The women who heal, help and hold space

March 9, 2016

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Yesterday was International Women’s Day and March is Women’s History Month, and as such I want to honour all the women who work around death, dying and the bereaved. Since I started my journey two years ago into the spaces where people are trying to change the way we care for our dying and our dead, I have met some incredible women; women of strength, compassion and foresight that have inspired me daily. It would be sycophantic (but completely just) to list them all here, but most of them are humble and I would probably miss out vital names anyway. However a few key figures cannot be ignored.

Traditionally women were often there to serve the dying, and it was only when death started moving away from the home and into hospitals, morgues and funeral homes, that death moved away from the hands of women. But there can be no argument, that it is moving back.

I started my entire journey into the death acceptance movement by a friend recommending a vlog called Ask A Mortician and from the moment I watched it I knew Caitlin Dougherty would be a big influence on me. From watching her vlog, to seeing her speak at Death Salon in London to reading her ghoulishly funny memoirs: Smoke gets in your eyes and other tales from the Crematorium, she has been someone to look up to. It was watching her speak At Death Salon 2014 UK 2014 that put me in the path of so many other inspiring women.

 

So firstly, I have to pay tribute to the death doulas, who were my first port of call after Death Salon. Although there are a handful of male doulas, I also know they are the sort of gracious chaps who will also raise a cheer for their female counterparts for this tribute on IWD. I have met some of the most amazing women in the doula movement; women who train and are trained in holding space for the dying and their families. That have the intelligence and the intuition to know how to soothe and comfort and witness at the most vulnerable times in people’s lives. Often these women have travelled their own paths of loss and grief, and have dedicated themselves to lightening the load of others walking the path of grief, so they won’t walk it alone. Although they are all brilliant I would like to make special mention of Hermione Elliot, director of Living Well Dying Well, where I am training to be a doula. Her strength and knowledge keeps us all going, and her passion for this role that is both ancient and new, is infectious and integral to our learning.

Through doula training, running Death Café Bristol and Not Being Morbid events; and of course When Death Comes created by the beautiful Philippa Bailey, I have met so many more incredible women, doing things I didn’t even know were things! I’ve met celebrants like lovely Nixie James Scott; alternative funeral directors like the amazing Dee Ryding from Divine Ceremonies, Yuli from Bellacouche who makes stunning felt shrouds; performers, academics, historians, writers, and artists, all who want to promote the idea that as humans we need to find a better way to face death and dying, to die, to support, to grieve and to remember.

 

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As for all the St Peter’s Hospice nurses, carers and doctors and my fellow volunteers – there are no words for how awesome you ladies are.

It was a question posed to Caitlin at her book reading, why was the room filled with young women? Why are undertakers (traditionally a male role), and pathologists, funeral directors, doulas – why are so many women now stepping in to these roles? And she had a brilliant answer, she said it was about feminism, about wanting to reclaim the body… after all caring for bodies, both coming into the world and going out of it used to be a feminine job. It’s a beautiful idea, but whatever the reason I feel privileged to be able to work amongst such women. Happy International Women’s day ladies, you are doing incredible work and long may it continue.

Emma

A safe Harbour in the storm

February 15, 2016

2065d37 You may not of heard of The Harbour in Bristol, but it is fantastic charity in Bristol helping those  when they need help the most. Hannah Wozniak, Community Fundraiser at The Harbour, explains the wonderful work that The Harbour does, and how it helps those effected by serious illness .

 

 

Tucked away slightly on the idyllic tree lined Frogmore Street is The Harbour, a small Bristol based charity providing free counselling and therapy for people affected by the impact of life-threatening illness. This includes those that have been diagnosed, their loved ones, carers or those that have been bereaved. Regrettably, this makes us a relevant charity to just about everyone at some time in their lives.

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We believe that no one should have to face a life-threatening illness alone and that cost should not be a barrier to people accessing our help – that’s why our services are free. We help those who contact us directly, as well as those referred to us. Whether it’s an individual, a couple or a group, as long as they’re able to attend their session at our premises, we will endeavour to support them.

As you might imagine, this keeps us busy and we always have a waiting list of people seeking our help. We rely heavily on the support of the community around us and the more funding we can get, the more people we can reach. We really need to get the word out there, support to a cause like ours makes a real difference, it isn’t a drop in the ocean like it might be for a large charity.

 

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Our services are incredibly unique and we offer people a real sense of comfort in what can be real times of crisis. Below are some quotes from previous clients:

“A helping had when my life fell apart was a wonderful gift. I was amazed that there was no other help on offer from NHS or social services.”

“The Harbour has provided an invaluable support to me through my crisis when I did not know where to turn. Their care and expertise has helped me through a devastating year.”

