Why We Need to Break the Silence Around Suicide, Especially for our Children

Louise Moir explains why she wrote Rafi’s Red Racing Car, details her own experiences, and expresses the need for a breakdown in the stigma that surrounds mental illness and suicide.

I lost my husband to suicide in 2011 following his brief decline into mental ill health that was triggered by a job redundancy. My sons were aged 4 ½ and nineteen months. Rafi’s Red Racing Car is the book that I wished I’d had at that time to help me with the terribly painful and bewildering task of trying to explain to my boys what had happened to their Daddy.

Before their father’s suicide, my children had not yet experienced death of any kind, so they had absolutely no understanding. I quickly learnt that their grief was too raw and overwhelming for them to be able to tolerate me talking directly about the tragedy that had enveloped us all. Very young children are very visual and respond well to explanations in pictorial or metaphoric realms. I found a wealth of good, age appropriate books that helped to explain death and the emotions that surround loss and these helped tremendously. Identifying with the character in the book who was experiencing similar events and emotions to themselves enabled my sons to externalise their own feelings, begin to understand their experience and led to them asking me questions about their own loss.

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No matter how young the child, honesty is the best way…


That is according to Nathalie Slosse, author of Big Tree is Sick, who tells the story of how the book came to be, as well as laying out her case for complete honesty as the best way to engage with children when helping them to understand serious illness.

In surveys on what values ​​we consider important, honesty is always highly rated, usually even as the most important quality. However, when it comes to honestly confiding something serious to our children, we often want to spare them the grief that the harsh truth can bring. It is a dilemma I struggled with when I was treated for breast cancer, and it’s why I want to provide a resource to others in the same situation today.

Sometimes people ask me “Did breast cancer change your way of life?” I wish I could reply that this was not the case; it’s true that prior to my diagnosis I followed my heart when it came to important life choices. But if I’m honest, I must admit that without the painful episode in 2007, I would not be doing what I do now. The battle I had with breast cancer as a mum of a two year old boy helped me discover that I can help people find happiness in difficult circumstances. In 2010 I founded the association Talismanneke to further explore that path.

But let’s start at the beginning.

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Understanding the Mind of a Grieving Child

By Elke Barber, young widow and author of ‘Is Daddy Coming Back in a Minute?’ and ‘What Happened to Daddy’s Body?’ offers her thoughts on the mind of a grieving child, and how best to reach them.

Grieving childWhat picture pops into your head when you hear the word ‘death’?

Chances are, a pretty uncomfortable one. But crucially, one that you understand. You understand immediately what death means, and all the sadness, grief and emotion that is associated with it.

Do you know what a three-year old thinks of when he hears the word ‘death’?

Nothing. Because, chances are, he has never heard of it before. He doesn’t know what it means! He doesn’t even know that such a thing exists…

In April 2009, I was faced with having to explain to my three-year old just that: death. My husband had suffered a totally unexpected fatal heart attack; no family history, no previous symptoms, aged only 34. And our son Alex was the only person with him at the time. He managed to raise the alarm and get an ambulance there, but sadly Martin died at the scene. All of a sudden I found myself a young widow and a single Mum to two grieving children: Alex, aged three, and Olivia, aged only 11 months…

“He’s still so young – he won’t remember.”, and “He won’t understand.” were the well-meaning phrases I heard most often at the time. But I quickly learnt that these preconceptions couldn’t be further from the truth. I remember Alex lying in bed one night, not too long after his daddy’s death, and innocently asking “How many more sleeps until Christmas?” – I tried to work it out in my head, only for him to follow this with “And how many more sleeps until I have to die Mummy?” – I was completely taken aback… Continue reading

Children’s Grief Awareness Week: Grief Pulls People Together

Children's Grief Awareness

The arrival of Children’s Grief Awareness Week sees author Emmi Smid reflect on some memorable feedback to her ambitious book – Luna’s Red Hat. The beautiful book helps children cope with loss and suicide, and here Emmi shares some of the insights gained from creating and sharing the book with the world.

A few months after Luna’s Red Hat had been published, I received a letter in the post, which included a booklet made out of several A4 sheets of paper, stapled together. The cover of the booklet showed an interpretation of the cover of Luna’s Red Hat, drawn with colour pencils and way more colourful and playful than my own version. I was very intrigued. I opened the booklet and found more copies of drawings from the book. They were drawings from a child, I could see that, but I found it hard to guess their age, as they were really good. I remember being very touched at this stage. To think that someone had spent time observing my drawings and copying them so precisely – very sweet!Children's Grief Awareness

On the next page in the booklet I found a letter. It turned out that I wasn’t looking at one artist’s work, but at two! The letter was written by two girls whose words touched me deeply. I decided to contact their teacher assistant, Sharon Wills, who had sent me the booklet on behalf of her students, to ask about the girls’ inspiration to write to me, and how old they were. What she told me made my heart melt even more. The girls were both 11 at the time, and they were trying to support their friend, whose mother was dying from cancer. Continue reading

An interview with Marian Partington – author of If You Sit Very Still

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Marian Partington’s sister Lucy was kidnapped by Fred and Rose West in 1973. In 1994, 21 years later, her remains were found in their basement. If You Sit Very Still is Marian’s response to this most traumatic of losses and her journey away from resentment, towards forgivness. 

