What Matters Most: 5 things I have learnt since the death of my son, Josh
by Jane Harris
‘By opening the door to grief, have we opened the door to a more authentic way to live?’
It was a decade ago that our son, Josh, died in a road accident while he was travelling through Southeast Asia. The sudden nature of his death, and the fact that we were not able to say goodbye to him, bears similarities with the extraordinary circumstances many people are finding themselves in as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic today.
I am a psychotherapist and co-founder of The Good Grief Project. The last decade has taught me so much about what matters most in life and in death.
My own priorities have shifted enormously as I have worked my way through the impossibility of Josh's death. Let us face it, no parent ever expects to outlive their child. This is truly a death in the wrong order of things.
What have I learnt?
1. The power of grief is so overwhelming that if you do not express it, it will get expressed through physical or mental health issues.
This pandemic has alerted people to the reality that everyone is grieving for something, and that no one is exempt from experiencing loss in some form or another. I do not think we have even begun to understand the long-term impact of this.
2. Create rituals.
When people are robbed of precious final moments with their loved ones, it is vital to create some form of ritual. When Josh died, it was important to create a farewell because we never got to say goodbye, so we needed to make it real. We needed to celebrate his life because otherwise we would only be left with remembering how he died. For our family and Josh’s friends, we had to find a way to create a platform for memories and laughter, as well as tears.
3. Remember how our loved ones lived.
We encouraged Josh’s friends to share their films and photos, and people took it in turns to tell stories and sing songs. We managed to capture this all on film, which we called ‘Beyond Goodbye’ (this can be viewed via The Good Grief Project website).
Many of Josh’s friends were worried about participating and sharing their stories and memories for fear it would upset us. But with our encouragement they took part. They later told us that it had helped them say goodbye and honour his life. They found themselves thinking about his happiness in life, carrying him forward, rather than the tragedy of his death and many felt changed by this experience.
4. Grief cannot be fixed.
Unfortunately, grief brings up huge levels of conflict because it is often shrouded in silence. It is really important to myself, Josh’s dad, Jimmy, and Josh’s brother and sister to tackle this silence head on. This led to us to set up the charity The Good Grief Project in 2015.
As anyone who has been bereaved discovers, grief cannot be fixed, but what can help is being 'alongside' it and not trying to find answers. I share this both as a bereaved parent and as a psychotherapist.
It has been 10 years since Josh died, and I know I will never get over it, but I can learn to live with it. With Covid-19, so many people did not get that opportunity to say goodbye.
I am often asked why we share our personal stories and those of others?
5. Sharing stories changes attitudes/breaks the isolation.
The simple answer is that so many people tell us they feel unheard and isolated. Tackling this isolation and silence is one of the principal reasons why we make films and share the lived experiences of ourselves and others. People tell us that they share their stories with us because they want to be free to speak about their experiences and say the names of their deceased loved ones, without creating a rush for the exit by the discomfort in others. We help them do that because we can.
This pandemic has provoked many to think again about our relationship to death, dying and bereavement. It turns out that fears and anxieties of illness and mortality (of ourselves and others) are mirrored in the way we respond to differences and social inequalities. Conversations about grief often lead to an appreciation of many other kinds of trauma and loss, and a better understanding of what it means to be truly human.
Journalist Annalisa Barbiere captures the importance of creating your own funeral beautifully in an article she wrote about Josh’s funeral: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jan/06/it-was-an-incredibly-enriching-day-the-families-taking-control-of-death
Our latest film ‘Beyond the Mask’ focuses on grief during lockdown. It explores many aspects that both grief and the pandemic share – isolation, the sense of time stopping, the loss of confidence, the challenge to one’s sense of self, the damage to mental health and, of course, mask wearing and the various ways we are having to adjust to our ‘new normal’. https://thegoodgriefproject.co.uk/2020/07/18/beyond-the-mask-and-other-news/