“There’s been no other professional support available to me, and in the turmoil of looking after my very sick husband I couldn’t possibly have set about finding a counsellor myself, especially since I think it takes rare courage and experience to undertake this sort of work. I simply do not know what I would have done without the help I’ve received from The Harbour. I think it’s tragic that similar services aren’t available nation-wide.”

“I no longer feel suicidal; I am better able to cope. My counsellor was very good at ‘reading’ me – knowing how to pitch things to me so I would understand and be receptive towards. This service has, I believe, saved me from a selfish and untimely death. I cannot thank all involved enough for this experience.”

“I don’t think I could have made the progress I have without the counselling. Prior to the sessions I was in a very dark place emotionally and unable to make sense of my feelings.”

Please do get in touch if you would like more information on The Harbour and how to access our services; or perhaps you would like to help us with a kind donation, take part in some fundraising or make use of our free will service. If so, visit The Harbour’s web page, to find out more.

Hannah Wozniak, Community Fundraiser at The Harbour

The Harbour, 30 Frogmore Street, Bristol, BS1 5NA

Tel: 0117925 9348

Email: hannah@the-harbour.org.uk

Emma

The Island space on the day When Death Comes opened

When Death Comes – a project of love

November 18, 2015

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I first met Philippa Bayley back in January of this year when I received an email from her asking to meet with me. She was planning an exhibition – a response piece to the life and death of her mother who had passed away from Motor Neurone Disease the year before – and could she talk to me about it?

Now I get quite a few emails about Death Café and Not Being Morbid, but this one really jumped out at me. I arranged to meet Philippa for a coffee the following week. Our coffee turned into a three-hour meeting and by the end I knew I wanted to be involved and had met a very special person. Over the year I watched with awe as Philippa turned her vision into a reality. There were setbacks with rejections for funding, which meant the project had to be self-funded (and subsequently slightly less ambitious), but despite the knocks Philippa never gave up.

Her vision soon emerged into a concrete concept: When Death Comes, a month-long interactive art space that would initially feature artwork by her mother Sabine, as well as her own work that reflected her grief and meditations on death – others were also invited to submit work they had created into response to grief, death and dying. I even submitted a poem I wrote for my dad’s funeral. Throughout the month, visitors could submit their work and words as well; and as the space filled, the original work would be taken away.

The Island space on the day When Death Comes opened

The Island space on the day When Death Comes opened

Philippa also wanted a series of events to run alongside the exhibition – workshops, talks and films. I was asked to run a Death Café as part of the project, and I also decided it would be good to have a workshop for parents. By summer Philippa had found a venue, had started a website, and submissions of work started rolling in.

The exhibition opened at The Island Gallery on the 16th September, with a fascinating talk by Professor Havi Carel from Bristol University, entitled “should I fear my death”, which captivated and engaged a packed gallery. Both Philippa and myself were astounded by the turn out and hoped to see it as a sign of the popularity and necessity of the project. After the talk we engaged in lively discussion as Havi answered questions.

 

 

The Death Cafe I held as part of the When Death Comes Programme was the busiest yet!

The Death Cafe I held as part of the When Death Comes Programme was the busiest yet!

 

The opening night's talk. Professor Havi Carel talking to a packed gallery

The opening night’s talk. Professor Havi Carel talking to a packed gallery

We were not wrong. From the next day the space was open to the public. We both had a chance to hear people’s opinions about the space, their own stories and encourage them to interact with the space or even submit their own work.

Over the weeks, the space had nearly 900 visitors. The Death Café I held at the end of the second week was the busiest I have ever held, and my workshop for parents of young children went very well, with attendees taking away some emotional insights and ideas. Pip’s partner David Gillett held a photographic workshop on the subject of When Death Comes, where participants could submit photo series they had created on the subject, which would then be displayed for the duration of the exhibition. A list of all the events and workshops that were held can be found here.

 

Me and artist Sara Souissi, who was invaluable to the project in helping us look after the space

Me and artist Sara Souissi, who was invaluable to the project in helping us look after the space

 

Fridays were craft days... from felting to painting coffin earrings and keyrings

Fridays were craft days… from felting to painting coffin earrings and key rings

 

Philippa painted these lovely coffin earrings for me on one of the craft afternoons

Philippa painted these lovely coffin earrings for me on one of the craft afternoons

One of my favourite parts of the exhibition involved an interactive space with four pots, labelled earth, water, fire and air. Visitors could sit and write a message to a dead loved one on rice paper, and then put in one of the pots. The messages would then be ceremonially burnt, buried, sunk and floated away at a later date.

