The Compassionate Friends retreat weekend for parents and siblings in early bereavement welcomed 62 parents and 3 siblings - despite some tussles with snow - to Willersley Castle Hotel in Derbyshire.
We began our weekend with tea, cakes, wine and small groups getting to know each other and our children and siblings. After dinner we watched the short film 'Say Their Name" introduced by Jimmy and Jane, the filmmakers.
Day 2 and 3 of the retreat saw discussion groups on a range of topics, including coping with strong emotions, caring for surviving siblings, self care, managing PTSD, dealing with social situations, sudden death, the death of a child through prolonged illness, death as a result of substance misuse, a group especially for bereaved fathers, and one discussing grieving as a couple, as well as many more.
What a wonderful privilege to meet such lovely people... thank you to all who came to our few days together and to those volunteers giving their time to make the weekend happen. We hope you found comfort and support by being together, sharing your stories and your beloved children. We hope you made new friends and connections to help and sustain you as you navigate this new life without your sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.
Maria Ahern, TCF's new Chair of Trustees, has written a piece about the retreat weekend in which she was participating and also supporting others.
The things people say to a bereaved parent......
How do you do it? Meeting other bereaved parents. Doesn't it remind you?
I've just spent the weekend in a beautiful hotel nestled deep in the Derbyshire Dales. There was lovely food, a swimming pool, bracing walks. You name it. Every box ticked.
Did I enjoy it? Oh yes. I was able to properly relax for the first time in ages. And I laughed too. I haven't done that for a little while. Properly laughed I mean. Not that stupid pretend laugh that I do for other people. A real laugh.
Oh, the hotel was full too. So full, that a nearby hotel was also booked for the weekend. Very popular venue? I see you tilt your head with interest. You must give me the details you say. No, dear friend. You don't want to be checking into this weekend any time soon. A weekend for newly bereaved parents.
And here it comes.....as sure as clockwork. "Why would you do that? Why would you spend the weekend with other bereaved parents?"
Oh my giddy aunts.......Because I am one you numpty! Or have you forgotten that because of that stupid fake laugh that I have perfected and that stupid fake smile.
"But doesn't that just remind you of your loss"
Oh my word, stop, please just stop talking! Bereaved parents don't forget that they are bereaved parents! Seriously people. Come on.
What we do is, we become brilliant actors so that YOU forget that we are bereaved parents. See the difference?
We act. All day, every day. And it's exhausting and we need some time off.
Now, imagine if people were so used to seeing the "made up" you that you were afraid to let them see the real you. Afraid to let the world see the actor without the costume. Well then you would only be able to remove the mask when you are alone. That can be quite isolating right? Who does the "real you" talk to if he or she only comes out when you're alone?
Quite a choice to make on a daily basis. Pretend, and be with other folk, or be your grieving self and be alone. Tough choice.
What if there was another way? In the best case scenario, the world will learn to accept the grief and pain of others and deal with it compassionately. We haven't reached there yet. So what if there was a place where you can be yourself, kick off the pretence, put on your comfies and be yourself but around other people!
Think of it as a service station on a long journey. You can take a break. Have a bit of refreshment and rather than all be in the car talking to each other at uncomfortable and unnatural angles, you can actually sit opposite each other and have a face to face chat for a bit. See?
Now. Imagine that journey alone. And you are lost. If you go the wrong way right at the start, finding your way back could be more difficult.
When your child dies, you are immediately catapulted into an alien world. There are no maps and no warning signs. You have to find the pitfalls and the dangers yourself and the places where you might find some respite too. But.....and here's the good bit. What if the people that you meet at this service station can show you where the dangers lie and where the possible relief might be? What if they've been on this journey for a bit longer and know where the signposts are and can point them out. Comforting wouldn't you say? What if, at that service station, there was someone who could give you a map of the world that you now live in. You would be grateful right? Yes, you might want to go off and explore on your own and you might not want to go to the suggested places, but at least you know where they are if you need a rest right?
My service station was The Compassionate Friends. They gave me the map and I am so, so grateful for it. More than that though the organisers and volunteers are like 'stewards' who line my road helping me to hold the map upright. I can therefore feel my way, on my own for a good deal of the time, but I can always turn to someone when the ground becomes a little uneven.....as it often does....and they will take my hand, steady me back on my feet and wave me on my way till I see them again, down the road.
I'd be lost, literally without my compassionate friends and what they have taught me has been a lesson in survival.
Now, it's my turn to take my place as one of those stewards and try to teach others to survive.
So that's why I do it. No it doesn't remind me. It allows me to remember the natural way.