavour and very much part of my life.
So there are two aspects to this business of exploring grief with photography. There are the photos we already have of our child who is now dead. Photos that were taken in all innocence of what the future might bring, now portals to our memories holding us close to a life that once was, both ours and theirs. And there the images that we can now make – post tragedy – of the lives we now inhabit, both ours and theirs (do they not live on within us?).
For the second part of our workshop people divided into pairs and together attempted to create a photograph that reflected some of these concerns. In a way what we were trying to do is to weld together the past and the present – the past with all its longings and the present full of our current desires – and in so doing rebuild our sense of a future. As all bereaved parents will know, when your child dies, you are immediately thrown into a world in which the future has very little meaning. But in this act of re photographing our child’s image we began to see some real therapeutic possibilities in the way we can continue our relationship with her/him with less pain. With the photographs we now made we could forgo the ‘what if’s’ in favour of the ‘might be’s’. We might even imagine a time when we can look upon their face and smile again and know there are more photos to come many of which we haven’t even dreamed about – yet.
24 people attended our workshops and you can see some of the resulting photographs by clicking on the image below. Some of the photos remain private so we are only publishing those for which we have permission.
EXPLORE THE RESULTS
Some of the thoughts and feedback about the sessions …
“inspirational – I have been so sad that we have no new photographs of (our child) and now I feel I can put all our pictures into a new context”
” …painful, powerful, beautiful meaningful and extremely well run. A perfect combination of professionalism, creativity and empathy”
“looking at my picture of (my child) was so hard … I have always thought I was so totally rubbish at photography and not really interested in it but it has inspired me to do more in the future”
“but maybe the tears are necessary and maybe they feed the creative process ..”
“You have shown us a beautiful & really unique way to remember our very precious children ….. I thought I would get very upset seeing (my child) on the screen …. but in fact because it was so special, it was actually comforting”
“such a beautiful way to continue our bonds and to make new ‘memories’ with (my child). Jane and Jimmy, you handled our feelings so sensitively and I feel uplifted”
Jane and I feel very encouraged by this and will be offering a more developed version of EXPLORING GRIEF WITH PHOTOGRAPHY in the future. In the TCF workshops we were concentrating on re-photographing an already existing image but there so many more ways of photographing our grief. We also realise that for some the image of their child still holds too many painful reminders or that they might want to focus on a more abstract sense of their grief. Grief afterall is such a complex range of emotions that finding words to describe them often seems to result in cliche or just very ordinary and nothing like what we are truly experiencing.
And this is where making new photographs can help to play a part. We can learn to express our thoughts and feelings in a language that is not so literally tied-bound. By finding the visual metaphors that are in a way unique to us and that express our grief, ours and ours alone, we can interpret our feelings and our experiences in our own way. In a way this is our route to honesty, something others are bound to recognise. We may also find that despite the very solidity of a photograph (this did actually happen – this person did actually exist) the language of photography is very fluid, that photos in themselves hold no particular meaning outside of the way they are viewed. But isn’t that a bit like grief anyway – a constant slipping and sliding of feelings and emotions around a central fact – our child has died.
Thanks for reading
If you want to know more about our work or would like us to create a course for you please use the CONTACT FORM on this website
Almost half of Britons (47%) say they would feel uncomfortable talking to someone who has been recently bereaved, and many bereaved people have experienced negative reactions to their grief, including people avoiding them and the loss of friendships, according to a new study released by the Dying Matters Coalition.
This is a finding of a special report commissioned by Dying Matters to coincide with the launch of a new campaign designed to support people with what to say and do after a friend or family member has been bereaved. The BEING THERE initiative comes at a particularly poignant time for many bereaved families – this is the lead up to Christmas, a time when, as in our case, the absence of a loved one is more keenly felt. BEING THERE is addressed to people who like many of our friends have naturally moved on their lives and away from the intense pain that we feel. This is normal but it is also very hurtful – the affect upon the bereaved is to suffer not just one loss but many … with death being such a taboo subject in our culture, grief too becomes a feared emotion and all too often our friends and family shy away from a state of mind they see as uncomfortable, disruptive and avoidable.
So the BEING THERE campaign is a really good starting point for all those wanting to know what to say and do as well as what not to say when a friend or family member has been bereaved. Here is a link to the Dying Matters press release :
Dying Matters is a coalition of a number of organisations from across the country set up to promote public awareness of dying, death and bereavement. The Coalition’s Mission is to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement, and to make plans for the end of life. This, they say, will involve a fundamental change in society in which dying, death and bereavement will be seen and accepted as the natural part of everybody’s life cycle.
Josh’s mum Jane is on their advisory committee and contributed to the launch of BEING THERE with a number of radio interviews across the UK including BBC Radio 5 LIve, Radio Scotland, Gloucestershire and London and the West Midlands . This is what she had to say about her conversations around Josh… “We discovered that whenever we talked about our son Josh to friends and family there were awkward silences and people just didn’t know what to say or do for the best or even avoided us altogether. The first Christmas after Josh’s death was particularly upsetting, especially when we received Christmas cards that didn’t even acknowledge his death. However, talking about our loss, remembering Josh’s life and being allowed to say his name really helped us, as did the kindness and support from those people who went the extra mile to be there for us.”