The pots for visitors to put messages in for their loved ones they had lost

The pots for visitors to put messages in for their loved ones they had lost

Unfortunately I missed the last week of the exhibition because I was away, but managed to make it back for the closing party. In a way this was good because I got to see the transformation of the space that had taken place through all the new submissions of work while I was gone.

Day of the dead costume submitted to the exhibition

Day of the dead costume submitted to the exhibition

The closing party was a fitting close to not only a month, but nearly a year, of hard work. We revelled and had fun but it was also an emotional time, with speeches and beautiful heart-felt musical performances from Makala Cheung and AnaMika Jithoo.

 

Some of Sabine's work at the closing party

Some of Sabine’s work at the closing party

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The potato lady

Both Philippa and myself felt we needed a more personal and fitting final end to the project, something akin to a funeral. So we decided to use the weekend usually celebrating Dias de los Mortes and Halloween to have a ceremonial finish to the project. The date was perfect, as being two weeks after the end of the event, it gave us time to rest, reflect and regather our energies.

We thought it would be nice if we could start the day by transforming the letters to the dead from the pots in the gallery. Pip has plans to transform the air letters and water letters at a later date, but we took this time to burn the fire letters and bury the earth letters.

 

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Philippa digging the grave for the earth letters

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It was a beautiful crisp autumn day; we took the letters up to Pip’s allotment for burning and burial. We ate apples off the trees and talked about the project. It was a beautiful and fitting ritual to not only the project but for all the people who had attended and shared their stories. We marked the “grave” and the pyre each with a sunflower, which had been a constant symbol through the project, as it was Pip’s mother’s favourite flower.

 

Sunflowers for Sabine

Sunflowers for Sabine

In the evening, in true “Day of the Dead” style we held a feast, not only for us and those who had been involved and helped in the project, but for our beloved dead as well. Six of other gathered, each of us bringing a dead loved one, and a drink or dish that represented them. I brought my brother and a bottle of Southern Comfort for him; other guests brought salads, an apple pie, Limoncello – and guest of honour was of course Sabine, the inspiration for the whole project; and for her Pip had brought some Lebkuchen German biscuits. We also feasted on Mexican food and talked about our dead… a truly fitting end to what has been an incredible project.

Our Day of the Dead feast!

Our Day of the Dead feast!

A few weeks on and the effects are still being felt. Pip and I have become firm friends and Pip is now well and truly one of the Not Being Morbid team. We have talked about perhaps collaborating on other projects, in fact it almost goes without saying that we will.

We made traditional sugar skulls for the feast.

We made traditional sugar skulls for the feast.

If you didn’t get a chance to visit the exhibition you can still learn more about some of it’s content on the website. Also keep an eye out for future projects.

Happy and proud... and new friends for life!

Happy and proud… and new friends for life!

Emma

Talking to children about death: a mum’s perspective

September 18, 2015

New Not Being Morbid member, and co-host of Conversations on Death and Dying: A workshop for Parents and Guardians Amy Hurst, talks about why she got involved in the project and why it means so much to her…

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I have spoken to several friends about the upcoming Conversations on Death and Dying Workshop, and each time have been faced with puzzled questions as to why it’s something I’ve decided to get involved with. The topics of death and dying can be challenging enough for us as adults; surely we want to protect our children from having to think about them? With this in mind I thought it might be useful to share where my own personal interest has come from.

I am a mother of three boys; Arthur who is three, Osian who is coming up to a year, and Archie who would be five this coming December. We lost Archie when I was 20 weeks pregnant, after facing decisions no parents should ever have to make. Giving birth to a child who has already died is almost indescribable. Birth should be about the celebration of a new life, not the death of a life that has not yet begun. There is so much I could say about this experience and the impact it had on me, and perhaps I will in another post, but to keep on topic, I would like to share how losing Archie has impacted on my approach to discussing death and dying with my living children.

Obviously Arthur and Osian did not know their brother, but that is not to say he is not an integral part of our little family. If anything, Archie has shaped our family and made my partner and I the parents we are today. That is something worth celebrating and as such, we try to ensure Archie is remembered wherever possible. His birthday each December is the start of our family Christmas, and we put our tree up on that date each year. I also bake a cake as I do for everyone else’s birthday, and we aim to visit Clevedon Pier, which is a place where we have chosen to remember Archie, and have a plaque there in his name. We do not shy away from mentioning Archie’s name and have many things around our house to remember him. This of course means that we are faced with questions from Arthur, and thinking how best to answer them has presented us with some challenges.

