Creative Writing After Bereavement

by Emma Pickering

Emma Pickering

Emma Pickering is a support worker for bereaved carers at Carers Leeds. We chatted to her about the unique nature of her work and how she uses creativity to look after her own wellbeing.

 

How did you get into specialist grief support?

My background is in social work and I worked with children and families before moving into fostering social work, where I first developed a real interest in supporting people through loss. Working with short term foster carers helped me understand the feelings of loss they experience when children move on from their care. I later joined Cruse Bereavement Support and trained to be a bereavement support volunteer and then worked for Leeds Cruse Bereavement Support for a period before becoming a support worker for bereaved carers at Carers Leeds.

Tell us about the special type of work you do at Carers Leeds

Bereaved carers experience a unique type of loss. Very often they have given up their job, friends and former lives to care full time for someone and when that person dies, the loss they experience is amplified by the fact that their whole identity was linked to their role as a carer.

How do you offer support and is there anything those reading this could learn from your approach that might help them support people who are experiencing loss?

As a social worker I was expected to find a solution whereas in my role as a bereavement support worker I am there to give people space to be sad. It can be unhelpful to try and fix people who are experiencing grief and can come across as dismissing how they are feeling. Bereavement support is about sitting with someone and being comfortable with the uncomfortable, acknowledging where they are in their journey at that moment and letting them be raw and honest.

Pebble memory jar

People often find it hard to know what to say to someone who is grieving. Do you have any advice?

Nobody’s experience of grief is the same, so even if you have experienced grief before or supported someone through loss, another person’s experience and journey will be quite different. It is important to meet someone where they are and accept how they are feeling and reacting to the situation. It’s all about very good listening skills and demonstrating empathy.

Do you ever find it difficult to cope when you are supporting people through such difficult times?

Yes, it is heavy and often intense. I absorb a lot of emotion and sadness so I have had to learn how to look after myself. I am resilient but even so, there is a danger that if I don’t find ways to restore myself and refill the well, I won’t be able to support people properly.

Have you discovered any particularly powerful ways of supporting your own wellbeing?

The support I offer is very intensive and the sessions are by necessity confidential and intimate, allowing people to feel completely at ease to share their deepest feelings. I give myself that intimacy and space by writing poetry.  Intense emotion often sparks creativity and writing gives me an outlet when I have been bearing witness to people’s innermost suffering. It gives me a tool to cope and that’s important because I don’t want to have an off day. I want to be there for people. Writing is a win win because it helps me and by doing so it sustains me to help others.

Flower seperator

What do you write about in your poems?

My writing is very much inspired by and interwoven with nature. I don’t overthink it, I just let the words flow. The process is so healing and I find it a really helpful way of acknowledging difficult feelings. When I read them back I feel the same healing benefit. Some of my poems make the fridge and I stop and read them during the day so they keep sustaining me. Looking back on them is good for my self-development because it shows me where I was and how far I’ve come.

Have you had any of your work published?

I have had one poem published in a specialist book about healing and grief but my writing has always been something I’ve done just for me. It’s a process I benefit from and when I’m writing I’m not thinking about the finished article. I don’t want to set myself a task and I don’t worry about proper use of grammar, it’s just a way to let my internal voice out. It’s like therapy, a way to be honest with my emotions. Sometimes I don’t feel the need to write but when I do need to refill the well I use writing to do that.

Would you recommend writing to others who might be experiencing loss or suffering?

Creativity often helps people process difficult emotions. Sometimes people find art is a good outlet or they might use music. They might find it helpful to write a letter to a person who is not there. Some people write to a person who has died every day and they can find it very soothing and comforting. It can be a way of continuing a bond and maintaining a relationship after loss. There are lots of ways creativity can help us look after our wellbeing. I sketch as well, even though I was always terrible at art at school. I always draw nature and it isn’t about how good it is to look at, it’s about how the process restores and helps me.

Would you mind sharing one or two of your poems?