The Compassionate Friends, the charity which supports parents following the death of a child of any age, has launched a guide to getting through Christmas when someone so important is missing: Coping with Christmas
Annie Broadbent is the author of new book ‘We Need to Talk About Grief’, which gives first-hand advice on supporting someone who is grieving: visit Annie’s website
Kate Ibbeson has written a blog about feeling unsupported at Christmas following the deaths of her parents: Read Kate’s blog
Cruse Bereavement Care offers a helpline for bereaved people all year round, including throughout the festive season: Cruse Bereavement Care
Silverline provides information, friendship and advice to older people who may feel alone; the free helpline is open throughout Christmas: Silverline
Today is World Remembrance Day for Road Traffic Victims which has particular significance for us (Josh died in an RTA in Vietnam) and for many who read these pages. We’d therefore also like to remember our friends whose children have died in road accident, especially Bruno, Max and Conrad who died in Thailand in 2011, and Jessica who died while crossing the road in SE London in 2007.
To commemorate the day, Jane was asked to talk on BBC Radio Gloucestershire this morning and to share her thoughts about surviving the death of a child. You can listen to the interview here
Road Peace is the UK’s leading charity campaigning on behalf of victims of road traffic accidents. As their website explains : A road death is not a normal death – it is sudden, violent, unexpected, and premature. Every day, 5 people die on the roads in the UK and 3900 die worldwide
1 in 75 of us is bereaved through a road crash.
And today Ban Ki-Moon (secretary general of the UN) said “I am continually inspired by the potential of youth to transform society. The World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims is a sobering reminder that crashes are the leading cause of death for people 15 to 29 years old. Road traffic crashes also claim many younger victims, with more than 500 children killed each day as they travel to and from school, playgrounds and the homes of family and friends. Millions of other people of all ages are seriously injured”
SAY THEIR NAME, the film we made for TCF was up for an award for the Best Internet Bereavement Resource category of The Good Funeral Awards – and whaddya know – we won it!
Hmmm… Strange trophy perhaps – a minature wicker coffin but given that the event is organised by THE GOOD FUNERAL GUIDE hardly surprising – and its bigger than an Oscar (and lighter than my Bafta!) In effect The Good Funeral Awards are the annual shindig of what we have come to know as the “deathies’. In attendance were the great and the good from the world of funeral directors, celebrants, bereavement counsellors, coffin builders and grave diggers – as well as Pam St Clement (whose on screen death as Pat Butcher in East Enders has clearly touched many a heart) was there to dish out the prizes.
Josh’s death is of course why we are here. If Josh had not died we would not have become involved with The Compassionate Friends, we would not have made their video, and we wouldn’t be standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the most caring, compassionate and enlightened people we have met, because in truth these ‘deathies’ really are such. No morbid bunch of funeral stalkers these, more, this is a movement that is in the forefront of changeing the way we all deal with and talk about death. It truly is a terrible thing, but in a way it has taken the death of our son for us to really find that degree of self knowledge that allows us to be more accepting of death and more comfortable talking about it. To paraphrase one of the delegates Clarissa Tan – recognising “the finality of death is hard, but the uncertainties of life are perhaps even harder” – to talk about death really is to find out more about living.
And thats what we were doing in the run up to the award ceremony, as we joined a dozen or so others in a yurt in the garden of the hotel in Bournemouth. Have you heard of ‘death cafe’s’? Well this was a ‘death cafe’ and they are springing up all over. A bit like pop up restaurants but with death on the menu … a freakish, weird thing to do by most peoples standards maybe, but here atmosphere was relaxed, intimate and unafraid – no one blinked and there were no awkward silences when one member announced she had cancer and we told of our loss. All were equal whatever their story – death as the great leveller!
Back to SAY THEIR NAME and the awards. This was a glittering, champagne laden affair taking the form of all such occasions – “the nominees are …. the winner is” etc. And it didn’t disappoint as we sat nervously clutching each other, ready to be losers but wanting to win. Ah! the competitive spirit that always trumps even the most sober cause. Maybe not quite that sober. Acceptance speech? Jane was brilliant – no blushes and no gushes – enough said. But we can say that representing the film and TCF at the award ceremony was a real honour if only because people have been so positive about it – as per these quotes
“One of the most moving pieces of film that I’ve seen and utterly deserving of multiple awards in testimony to the powerful truths spoken by the parents we saw.” Fran Hall
“Wow that is brilliant (she says wiping away tears) … I hope that I can use this short film in my work. That footage has really helped me especially today since yesterdays funeral of a 15 year old girl so tragically taken is fresh in my thoughts.” Claire
“Really beautiful work – to showcase such articulate storytelling and promote remembrance.” Kathryn Edwards
“I was with each parent and sibling, deeply listening to them name and remember their loved one. It’s a good thing, this.” Kate.