Being three, there is only so much he is able to understand and we try to tackle any questions he has in an honest, but age appropriate manner. He knows that he has a brother who died before he was born, and that his name was Archie. He knows the tree in our garden is his brother’s; that when we visit the pier it is to remember him; the memory box that sits on our sideboard is his; and that when we attend the wonderful memorial services hosted by Bristol SANDS it is to remember him. Like all children, Arthur is very inquisitive and I’m sure the questions he asks will become more difficult to answer in time, but for now, he seems to have a simple, beautiful acceptance that there is a very important member of our family that he will never get to meet, but who will always play a very significant role in our family life.

I’m aware that my family’s circumstances are different to most and you may still be wondering why I think this workshop is so valuable? I can’t imagine there are any parents out there who haven’t had a question at some point about death and existence? My favourite from Arthur came one morning over breakfast when he asked ‘am I awake?’ He of course decided my answer of ‘yes of course you are, now eat your toast‘ wasn’t good enough and so followed it up with ‘but Mummy, what does it really mean to be awake?’ The ex-philosophy student in me revelled in the possibility of a pre-8am existential discussion!

Whether it’s something as simple as coming across a dead insect in the garden, overhearing a story on the news or being faced with a personal bereavement, we cant hide away from the fact that death is something our children will and should be faced with; it is after all an integral part of life. Beginning to understand our own mortality is a key part of human development and its only natural that children display curiosity around this. The important thing for us as parents is how we handle questions when they come up. The responses we give and the conversations we have will help shape our children’s views. How we handle things can really make a difference.

I am really looking forward to sharing experiences with others at the workshop. There is no right way to handle the challenging conversations and questions that our children like to throw our way; but by sharing with others, hopefully we can at least feel prepared and have some resources to call upon when the time comes.

Emma

A big concept for a little person?

September 7, 2015

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With my workshop only a few weeks away, I have been delighted by all the interest in it, and have found myself getting into many conversations with people – parents and non-parents – about the need to feel comfortable when explaining death and dying with children.

I am running the workshop with Amy Hurst, who is herself a mother of three and one who has experienced bereavement with the loss of her first child, who I believe will bring some excellent insights to the workshop. But why, people may wonder, do I have such a vested interest in talking to children about death, when I am not a mother? What insights do I have, and why am I so passionate about the subject?

When I was a child I suffered from death anxiety. I do not know exactly what the root cause was. I had a morbid fascination with death as a small child, as I think most children do when getting to grips with the world around them, and I was very sensitive to films featuring animal death, but was quite obsessed with films and books about medical things, stories of orphans and other deathly topics. In many childhood films and stories, parents die. My death anxiety was never about myself, but always about my parents dying.

My mum and dad had me when they were in their forties and I was acutely aware that they were older than my friends’ parents. This background worry may have been cemented when I was four or five and my dad had a serious heart attack when working away, requiring a triple-bypass operation. I remember me and my mum uprooting to London to be near him in St Barts hospital, while he recovered. My memories of this time are so vivid, though I don’t know how long we were there – it can’t have been more than a few weeks – but it seems like such a significant memory in my childhood, we may have been there months. However I don’t remember being particularly worried or frightened about my dad dying, though no doubt I picked up on my mother’s anxiety. I remember more of the anxiety about living in a flat and I wasn’t sure how Father Christmas would find me and bring my presents. I remember getting a nurse’s uniform that Christmas and my mum walking me to the hospital every day to see him, and I would wear it. The nurses and doctors and other patients fussed over me. We went sight-seeing in London, and had a small tree made of tinsel – the memories of my dad’s brush with death are more hazy.

Other things may have also affected me; the distant death of my paternal Grandmother perhaps? Or my teenage brother’s girlfriend Sally (later his wife) battling leukaemia, and me understanding the severity of what that meant? Though again, I only have happy memories of her then, playing with her wigs and being fascinated with her stripy nails due to chemotherapy, and the delight of being bridesmaid at their wedding.

I don’t know if I can pinpoint the exact moment when my death anxiety started, but I can remember the first time I was struck with “the fear”. When I was nine or ten I was on a trip to Blackpool with my parents. We were walking along the pier and I saw an elderly couple sat at the end, looking out to sea. In that moment, I had a rush of panic about my parents getting old and dying, and realising I would get old and die too, and the panic of that nearly overwhelmed me. I asked my mum if she was frightened of growing old, and if she missed her Grandma, or her father? She said she did miss those who had died, but getting older happens so gradually that you don’t really notice. I told her I was frightened about getting old and her and Dad dying she told me not to be, that by time they died I would be grown up and married and with children of my own. I think I was reassured, but not for long.