Winter's Little Wild!
Openings

By Lucy Clay

Lucy Clay

Funeral directors are generally kind and compassionate people and want to give people the best possible support. However, like everyone they come with their own personal and professional experiences and some will be more confident in supporting people from the LGBTQ+ community than others.

What is different?

Many members of the LGBTQ+ community have experienced their romantic relationships being dismissed or misinterpreted. Often this is by individuals with no ill-intent, but sometimes some people struggle to see the whole picture.

Although misrepresentation is often not intended to cause offense, it can cause the feeling of not feeling acknowledged or respected. Extending this to funerals, I believe that the best way to ensure that our funeral needs are met, is to make sure that we do what we can to make sure that the right people lead the arrangements and that our wishes are known.

Who will make the funeral arrangements?

I know that some people worry about how they will be represented after they have died; those that are tasked with making funeral arrangements may not create an event that truly reflects their life and who was important to them (and in what capacity).

In theory, anyone can arrange and pay for a funeral.  However, it is usual for the executors named in a will to take responsibility for the funeral arrangements.  They may choose to delegate the responsibility to someone else and simply receive the funeral invoice, which can be paid from any assets in the estate.

If someone dies without a will (this is called “intestate”) then arrangements may fall to their next of kin, or anyone else who steps forward to make arrangements, and isn’t contested.

Funeral choices and wishes

Every funeral is unique, and it really is possible to create an event that truly reflects the beliefs, values, spirituality and personality of the person who has died.  Some people from the LGBTQ+ community may want the funeral to reflect their relationships and identity whereas others may choose for this aspect of their lives to be relatively private and understated.

The key is that the funeral choices reflect the person who has died and are helpful for their friends and family – and that they are not made by the funeral director.  If you know what you would like (or not like) for your funeral that we would strongly encourage you to write it down and let people close to you know.  This may be one or two simple wishes, or a more elaborate plan – any level of instruction is helpful and fulfilling those wishes is likely to be very consoling for the people who matter the most to you.

If you aren’t sure what you want, then I would encourage you to read “Funerals Your Way” – a funeral planning guide written by my colleague.  It is an easy read, which highlights your choices and prompts you to consider what you think works best for you.

Your funeral wishes can be included in a will, or as a separate document.  It is important to know that they are not legally binding however, in more cases than not, they are fulfilled by those responsible for making the funeral arrangements.

Some specifics about dressing and personal care

What we wear can be an important part of how we express ourselves.  Your funeral director should offer to dress you in your own clothes, so if there’s something specific that you’d like to wear, a particular style you’d like honouring (or one that you’d rather was avoided completely) it can be helpful to record these wishes. If someone is going to be cremated, then there are some restrictions about what they can wear (to minimise harmful emissions) but it is often possible to find an alternative in a natural material which will have the same effect.

Some people find it helpful and important to be involved in physically caring for someone after they have died.  This may include styling their hair, applying their make-up, or painting their nails in the manner they liked best. It can also include washing a person and performing other aspects of personal care for them. In most circumstances, your funeral director should facilitate this in the manner that works best for you. If it is important for you to be cared for by individuals of a particular gender, then this is usually possible.

Confidentiality

Funeral directors understand the importance of confidentiality and if they are a member of a trade association then they will be bound to their confidentiality standards.   They will aim to keep confidential information private and will not share any unnecessary information about gender, sexuality, personal and sexual relationships with colleagues, other professionals or anyone involved on the funeral arrangements.

My advice

  • Write a will and appoint an executor that you trust to respect your wishes
  • Talk to people close to you about what you want and why
  • Document your funeral wishes and leave them somewhere safe (and easy to find)
Flower seperator

By Paul Fogarty

When my Uncle Tom died, some years ago, I rang my cousin to offer sympathy and love, to share a few memories and to see if she and her sisters needed any help with the practical details. Coming from a family with an infamously sweet tooth, and knowing my cousin’s particular weakness for cake, I teased: “I’m a dab-hand at funeral cake, you know!” Her response was immediate and positive, and I found myself unexpectedly responsible for some memorial baking.