I am still in awe of people who meet death everyday in their professional lives and I wonder what draws them to be undertakers, celebrants or soul midwives (a new one this). I suspect most have had painful experiences, themselves, but instead of hiding them away, they are using them to help us all confront our deepest fear – not of death but of life.
Last month we wrote about our production of SAY THEIR NAME, a promotional video for THE COMPASSIONATE FRIENDS – you can read about that here SAY THEIR NAME – a TCF video.
This month’s brilliant news is that SAY THEIR NAME is to be launched at THE HOUSE OF LORDS – next Tuesday 9th July. Along with promoting THE COMPASSIONATE FRIENDS new website, the launch is the part of a new publicity drive to raise awareness of the charity, the work that it does, and the needs of bereaved parents and siblings (and grandparents and friends) everywhere.
It is estimated that in the UK alone, over 6000 children under 20 die each year leaving behind 30,000 to 40,000 newly bereaved relatives. While not restricting its support to any age group, THE COMPASSIONATE FRIENDS believes that the death of a child (of any age) is ‘unnatural” and “not in the right order of things” and will leave relatives and close friends in an extreme state of uncertainty, confusion and disbelief. As we so well know, this is a state of trauma that is best overcome with the knowledge that you are not alone. But in our ‘death averse’ culture, it is difficult to breakout of the isolation many bereaved families feel. And that’s where The Compassionate Friends comes in. Its still a small charity but is run by and for bereaved parents and siblings, with a thriving internet forum, lots of local groups and a 24 hour helpline. The aim of the new film and website is help it grow and to help more parents like us to find comfort and support in the long road that is ‘the grief for a child.’
You can watch the full length version of SAY THEIR NAME here –
Following the success of SAY THEIR NAME, we are now planning to expand (if that’s the right word) BEYOND GOODBYE as a fully fledged film and video production company, making shorts and promos for charitable and non-profit organisations. We will also be accepting commissions for personal life stories, funeral videos and celebratory tributes. If you want to know more or want to make use of our talents (remember Jimmy is a Bafta award winning Televison editor of some 25 years experience) please contact us, either by the CONTACT FORM or E mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Compassionate Friends is a wonderful charity dedicated to supporting bereaved parents and siblings. Josh’s brother Joe, remember, raised a load of money for them earlier this year by competing in the Brighton Triathlon. Now TCF have asked us to make a promotional film to publicise their work. And we start filming this Saturday. Two days of interviews, followed by two possibly three weeks in the edit. Its a great honour to be asked to make this film and we’re very proud to be able to use our talents in this way to promote TCF. Follow our progress over the next few weeks and we’ll let you know when its ready for viewing.
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
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.
Part of me still can’t believe that I’m writing this but our film of Josh’s funeral has found some new audiences. In the coming months we have been invited to show ‘BEYOND GOODBYE’ at The Compassionate Friends Annual gathering (that’s on 8th September) and at the Dying Matters “Day of the Dead” event in November. The Compassionate Friends is a support network for bereaved parents and siblings and Dying Matters is a coalition of all sorts of people connected with end of life care. Each screening will be followed by a discussion.
Are we nervous? Yes. Are we pleased? Kind of. Does it matter? Guess so. But two years ago who could have thought that we would be showing a film about our son’s funeral to audiences like this. I am sure we will be received with kindness but my stomach sinks when time and again I have to rethink that terrible day we heard the news that Josh had been killed. For many a journey through grief is essentially a private matter but from the moment Josh died we have needed to reach out to friends and family for support. Documenting his funeral for what many have found a very moving film, was part of this process. Josh’s sister Rosa remarked “Josh wasn’t just ours”. How right she was and we have found real solace in getting to know so many of Josh’s friends both from his life in Gloucestershire as well as in London.
But to take this openness to another level that includes a wider public provokes some pretty weird feelings. Yes, it is gratifying to be asked to show our film but the idea of sharing our grief on such a public stage is a complex one. On the one hand we want to share Josh and to share the burden of our grief. But part of me also wants to keep my relationship with him private lest my memories and all my thoughts about him now become somehow adulterated. Both Jane (Josh’s mum) and I also have a nagging doubt that going public is a kind of diversion from grief proper (whatever that is), or at least a distraction from the pain of our loss. I know that when we attend these events, many will admire the strength and courage we show, but obviously that’s a bit of a mask, and the actual chaos of our mourning lives will be carefully hidden (or at least held in check) by the civilised practicalities of putting on a good show.
But we have been changed by Josh’s death. For good or for bad we are who we are now and I’m glad we have been able to open up like this because the rewards have been many.
Now comes the news that we have also been nominated for the Good Funeral Guide annual awards (a kind of Baftas for the death industry) to be held in Bournemouth later this month. This is for the “Most Significant Contribution to the Understanding of Death in the Media” …. that might sit nicely alongside my real Bafta, but oh, how I wish our skills had not been called upon in this way.
I’m afraid the Compassionate Friends event is for members only but if you’d like to attend any of the others here are the details –
The Dying Matters – CELEBRATING THE DAY OF THE DAY – event is on 1st November at Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1 7HU (near Euston Station). The full programme is not published yet but you can keep up to speed by visiting their website here DYING MATTERS .