From that moment on I went through a period of huge anxiety and absolutely hated being separated from my parents, especially my mum, for any length of time. Sleepovers at friends’ houses became impossible, resulting in tears and sleeplessness. On my first ever stay-away school trip to Cornwall I had such a bad panic attack that I had to be put into my headmaster’s room overnight where he tried, and failed, to calm me down until, embarrassingly, I had to be picked up by my parents the next day. Thoughts were obsessional, nightmares common and anxiety was high, it must have worried my parents greatly. I fell asleep only in their bed each night; them putting me into my own room when I had finally fallen asleep.

I cannot remember the exact moment when the anxiety stopped either; though ironically I cannot remember having the same intensity of fear after we had a very sudden and tragic death in the family. My brother Nigel was killed skydiving in 1992, the same brother who had married his teenage sweetheart who had up-until then survived leukaemia. He was 29 and I was 11. Being faced with such a tidal wave of grief from the whole family was almost overwhelming, and again, I can remember this time in great detail. Although I am sure I was grieving myself, this is not the strongest memory. What was most frightening was the grief of the adults, how I would go and hide when people came around, because I didn’t like to see them all crying, or projecting their grief on to me, squeezing me too hard or going on so much about how like my brother I was. I remember the funeral and a kindly cousin taking me out for a walk to talk to me about how I was feeling – the first “adult” who actually did this, though I think she was only about 18.

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Tiny me with my dad, Nigel and Sally

Although it is fair, and perhaps clichéd, to say that after such a big loss life was never the same again, and our once close-knit family seemed fragmented; I think being faced with such a death and realising that life continued, helped me move forward. Despite the grief and sadness, I was still cared for. Realising that death could happen at any time to any person, whether they were young or old, sick or well, perhaps shook me out of my fixation on my parents’ death; or perhaps it wasn’t even related, and I just grew out of what was a natural anxiety.

17 years later and I was dealing with a far more personal grief of my own, when my boyfriend Neil died suddenly, aged 34. I watched as his family went through the same white-hot grief my own family did. As I spent time with them, trying to make sense of it all, it was the children in his family that I was most drawn to; his nephew and five little nieces, all under the age of seven at the time. They were the ones I allowed to comfort me and I wanted to spend the most time with. I was fascinated by the way they dealt with their grief, and how full of questions they were, and once again how they seemed more upset by the grief of the adults than they were with their own, being such a big kid myself, I don’t think they saw my grief as as frightening. I tried to answer their questions honestly, even if they were often repeated, confronting and blunt. Answering questions with euphemisms and metaphors seemed to confuse them, while honesty seemed to satisfy them the most. They drew me pictures and wrote me messages of short, honest pronouncements of their grief and love for Neil and for me. They showered me in gifts of their Easter eggs; short hard hugs, put daisy chains in my hair and kissed my tear-stained cheeks. In short they were the best grief counsellors I could have had.

 

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These days I feel more “death literate” than ever, and comfortable talking about death and dying, even helping others through their death anxiety in my day job. Even though my mother’s prediction of me being married with a family before losing either of them turned out to be false, as Dad passed two years ago (another blog post for that one I think), I have come to terms with the fact that you have no control over when people die. I am very keen that other adults also feel death literate and comfortable with their own feelings about death so that they can allow children to express their questions, ideas and conversations about death, dying and grief openly. In my experience, children have a natural curiosity about death rather than a natural fear; and can actually be the best people for dealing with death if we allow them to be.

For this reason I am so looking forward to hosting Conversations on Death and Dying: A workshop for parents and guardians. I think it will be so interesting to hear other’s experiences and talk though ways we can approach the subject of death to little ones, whether they are just asking questions, or have been faced with bereavement. I hope that being armed with death literacy will give parents peace of mind that with their help, their own children can navigate the losses they will face in life, with understanding, support and strength.

 

Emma

Death Cafe Bristol goes to Green Man

August 25, 2015

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I don’t need to be asked twice to go to a festival! Never am I happier than in a damp field with wellies on my feet, glitter on my face, and maybe a cider in my hand. But the fact that I was asked to go to Green Man, a festival I have previously been to and LOVED, and that I was asked to host a Death Cafe there was all the more exciting. Taking along my glamorous assistant, poet and writer Caleb Parkin, and getting rather excited about the line-up once we found the time to look at it, we were rather keen.

I wasn’t sure how it would go at first. Would people really want to leave the fun of watching bands and comedy, and drinking ale in the sunshine to come and talk about death for an hour? It turns out I had nothing to fear. We were allocated an hour and a half daily slot in the Peaceful Progress Cafe in Einstein’s Garden, an area noted for engaging people in thinking, science and new ideas. The cafe had yummy teas and cakes on offer, and was next to the Solar Stage, meaning we had a nice musical background of folk music and Science Ceilidhs, which was perfect.