Like my uncle and cousin, I grew up with the idea that providing for someone is an everyday opportunity to show love. My Grandma loved baking, and we never went short of cake, pies, puddings or scones. She passed that love to her daughters and grandchildren. When my cousin came among us with a tray and asked, “Would you like some of the funeral cake that Paul’s made?” nobody batted an eyelid. It was the perfect expression of a family culture of providing and sharing, of finding joy in sweetness, even when the times are sad ones.

As a food writer, I have come across recipes and anecdotes about funeral cakes in several sources. Although I was surprised at first, the idea of a cake that marks the passing of someone loved and respected has come to make more and more sense to me. We mark so many important moments with food. After the excesses of Victorian mourning and the traumatic losses of the world wars, it was perhaps natural that we tried as a culture to minimise all expressions of grief and loss and to avoid reflecting on the reality of death at all. Recipes for funeral foods were lost, as we did away with anything that seemed to normalise contact with death. I have perceived a change, though, in the last thirty years or so. Alienated from traditional forms of mourning, people are looking again at how to mark the importance of lives lived well and love that remains.

For many Christian families, especially Catholics, it is common to celebrate funerals with the Eucharist. Buried within the layers of meaning and theology, the Eucharist is at heart a ritualised meal. The community gathers around a table to share bread and wine. Many other religious communities will be used to sharing food at home or around funeral services. In Wales and the English midlands, it was once common to employ the services of “sin-eaters,” who were given food over the body of the person who has died and were believed to consume their wrongdoing with that food, thus ensuring an effective transition to the afterlife. The origin of the practice is not well understood, although it only died out in the later years of the nineteenth century. It is believed to be the forerunner of Victorian and more modern funeral cakes.

The recipes I’ve come across in my research fall broadly into three categories, according to their function: to announce a death, to thank guests for coming, and to show care for the bereaved. The first of these were usually simple shortcakes. Bakers and confectioners across northern England baked batches of such cakes, often impressed with designs such as crosses or hearts. Each was individually wrapped in paper printed with biblical verses or reassuring poetry and sealed with wax. Often, they would be delivered door to door by the baker’s boy, who informed the recipient of the passing and the funeral arrangements. I have seen examples of wrappers from many northern mill- and mining towns, so we can reasonably conclude these biscuits were relatively inexpensive.

At the other end of the scale is the recipe for funeral cakes to be found in Julie Duff’s wonderful book, Cakes Regional & Traditional. These are delicate sponge fingers, flavoured with fresh lemon peel and dried fruit. That they were, according to Duff, “served with sherry or wine” indicates they were enjoyed at wealthier homes than the biscuits just mentioned. These were offered as refreshment to those who had come to the funeral – a touch of luxury to thank people for coming.

Readers with Irish connections will be familiar with waking, and the importance it has in Irish culture. As soon as it is known that a member of the community has passed on, friends, neighbours and family will start to arrive at the family home to comfort the bereaved, pay their respects and keep vigil around the body. Most will bring a plate of sandwiches, a cake or some scones: nobody would expect the bereaved to cater for such numbers immediately after a death. The third sort of funeral cake I’ve come across comes from this desire to look after the newly-bereaved. Often, they are loaf cakes, easily sliced up for many visitors. Tea loaves predominate, as they are quick to make, requiring no time to “mature,” and are made from the kind of staple ingredients most home bakers have readily at hand. Given that the funeral will usually take place within a couple of days of the death, tea loaves make economic sense. They keep better than sponge cakes, so any left after the wake will do for the funeral tea, too.

To return, then, to my uncle’s funeral and the absolute right-ness of making a cake to mark his passing. What made it so right was our family’s experience of taking pleasure in sweet foods. I wonder what foods make sense to you and your experience of loss. To make a cake for family on these occasions is both a service and an honour, and I find the process deeply involving. Although it is a simple and familiar thing to be doing, it takes on particular significance. The actions, the smells the recipes, can all be evocative of the life of the person we’ve lost. Food, be it a cake or something else that it appropriate, is a gift of ourself: we have put time and care into it, and we are providing both real and symbolic nourishment to those we care for. We are doing for our bereaved family and friends what the person who has died is no longer able to do.