We spoke to Marian about the process of writing such a unique and intensely emotional book. 

Marian, you wrote an essay on Lucy’s disappearance called Salvaging the Sacred in 1996. What motivated you to build on this, and to write If You Sit Very Still?

The essay was published in the Guardian Weekend and there was a huge, generous unexpected response which somehow changed me and honoured my continuing purpose. There was a hunger for meaning and wholeness that resonated within me, surprised me. It felt urgent and vital. There was no turning back. I felt heard and understood and realised the necessity of continuing to grapple with questions that wouldn’t go away; to stay true to this unravelling, wherever it may lead, however long it would take and to continue to write. The question of how to live with less harm, how to deepen our compassion in the wake of human atrocity, continues to challenge me to the core. It is upon this that I build.

Your language throughout the book is both lyrical and unflinching in its description of the events of Lucy’s disappearance. It’s a very powerful narrative. How did you feel while writing it? 

Finding words, finding a voice was almost impossible at times, yet remaining silent was not an option. If I had tried to carry on with no words, trapped in the frozen silence, I would have allowed death. The words that arose within me came from an instinctive need for a terrible truth to survive, a bearing of witness, a speaking by proxy in the face of unspeakable demolition. So writing became a way of allowing myself time and solitude to experience my grief and to face the unbearable pain of what had happened to Lucy.  Each word felt like a rung on a ladder leading from a deep pit. It felt empowering and honouring of our shared love and study of English literature to write. It felt as if we were raising the register through the grace of the words that arrived. It felt as if we shared a sacred realm. I felt blessed and guided.

Lucy converted to Catholicism before her disappearance. Years later, you joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and spent time in Buddhist retreats. What part has faith played in your journey to forgiveness?

It felt significant and hugely challenging in a way that was ‘beyond’ any formal religious faith. Lucy ‘disappeared’ five weeks after she was received into the Catholic church and we found out five weeks after I had joined the Quakers, twenty years later. I remember thinking that if there was anything of value in a religious faith it needed to show up now. Shared silence was important. To allow what lies within to surface and to be transformed.

I made the vow to forgive the Wests after a seven day silent Buddhist retreat. I realised that this would be the most creative, imaginative way forward, but I had no idea what it would involve and how it might come about. My faith was to trust that I would be shown a way. I call the religious words around this inner work ‘barnacled’. ‘God’, ‘sin’, ‘repentance’, ‘redemption’,’ forgiveness’- these words feel encrusted and clogged up with ‘aeons of piety’. But to travel within religious communities informed by teachings that aspire towards deepening our capacity to love and feel compassion and to know and live with wisdom has been essential to becoming less self-centred and more open to a greater whole. I have grown towards knowing our interdependence and our connectedness and the need to remain open to whatever arises and to learn from that. I feel deeply grateful for all that travel with me, for those who unpick their deluded selves and work towards our ‘true nature’ which is at the heart of ‘this great matter of life and death’.

You comment in the book that our society ‘suffers badly from a fear of the reality of death’. Do you feel as though you’ve come to terms with the reality of death?

When I cradled and wrapped Lucy’s bones I faced mortality in a profound way. It was unavoidable and awakening. I felt deeply grateful to be alive. As I grow older and was recently seriously ill it has become more important to reflect upon this reality every day. I feel that there is a gentle, tender, vast, subtle energy that is truly where ‘time intersects with eternity’. Recently I was convinced of this and knew that it didn’t matter if I lived or died. I am exploring the reality of radical helplessness (my next book!) and the need to surrender in the face of death and to embrace every moment.

Dreams play a very important part in your journey. The structure of the book is based on the medieval dream poem, Pearl, and you highlight five major dreams as signposts towards the act of forgiveness. How did you interpret these dreams as particularly significant?

All I can say is that the dreams felt ‘real’, almost more real than everyday life. They needed to be faced, heeded and integrated. They led me to reflect and act with confidence. I knew there was a truth in them that could not be ‘thought’. Maybe they came from ‘the collective unconscious’. They were compelling and profound, as if they were drawn from a deep well of creative imagination. To finally realise that the book that Lucy had in her bag the night that she was abducted from the bus stop was the ‘shape’ that I needed for this book (after sixteen years of writing!) – this fills me with pleasure and gratitude.