Day one saw some people bounding up to the Cafe, who had read about us in the programme or followed Death Cafe on Facebook. Adding to the mix were a few young people who had never heard of a Death Cafe before but were keen to stay and get involved. Conversation flowed as usual with topics such as legacies, memorials and making wills. The idea of legacy was a really interesting one – what makes a legacy, is it what someone has done with their life (such as build a bridge or invented something) or how they are remembered as a person? We also touched on burials and what to do with people’s ashes.

By day two it seemed as word had spread, as we had an even bigger group, which was impressive as it was the one afternoon that we were competing with a glorious few hours of sunshine. There was a lovely mix of people, younger and older, and one of the girls from one of the Dementia and Imagination team (a stall hosted by Bangor University in Einstein’s Garden) came along, who brought some excellent insights. The daughter of one woman turned up half way through who was only 13, but was really happy to stay. I’m so glad she did as she added some very valuable insights to how useful it would be for people her age to have a forum to talk about death and what her peers think and feel about death. It really was a joy to have her there.

The final day started quiet but more and more people showed up to join in. We talked about loss and grief, and someone brought a book to share with us, a novel just about to be published: Grief is the Thing With Feathers; which sounds like a must read and one for my reading list. Someone from the archaeology stand came along and was able to talk about bones and different death rituals. As sometimes happens at Death Cafe, the group ended on a funny note with some girls from Bristol talking about their pact to deal with each others sex toys if the other one would die, which is actually something to consider I suppose, but had the added element of having everyone in fits of laughter. Tears of emotion and tears of laughter… that is what Death Cafe is all about!

A big thank you to the production team on Einstein’s Garden and the organisers of Green Man for having me down and for showcasing Death Cafe, and thank you to the Peaceful Progress cafe for letting me invade everyday, and fuelling us with tea and cake.

Many who attended said they would go away and find their local Death Cafe and spread the word, and all said it had been an uplifting experience. I would love to do another on at Green Man or at any other festival. It just goes to show, wherever you are, people are just so happy to have a place that they can talk about death!

Emma

Talking to children about death

August 19, 2015

Parent workshop

 

The thing about reaching your mid-thirties, is that even if you haven’t jumped into the parenting pool, there is suddenly still an abundance of children around. Conversations with your friends turn more from what club nights are on, to what cafés serve the best babyccinos.

But obviously there are more pressing questions for parents to consider when it comes to raising little people; and I think every parent has a constant worry that they are doing and saying the right thing so their little ones grow up healthy and happy. Over the last few years my friends with kids have often told me about their fears about discussing death with children, or that they don’t know what to say when their kids ask questions about death. This topic has also come up at death café more than once or twice. I have also had children within my life being confronted with bereavement, and within my family we’ve had to decide how to broach the topic.

With this in mind, I had an idea to do a more focused event just for parents of young children. I thought it would be good to look at resources (such as books written about death for young children) and also talk about death, so that parents become comfortable with the subject matter before the children start asking questions. What are their experiences, fears, what do they want their children to understand? And what difficulties do they face with the way that society and the media expose their children to the subjects of death and dying?

Before creating an official event I thought I would trial it by gathering together a few mummy friends (with their little ones in tow) to have a chat and to look at some of the books out there and find out some their point of view on the subject.

So last month I met with Amy, with her two boys Arthur (3) and Osian (7 months); Krissy with baby Olive (6 months); Isobel with Howie (2) and Rachel along with her sons Jack (3 and a half) and Issac (17 months) for a coffee, armed with some children’s books about death and to see how well a conversation about death and dying would go down.

Conversation flowed from the outset. We started reading the books, but they were soon discarded in favour of a more personal discussion about death and dying. One mummy talked about the difficulty she had in trying to explain to her young son the death of one of the teachers at his school. “There was no support from the school and nobody there really knew what to say or do”. A more general theme was how to explain to a child what “dead” really means, and the danger of metaphors and euphemisms such as “ gone to sleep”.

We did look at the books briefly and were interested to see that most focused on how to memorialise someone after they had died. Goodbye Grandma, Always and Forever and Badger’s Parting Gift were considered useful because they look at ways of dealing with grief through memory. Amy talked about a memory box she had created to help Arthur and Osian remember their brother who had died.

Conversation also turned to the problem of children’s films. There is often the issue of parental death in Disney films, and then the fact that death is often punishment for baddies and villains, it doesn’t help kids understand the true nature of death.