When you are planning how to mark the passing of those who have been significant in your own life, you might want to consider what part food should play. Who has fed you, and how? What foods speak to you of the love you’ve known, the joyful memories and stand-out moments? What foods might express your love and care for those who are hurting? I hope my reflections might provide a helpful starting-point for your own journey.

Paul Fogarty lives in the north of England, where he loves to have people gather around his table, to share good times and good food. He learnt to cook in school: he learnt to eat in France. He has hosted a private dining club for the last 28 years and we would encourage you to read his wonderful blog

To receive our newsletters and information about new blogs – please sign up here.

Flower seperator

By Sarah Jones

In Celebration of our First Five Years

It is hard to believe that it is five years since we started out on our mission to create a new kind of service that would change people’s experiences of arranging a funeral. Now here we are with 4 sites across Yorkshire, 3 national awards under our belts and 10 fabulous people in our team.

What we set out to do

We never underestimated the challenges involved in entering a well-established industry. Coming from a health and social care background, those of us who were there at the start of the Full Circle journey recognised that there was a need for somewhere that applies therapeutic principles to funeral care and understands that people’s needs have evolved significantly over the last 100 years.  We understood that the process of saying goodbye to someone is an essential part of the grieving process and can influence how that process plays out in the future. Essentially, we became funeral directors because we believe that good funeral care can have a positive long term impact on wellbeing and grief.

Flower seperator

What happened next

Everything about our service is about wellbeing, from the interiors to the way we look after our own team. People responded really well to our approach and we quickly recognised that there was a huge unmet need. This inspired  us to open up 3 more services across Yorkshire far sooner than anticipated.

We find that much of our time is spent helping people to understand what is possible and then creating time and space to support them as they work out what will be best for them. We talk to them about what is important to the person who has died and their family and friends. These ideas form the basis of the choices that are made about the funeral and how that person will be remembered in the future.

Our funeral directors have come to us from all walks of life, with one of our newest recruits switching from a teaching career. They all bring a desire to have a positive impact on the people they support and their local community.

Our role in the community

Over the past 5 years we have supported no fewer than 25 charities and taken part in 79 community events. From the outset we recognised the importance of our role as a local service and point of contact, not just for people who needed to arrange a funeral but for all those involved in caring for bereaved people and those approaching the end of their lives.

The part we play in our local networks gained new significance during Covid-19 when we, and others we worked closely with to provide bereavement support, suddenly found ourselves in a unique position. There is a significant  amount of admin to contend with  when someone dies and the pandemic meant that the places where people would usually go to complete these tasks had closed. Everything had migrated online and people were genuinely struggling with both their grief and the need to navigate new digital systems that had been put in place. We found ourselves helping in ways we wouldn’t normally help, completing admin and giving urgent advice on new procedures and opening hours for crematoria. Our team worked their socks off to support people in whatever way they could, to make their lives easier during these strange and troubling times.

During this period, we carried out research with some of the people we work closely with such as celebrants, care homes and local florists. We discovered that everyone had been doing more and doing things differently. We used this research to create a guide for those providing services in our local community on how best to support people during the pandemic.

Flower seperator

Looking ahead

Anniversaries are an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come, what we have learnt and how we can take that knowledge forward. We have been overwhelmed by the positive response from the hundreds of people we have supported and we are looking forward to helping more people in the future. If this means growing our team and our number of sites, it will only be done in a way that allows us to maintain the very special environment we have created at Full Circle Funerals.

From our own experience, we understand the positive impact our work has on the people we support. We are also committed to better understanding what helps people after a bereavement by working with local universities in York and Bradford to lead ground-breaking research into bereavement and funeral care.   By taking this methodical and collaborative approach with academics, we hope to influence change on a wider scale.