In many cases, it is the perpetrators who are remembered, more so than the victims. How does that make you feel, and why do you think that is?

Yes, I think that this was and continues to be something that drives me to speak for Lucy (Primo Levi called it ‘speaking by proxy’) and to reclaim her as my sister from the labels ‘missing person’ and ‘West victim’. The need to find the words, carefully, so that Lucy can live in people’s minds in all her complex, fiercely intelligent beauty and aspirations was involuntary. I couldn’t just leave her ‘out there’, sticky and stained by the media representations.  I felt sad that my energy could not extend to doing that for all of the ‘West victims’, but I try to at least name them when I can. Eventually I realised, through painful self-confrontation on long Buddhist retreats, that the perpetrators and their family were also victims, and that I am also a perpetrator and a bystander. I think it is easier for the public to demonise perpetrators than to try and connect with the suffering of those who are labelled ‘victims’. This is deeply unhealthy for our society. It makes me feel frustrated and sad that this is the case. It seems that we need to dig deeper, look within and learn something more about what it means to be human in response to human brutality and violence.

You have shared your story (and Lucy’s poetry) with inmates in male adult prisons to encourage them to experience victim empathy. How was that process for you?

I feel very privileged to have worked in 15 or so different prisons over the years (since 2001) in Restorative Justice settings. It has given me an opportunity to know that there is ‘that of God’ in everyone I have met and that sharing this story has brought healing in its wake. Meeting people who have committed serious crimes (rape, murder, sexual abuse) and listening to them respond to us with their own heart breaking stories has helped me to deepen my trust and to know that Lucy’s suffering is bringing something good into the world, despite the terrible loss and horror of it all. My work in prisons with the Forgiveness Project (www.theforgivenessproject.com)  since 2005, with a 3 day programme called RESTORE, as a speaker and a facilitator has been even more amazing because it involves two speakers, one ‘victim’ and one ‘perpetrator’. The labels drop away and the prisoners begin to thaw and tell their own stories. Our work in a women’s prison with creative writing, as a follow up to RESTORE has led to a sharing of Lucy’s poems and a great harvest of poetry from the women. This has all helped with my healing enormously. It lives up to the meaning of Lucy’s name: light. I feel her gentle spirit is at work in the world.

You mention that your work as a homeopath has informed your work in male prisons. How so?

In my work as a homeopath for the last thirty years I have listened to many stories of traumatic loss and witnessed the serious dis-ease that can come from unresolved mental/emotional pain. As a homeopath I have learnt much about the path towards healing (moving from dis-ease towards becoming whole) with its unexpected twists and turns. I have had to apply this knowledge and experience to my own life and then to those I have encountered in prisons. I have tried to use words and the little woven bag that Lucy made for me when she was 8 years old as ‘remedies’ in the prisons and to listen as an ‘unprejudiced observer’. First I have had to face what needs to be healed within me. It seems to come back to developing a for-giving, compassionate heart: to face, accept and let go. I have known my own murderous rage and that it is easier to delude oneself and remain in denial than to begin to thaw. I work with ‘similar suffering’, growing into the truth that an old Chan master gave to me: just know that your suffering is helping to relieve the suffering of others. I feel grateful to all those I have worked with and met in prisons. This work generates cycles of compassion.

What would you like readers to take away from the book?

I hope that readers may learn more about the journey from the frozen silence towards the shining silence, from cruelty towards compassion, from harm to healing, and that carefully chosen words can initiate change. I hope that this book will help to confront and dissolve the roots of fear and prejudice that lie within and without, and that it will help to nourish and allow a more generous and loving world. I hope that people will come to know Lucy, my sister and feel something of the love that I feel for her, that seems to deepen.

For more information or to buy the book, please follow the link.

 

 

A Q&A with Rosalind Bradley – author of A Matter of Life and Death

We talked to Rosalind Bradley about her new book, her motivations for writing it and her relationship with the concept of death.  Bradley_Matter-of-Life_978-1-84905-601-4_colourjpg-print

What motivated you to write A Matter of Life and Death?

The trigger for this book was my mother’s sudden death while she was staying with us in Australia, on holiday from England. It was a few days after ‘9/11’. One day we were strolling around the Sydney Opera House, the next day she was in Emergency Department following a cardiac arrest. I can still recall the physical and emotional numbness I felt that day and for many months afterwards. Her death completely shocked me as there had been no signs of any ill-health.

I had just started a new job, which certainly suffered as I tried to come to terms with this new reality. I am convinced now that the emotional numbness I felt inside me, which later manifested itself in chronic back pain, was the build up of grief inside me. In the wake of my mother’s death and the death and destruction from ‘9/11’, I became intensely curious about death and gradually, through a long period of spiritual and physical renewal, I accepted what had happened.