We went on to discuss many other topics, stories and experiences. We talked about how nature is one of the best teachers with the dying of the seasons, and the death of animals and plants. We talked about how children like honesty and the subject of death often makes the adult more uncomfortable than the child, who is only showing curiosity. Isabel provided the final insight of the day, saying that the way we talk about death depends on the child “their needs, their personality, their level of curiosity and what they are interested in”, which I thought was really interesting and very true!

The meeting and book review was such a success that it has become the inspiration for the workshop: Conversations about death, a workshop for parents. This event will be held as part of When Death Comes, a month-long project at The Island, which aims to get the community engaged with talking about death.

In this workshop we will also look at resources available to introduce children to the concept of death, but more importantly parents will have a chance to explore their own feelings about death, and to get more comfortable with the subject matter before their children start asking questions (or have any more questions, or experiences concerning dying and death). A big thank you to Amy, Rachel, Krissy and Isabel and their tiny ones for all their help. I really hope to meet many more parents (and guardians, grandparents and teachers) at the workshop in September, to continue this interesting and important discussion.

 

To find out more about this one-off event and to buy tickets click here.

For more events and to find out about When Death Comes visit whendeathcomes.uk

Emma

A Truly Divine Ceremony

June 17, 2015

Last night the Not Being Morbid collective got to go on a little jolly together to the opening ceremony of new independent funeral directors, Divine Ceremony; the labour of love of celebrant Dee Ryding. Dee is one of the women who has inspired my own journey into death work and care, and I was delighted to be invited to the launch and find out more.

We gathered near the Arnolfini on Bristol’s harbourside to await Dee, in a small group, including, I was pleased to see, some Death Café regulars; and two undertakers all in black. We got talking to a lady called Catherine, “Have you met Ichabod yet?” she asked. Assuming he was some interesting undertaker or celebrant, I said I hadn’t had the pleasure. She explained that Ichabod is a training dummy developed by her and partner Angie at to help teach people working in end of life to work with those who are dying. “He does everything a real body does” she enthused; “he’s a dummy but he’s more life-like, so people feel that they could be taking care of a real beloved granddad!”. I couldn’t wait to meet him.

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Soon a tiny boat appeared in the distance, and as it got nearer we saw it contained Dee, a beautiful hand-woven bamboo coffin, sprays of flowers and a waggy-tailed dog. The boat arrived, and the undertakers came forward to lift out the coffin and start carrying it  onto dry land; Dee, following and looking absolutely beautiful… My instant reaction was, this is the woman I want arranging my funeral!

We formed a procession behind the coffin up to the top of the M-Shed, where it was ceremoniously placed in the centre of the room. Dee started with a speech and told us her inspiring story of how Divine Ceremony came about. There were also poems and a toast, and like any good “funeral” a lovely spread of food!

 

Ichabod, trying out one of the coffins for size

Ichabod, trying out one of the coffins for size at the party

It was great to see so many familiar faces there, and to find out how they will be involved with Dee’s venture. It was lovely to meet Yumi, the lady behind Bellacouche, who makes stunning felt coffins and who’s felt leaf cocoon I had seen before on my doula training. It was also great to see Death Café regular John Connell, who makes coffins using sustainable wood at Honest Coffins. He very kindly gave me a present of some Scottish larch coffin earrings he had made. I imagine you can imagine my delight (and yes, I’ll be wearing them at the next death café!).

 

My new coffin earrings. Thanks John!

My new coffin earrings. Thanks John!

It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and I can’t wait to get to know Dee better and to see Divine Ceremony flourish, as I’m sure it will. Events like these inspire me so much and make me feel so optimistic about the future of how we deal with death. Dee said in her speech that we are reclaiming death, and it is something I truly believe. For a while death became hidden, abstract, medical, sanitised, and something to be fearful of and not talk about. But we are reclaiming it and bringing it back to where it should be, to families and to communities. We are talking about what death should be; and through that, driving out the fear and taboo and honouring it as the part of life it is.

 

All the best to Dee and Divine Ceremony for the future!

 

Emma

Emma

Joining the conversation about life and death…

April 16, 2015

by Philippa

by Philippa Bayley

(more…)

Emma

The life and legacy of Lady T

March 27, 2015

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It was on the 27th March 2014 that I had to say one of my hardest goodbyes and have my beloved dog Tara put to sleep. Little was I to know just what a significant moment this would be, how her death would inspire me and what it would teach me about what we can do for those we really love when it is time to say goodbye.

 

Tara (also know as Lady T) had originally been my boyfriend Neil’s dog. I met her first when he first took me back to his, and from that moment on we were friends. Everyone loved Tara, she was my boyfriend’s constant companion… if he was invited to a party and she wasn’t, he wouldn’t go. He had rescued her when she was young; she had been discarded and was picked up on the side of the road by the RSPCA. This gave her a life-long hatred of car trips, but other than that she was a super friendly dog who lived for cuddles and treats. Famous for her big, sad brown eyes, which could con a treat out of anyone she met.

