Another way of grieving

Another way of grieving

Around 6,000 people under the age of 24 die in the UK every year, leaving up to 50,000 bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents. The death of a child is always a traumatic event, but bereaved parents often find themselves isolated and ignored by a society that has in many respects relegated death and its aftermath to the realm of professionals - funeral directors, counsellors and academics.

Family of four standing with a photo of a loved one
James and his family with a photograph of Josh Download 'James Edmonds_Blog.jpg'
"I have discovered that grief following the death of a son or daughter is a fast learning curve." - James Edmonds, Fellow

This is a society that has few everyday encounters with death; a society that has lost or forgotten how to talk about death and how to be comfortable with its own mortality. The impact on the bereaved can be devastating. Studies show that grief that is unattended or unsupported can lead to increased levels of depression, alcohol and drug misuse, relationship breakdowns and suicide.

I knew nothing of this before my own son died 10 years ago. If I had, would I have taken much notice when it happened to others? Would I too have expected my bereaved friend to ‘man up’ and put the past behind him? What did I know of the pain of a child of mine dying before his time and before me?

I have discovered that grief following the death of a son or daughter is a fast learning curve. For the first few weeks following Josh’s ‘accident’ (he died while on holiday in South-East Asia), I believe I was in a kind of limbo – a frozen, emotionless no-man’s land, where the truth of my boy’s death and its significance for the remainder of our lives seemed to cancel each other out. Life continued. Days rolled by. We rose in the morning, his mother and I. We made and ate breakfast, lunch and dinner. We watched maybe a bit of TV and went back to bed. All with little sense of purpose.

A production still from James' film, A Love that Never Dies, that shows James' wife Jane scattering Josh's ashes into the Grand Canyon
A production still from James' film, A Love that Never Dies, that shows James' wife Jane scattering Josh's ashes into the Grand Canyon Download 'James Edmonds_Blog2.jpg'

There was in fact a strong impulse to remain cocooned in this sense of nothingness, to protect ourselves and the pain of our grief from prying eyes, from people who cared but who could never undo the trauma of our loss; from friends who we feared would not have the language to communicate their own anxieties that could in some way normalise our own feelings, our inner conflicts, our sense of not knowing who we were anymore.

“Grief is an act of protest that declares our refusal to live numb and small” - Frances Weller (psychotherapist and author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow)

So yes, we felt small – crushed by the weight of grief. But there comes a point when you recognise that you are not the only ones. That the work you do (and grief is hard work) in finding meaning again is valuable work. You discover that results of that work can be shared, that the diaries you have written, the photos you have created and the films you have made can help to validate your experience of grief. They also seem to be part of another conversation where death and dying are not the ogres we thought they were.

“It sounds stupid to feel good when my husband is dead, but this period of time has allowed me to grieve, to just be.” - Alex Smith (paediatric palliative care nurse)

Alex Smith is one of a number of contributors to our new documentary, Beyond the Mask, a series of lockdown conversations conducted almost entirely by video conferencing. Still very much a rough cut, we are hoping that the film - or films - will reveal how the experience of grief can help us to navigate social restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“(Covid-19) brings us face to face with that uncertainty of life and that the unknown and the unpredictable can come upon us at any time.” - Dr Lucy Selman (Director of the Good Grief Festival and contributor to Beyond the Mask)

Covid-19 has brought a high level of distress and anxiety. At the same time, it has shed much-needed light on some of the systemic inequalities in our society, particularly along the lines of race, class and gender.  In many ways, Covid-19 invites us to re-evaluate what is important in our lives and, not unlike the trauma of grief, it asks us to divert our attention away from comfortable assumptions about a so-called natural order of things. It also allows us to consider that when things get broken, whether on a personal or social level, we will find amazing and truly imaginative ways of healing and repair.

“Grief challenges who we are. I certainly had to rethink my own sense of self after Josh died.” (Jane Harris – psychotherapist and co-founder of The Good Grief Project)

Beyond the Mask is the latest in a growing list of creative projects that my partner Jane Harris and I have pursued since our son died, which have always centered on our film and video projects. These include forming The Good Grief Project, a small charity dedicated to an understanding of grief as an active and creative process. Beyond Goodbye, a film project we have worked on, evolved out of footage we shot of Josh’s funeral and explores how, in the absence of meaningful contemporary rituals, we created a more personalised send-off for him. This was followed by another film project, Say Their Name that we produced for The Compassionate Friends, a peer-to-peer network for bereaved parents and siblings. In 2015, my Churchill Fellowship enabled Jane and I to travel to the USA and Mexico to meet and film other bereaved families, and explore issues around the importance of honouring grief and its potential for emotional growth. The result of this journey feature in our documentary, A Love That Never Dies, which has now amassed a worldwide audience.

The Fellowship also spurred us to develop a series of workshops and weekend retreats, designed to help others work creatively with their grief. Our Active Grief Weekends have received attention beyond their immediate scope. We need to limit attendance to 20 but, with their intimate, homely and non-judgmental atmosphere, we believe we have found a model that enables bereaved parents and siblings to open up to their emotions and find new ways of expressing them.

Beyond the Mask will be published in the New Year. On 3 December there is a special online screening of A Love That Never Dies, organised by Death Positive Libraries as part of Grief Awareness Week.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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