Several years later, after two close friends who were siblings died, I felt even more driven to come to terms with what is death? I knew I had to face up to my own fears and decide how I wanted to live the rest of my life. Exploring the mystery of death in all its rawness and complexity and gleaning some meaning from it led me to create A Matter of Life and Death.

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What is death? And how can we help children understand it? – Marian Carter

bereavementIn this extract from Helping Children and Adolescents Think about Death, Dying and Bereavement, Marian Carter draws upon her experience as a chaplain who has worked in hospital and hospice settings to suggest ways that we can help children come to terms with death. She questions ‘What is death?’ and goes on to describe the different experiences that children have with it, and how we can reflect upon these experiences to improve our emotional support. The book, which looks at how children comprehend the death of a loved one, pet, or even their own death, places a particular emphasis on the importance of listening to the child or adolescent, and adapting your approach based on their responses.

>>Click here to download the extract<<

Tackling bereavement with children in school

With an established background in psychology and education, author John Holland has written numerous books for JKP about bereavement and loss. In this blog, John gives insight on his firsthand experience in working with bereaved children in schools – which also happens to be the core topic of his newest book Responding to Loss and Bereavement in Schools.

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The Feelings Tree – helping children talk about emotions

The holidays are often filled with an assortment of powerful emotions, for both children and adults. This can be related to loss or upheaval in our lives, to anniversaries of significant loss, or simply because the holiday period allows time for reflection which can bring up difficult feelings for us all. So we wanted to share a free activity from the lovely Seeds of Hope Bereavement and Loss Activity Book, which aims to help children deal Jay_Seeds-of-Hope-B_978-1-84905-546-8_colourjpg-printwith loss and/or change through nature, and will be especially helpful to those finding it difficult to cope with bereavement.

The Feelings Tree is a great activity to help you get started talking to children about difficult emotions, as well as all emotions more generally. The birds in the tree can be used as starting points to bring up difficult feelings you may want to talk about, or the child you’re doing the activity with may use the opportunity to talk about emotions they don’t feel comfortable addressing head-on. However you use The Feelings Tree you’re sure to have some fun!

Download The Feelings Tree here

Read an interview with the author, Caroline Jay, on what inspired her to write the book and how contact with nature can help us deal with loss, here.

You can also find out more about the book, read reviews or order your copy here.

Breaking the final taboo – a talk with Dying Matters.

Final Chapters: Writings About the End of Life is a moving collection of short stories and poetry pieces originally written for a competition run by the Dying Matters Coalition. We caught up their Director of Communications, Joe Levenson, to find out more about the idea behind the competition and why they believe a collection such as this can be not only moving but also significant in getting us all to open up about that final taboo – death and dying. 

Final Chapters: we need to talk about dying

Joe Levenson

Every minute, someone in the UK dies but for many people talking about dying and facing up to their own mortality remains the final taboo, something either to be ignored or postponed indefinitely for a day that many of us like to believe will never come.

While most of us say we’re comfortable talking about dying, the reality is that the majority of people are still shunning important conversations and practical actions to manage their end of life care and final affairs. This reluctance to talk about dying also means that shared experience, which could be a real source of comfort and support, is often hard to come by.

It was against this backdrop that the Dying Matters Coalition was set up by the National Council for Palliative Care in 2009, with the aim of raising awareness about the importance of talking more openly about dying, death and bereavement. With over 30,000 members from across the voluntary, public and commercial sectors Dying Matters is at the forefront of trying to make it easier for everyone to talk about dying.

For many people writing about dying can be less difficult than talking about it and more therapeutic. That’s why Dying Matters initially launched its Final Chapters creative writing competition, and why we are so delighted that a collection of 30 short stories of poems from the competition has just been published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Final Chapters

Final Chapters

This collection provides a great opportunity to think and talk about dying, death and bereavement – too often a taboo subject – and we hope that it will appeal to a wide range of readers. We also want it to become required reading for all those with a professional interest in end of life care.

So taken were we by the response to the Final Chapters competition which saw 1,400 entries including many of an exceptionally high standard, we have also just announced the launch of a new writing competition, While there’s still time: writing about putting things right. We really hope this will provide another great opportunity for people to use the medium of short stories and poems to reflect on end of life issues.

Certainties in life are few but dying is one of them. That’s why we hope that as well as providing a great read, Final Chapters plays a part in breaking the taboo about discussing dying.

By talking more openly about end of life issues and taking actions such as writing a will, recording our funeral wishes, registering as an organ donor, planning our future care and sharing what we would want with our loved ones we can help to ensure that we all get the chance to live well until we die.

You only die once, so don’t leave it too late to make your wishes known or to provide support to those who need it.

Joe Levenson is Director of Communications at the National Council for Palliative Care which leads the Dying Matters Coalition. Find out more about Dying Matters here.

You can also follow them on twitter: @DyingMatters

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