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When Neil died suddenly in 2009, people asked me if I was going to keep her. We had all lived together for two years and I had grown to be “Mum” just as much as Neil was “Dad” to her, so it was a no brainer. Through those agonising first few months, Tara was my grief councillor, picking up on my sadness in that freaky way that dogs do, laying her head on me whenever I was upset. She had her own grief to deal with too, which was heart breaking to watch – we would visit our old house and she would run around looking for him. As time went by we settled into a new routine, and a new home. I spoiled her more than Neil, I didn’t always get the discipline right – but the bond was unbreakable.

 

Late 2013 it became evident that she was ‘getting on a bit’. She was going blind and deaf, her impeccable toilet habits were on the slide, but worst of all her arthritis meant that the stairs were a nightmare for her. It’s hard for any person who loves their pet to come to terms with their demise, but as she was such a link to Neil, as I only lost my Dad the year before (and frankly was a bit sick of bereavements by then) and because I was afraid of the loneliness I was going to feel… it seemed like an impossible choice I had to make.

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However, two women inspired me in making my decision. Firstly, it was around this time that I had discovered Caitlin Doughty and her Order of the Good Death. I had been watching her series, Ask a Mortician (which is brilliant by the way), which often featured her cat Meow. She had then featured this blog post about Meow being euthanized and how she had taken control of the situation. This instantly made me feel better, I had the opportunity to ensure that Lady T had ‘a good death’.

 

The second influence was my dear friend Daisy, who is a vet, and had kindly been acting as Personal Physician to Her Royal Highness Lady T at that time. It was Daisy who in the most gentlest and kindest of ways explained that it was absolutely time, and it was the very best thing I could do for Tara; to have a dignified death, rather than to come home and find she had fallen down the stairs. Daisy explained that she could come to the house and it would be quick and painless. Armed with this information there was only one thing left to do… Plan a party.

 

We planned it for a week’s time. Tara had ALL the spoils and I started to let people know. They could either attend her ‘party’ or they could come during the week or day to say goodbye. I was surprised and touched by how many people actually wanted to be with her at the end, but we do have amazing friends. On the day we spent a lot of time alone for cuddles, but as the day went on I was so happy to have the support of my friends. I bought Champagne and did a ‘lovely spread’ (well I am British and this was a funeral).

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Daisy arrived and Tara had a final meal of lamb chops, gravy and Valium. We all piled into the lounge which was filled with candles, flowers and Neil’s music on the stereo. After final cuddles she was put to sleep in my arms. It was beautiful and utterly fitting of a dog who had given so much love in life.

 

I knew from reading Caitlin’s blog that it would have been distressing if she was taken away then as she was still warm and soft, so I decided she should ‘lay in state’ overnight in a carboard box coffin, lines with ice packs, flowers and blankets. I put her in my office and people could go in and say their final goodbyes to her. As we treated the night like any other funeral: eating, drinking, telling stories about the departed, I noted a few people go off for quiet time with her.

 

I awoke next morning and went to see her; I had made the right decision. It was now evident she was gone, the lovely people at Pet Crematorium came and picked her up, and I finally go to go and have a really, really good cry!

 

It seemed serendipitous that Tara died only two weeks before Neil’s five-year anniversary. What better way to celebrate both their lives than by reuniting them? I had never visited Neil’s grave before, as he is near his family in Surrey. I took her ashes there, pouring her remains into the space beneath the flowers. It felt right, it felt beautiful, and I felt I could let them both go that little bit more knowing they were together in that beautiful place.

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The rest of last year was dedicated to starting my training as an end-of-life doula. During the written work we were asked to reflect on deaths that had influenced us, and what indeed is a ‘good death’? Being able to create the perfect space and ritual for Tara’s death, to surround her with love and do what was right for her, and how to be with someone at and after death, I felt had taught me a lot.

 

But by the end of the year, a tiny dog-sized gap was beginning to open in my heart again. I assumed I would get another Staffy or similar… but life doesn’t always give us what we expect. It was a good job that gap was tiny, as in January my mum phoned to say she knew of a little Yorkie Terrier who needed rehoming. She had been used for breeding and now, aged 11, needed a nice retirement home. When I met her, she jumped into my arms, licked my face and that was that. I took Rosie home and she soon settled in. I tell her all about her “Fairy Dog-mother” who watches down and makes sure she behaves. You don’t ever replace a dog, but after time you do find space in your heart to love one again, but the love we have for previous pets always remains.

 

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Emma