Channelling a creative response to grief
Everyone grieves for someone at some point in their lives. But how do we deal with the silence that often surrounds grief? How do we find ways to express painful feelings when words are not enough? In their recently published book, When Words are not Enough, Churchill Fellow Jimmy Edmonds and his partner Jane Harris draw on their own experience of loss, and how the death of their son Josh has led to a creative response that is more than word bound.
"Our grief is, almost by definition, a creative endeavour. If the trauma of our son’s death has left a vacuum in our lives, healing the wound has inevitably been a process of making things anew; writings, stories, pictures, new friendships and relationships."
"We have a sense of before and after a cataclysmic event …” these are the words that open our film A Love that Never Dies, a 75 minute documentary made as a result of my Churchill Fellowship in 2015.
The cataclysmic event was the death of our 22 year old son Joshua in January 2011. In the short sequence that follows the film goes on to describe a sense of ‘arrested time’ that many bereaved parents will experience particularly when occasioned by the sudden or traumatic death of one of their children. The footage shows life in reverse and a wish to get back to the moment before “that happened - to get back to the moment when Josh was riding along on his motorbike and that man didn’t step out in front of him".
Approximately 6,000 young people under the age of 25 die in the UK every year leaving 21,000 bereaved mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.
All such deaths seem to be followed by so many “what ifs” – a visceral urge to try and undo history. The film follows our Churchill Fellowship funded road trip across the USA in which we interviewed 11 other bereaved families all of whom were struggling with an isolation triggered in part by the silence that often surrounds grief and difficulties of expressing painful feelings.
How to fill this void? How to escape from time stopped? Not only had we lost that connection to a routine sense of time, but it also felt that we were without any kind of coherent language, no way of telling the story of what had and was happening to us.
Scroll forward 11 years and maybe, just maybe, we’ve begun to find an answer.
Our latest undertaking is a book published late in 2022. When Words Are Not Enough – creative responses to grief is an attempt to bring all our learning into some coherent whole. Since Josh died and since the help we received from the Churchill Fellowship, we have carried out a vast range of film and photography projects, engaged with bereavement networks up and down the country, and created our own charity The Good Grief Project and its programme of Active Grief Weekend retreats, now in their fifth year.
All of this has led to an understanding that our grief is, almost by definition, a creative endeavour. If the trauma of our son’s death has left a vacuum in our lives, healing the wound has inevitably been a process of making things anew; writings, stories, pictures, new friendships and relationships even; all things that did not exist and couldn’t have existed had he not died.
Central to our experience and to an understanding of how our grief plays out, is the idea of a continuing bond with our son. We’ve devoted a specific chapter in our new book to the way this has informed and nurtured our lives without him, or without his actual physical presence. Contemporary thinking about grief and mourning has shifted from the recommendation to ‘move on’ and to detach oneself from the deceased to an appreciation that they are and will always remain an integral part of the lives of the bereaved, and that this is a perfectly natural and healthy response to the death of a loved one.
That creativity can shape a future where the deceased play a part is echoed by 13 other contributors to our book, all of whom have made a proactive and intentional response to their grief. While some are professionals, many have turned to the arts for the first time. But all have found that the process of creating something new, that represents something of their relationship to the deceased now, is truly cathartic. In doing so they are not so much looking back to memories as re-presenting them in the context of their lives now.
The book has already garnered critical acclaim with one reviewer claiming she has 'not read a better book on grief’ (Annalisa Barbieri - The Guardian).
While acknowledging the personal nature of our story and all of the 13 contributors to the book, lead academics in the fields of bereavement and death studies have noted how these accounts open up 'new ways of thinking and talking about grief as a creative, generative ‘state of being’ which transforms who we are and how we see the world.’ (Dr Lesel Dawson, University of Bristol).
When Words are not Enough – creative responses to grief, published by Quickthorn Books is available to buy here.
You can find out more about Jane and Jimmy’s work at www.thegoodgriefproject.co.uk.
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.