For now, however, it is our birthday month and we are celebrating in lots of exciting ways. We will soon have some exciting news to share about a new charity collaboration and we are preparing to launch the second edition of Funerals Your Way, our bestselling funeral self-help book. There is so much to look forward to and so much still to do.

We feel filled with immense gratitude for the people who have supported and encouraged us and the amazing and inspiring people we work alongside daily.  More than anything, we commit to continue to do the very best that we possibly can for the people in our care.

5th Anniversary highlights

By Sharon Malone

Mindful Memorials
Mindful Memorials

Have you ever thought when you’re “gone” how you would like to be remembered?

The reality is very few of us do other than perhaps a fleeting thought alluding to the hope that you are remembered for “all the right reasons” as the saying goes. So, given that you probably haven’t thought that much about how you’d like to be remembered, it stands to reason that you probably haven’t thought at all about how others, your loved ones, may want to remember you, have you?

As a nation, the British are not very good at talking about death and loss – we’re only just now beginning to acknowledge the importance of supporting the bereaved through a range of different offerings from counselling through to expressing our grief through artworks and memory walks.

It’s no surprise therefore that very few of us make our wishes known surrounding our death and how we want our body to be treated – if indeed we have a preference at all.  The ramifications of this can be far reaching when it comes to memorialising.

Mindful Memorials
Mindful Memorials

When my father-in-law died, we came to the awful realisation that none of us knew whether he would have preferred to be buried or cremated, let alone what hymns he might have liked at his funeral.  Even though he was not in the best of health at the end, sadly, we hadn’t had that conversation with him.  He hadn’t included any instructions in his will so when the question was asked of us, we were at a loss as to what the answer should be.  This was somewhat distressing – shouldn’t we know him well enough to not be in any doubt?  We opted to have him cremated.  This decision was to shape everything that followed.

Whilst there is a variety of ways of storing, scattering or preserving the ashes of a loved one, if a more traditional headstone is preferred options can be limited.  Not a lot of people realise this until it is too late. Most Churches, for example, will only permit a small flat plaque with room for the most basic of inscriptions, in a plot surrounded by other similar plaques in the part of the Churchyard dedicated to the burial of cremated remains.  Likewise, most cemeteries will limit the size and style of memorial acceptable for the commemoration of ashes.

Mindful Memorials
Mindful Memorials

Options for memorials on graves containing a body in a coffin or casket are more extensive but the drawback for coffin burials is that the final resting place needs to be chosen very quickly at the height of raw grief.  Interestingly, however, many families who choose a full coffin burial will also have chosen and prepaid for their plot, often purchasing multiple plots either next to each other or sharing the same grave.

For these families, the memorial, and the way they are remembered, they are guaranteeing that a record of their life will endure.

In conclusion whatever your choice of final resting place it could affect what your memorial may look like, so consider carefully how you would like to be remembered and, above all else, make your feelings known.

© Sharon Malone 2021. mindfulmemorials.co.uk

Flower seperator

By Jane Wood

Jane Wood
Image of lungs

Jane Wood is a practicing acupuncturist and has written a guest blog about her perspective of Chinese medicine, and how she believes it can help those that are grieving. If you have any questions or would like to find out more about Jane’s work and Chinese medicine you can visit Jane’s website.

 

Grief and Chinese Medicine

Grief through the lens of Chinese Medicine

Chinese medicine sees emotions manifesting in the organs; the heart feels the emotion of joy, the spleen pensiveness, the liver anger and frustration, the kidneys fear. And the emotions of sadness, grief, and worry affect the lungs.

We can see similarities in our own everyday language; something may make your heart sing, if you’re out of sorts you might describe yourself as feeling a bit liverish. And our breath changes when we’re upset, whether that be with sobs of grief, shallow breathing, or holding our breath.

 

The physical impact of grief

Western medicine sees the brain almost as a Commander, sending signals via the nervous system to other parts of the body as if they were its troops.  Chinese medicine sees all parts as equal, with organs affected directly by emotions. Either way, there is no doubt that your emotions affect your body and health.

The first thing to say is that grief is a normal experience, one that binds the whole human race.

Although everyone will have their own experience of bereavement, the loss of a loved one is generally accepted as a major cause of stress and anxiety. Responses in the nervous system change our biochemistry. A cascade of hormones release telling us that we’re no longer safe and need to prepare to fight, flee, or freeze.

The first responder to stress, adrenaline, gives us the impetus to move quickly or be completely still. It diverts blood to the skeletal muscles, heart and brain so you we can fight or flee and dilates our pupils so we can see where we’re going! Extremely useful if we need to jump out of the path of an approaching bus, but not so great for going about our normal lives as that extra diverted blood has to come from somewhere, such as the digestive or reproductive organs.

We need this stress response to get through life. We wouldn’t last long without it. But we also need to be able to relax when the stressor has gone. It is normal for us to move between stressed and relaxed states, which are governed by two branches of the nervous system. Problems arise only when we stay in a stressed state for too long without periods of relaxation.

If stress continues, the body releases steroid hormones such as cortisol, to prolong the stress response. Cortisol is essential for life.  In normal times, it helps to break down food to give us the energy for life. But the increase in cortisol from long term stress is less helpful, leading to a range of health issues.

 

How acupuncture can help

Our bodies are always looking to maintain a constant internal environment to keep our internal organs safe and maintain the right environment for life. It’s a bit like Goldilocks wanting the porridge to be exactly right, we can’t be too hot or too cold. This state is called “homeostasis”. Long term stress moves us away from homeostasis, keeping us in “fight or flight” mode for too long.

Research into acupuncture has shown that it can reduce the stress response by:

Full circle logo

Making changes to the nervous system, which sends signals to the body to tell it to make changes such as increasing or slowing the heart rate, to bring it back to that middle ground, homeostasis.

Full circle logo

Improving heart rate variability. While it might seem that a heart rate as steady as a metronome is something to aspire to, we need a heart rate finely tuned to change to the environment. Higher heart rate variability is associated with better health overall.

Full circle logo

An area of the brain called the hypothalamus releases neurochemicals when the body is under stress. Acupuncture can calm this response.

Full circle logo

Increasing the release of endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals that play an important role in regulating responses to stress such as pain, heart rate changes, blood pressure and digestive function. ​

Self-help

Breathe well

Going back to the lungs, one of the simplest changes we can make is working with the breath.

Our emotions affect our breath, it really is a barometer or benchmark of how we feel. But the reverse is also true. Changing how we breathe can send signals to the body to let it know that we’re safe.

In times of stress the breath tends to be quick and shallow and may feel uneven. When we’re relaxed our breathing is deep and even, with longer breaths.

Breathing is an automatic function of the body, but we can also directly control our breath.

Here’s a simple breathing practice.

Start with good posture – how we hold ourselves has a very physical impact on the breath. By standing/sitting straight and relaxing the shoulders down and rolling them back we allow the ribcage to expand, increasing lung capacity and allowing more air into the body. With that air comes oxygen, needed by every cell of the body to help it function.

You might also notice that changing your posture also changes how you feel.

Now observe how your breath is in this moment. Is it shallow and fast, or slow, deep, and even? Then bring your attention to your posture, whether seating or standing imagine a string at the top of your head lifting you towards the ceiling. Begin to count each in breath and out breath. Don’t strain, just count the breath as it is.  You might notice that the breath becomes softer and longer over time. Next you can begin to make the outbreath just a little longer.

You can try this at any time and can also work with the breath while lying down.

What else can you do?

Relax

Although it can be difficult to relax, see if you can find something works for you. It might be a walk in nature, talking things through with a friend, listening to music, or a nice warm bath. Everyone is different and what works for someone else might not work for you, and vice versa.

Diet

Nourish yourself with good wholesome food. Being off your food is a normal reaction to grief, as is turning to junk food for comfort. Although it may make you feel better for a short while in the longer term, it can prolong the stress response. Common stressors include coffee, alcohol, and sugar.

Take time to eat. Your digestion will thank you for eating slowly, chewing properly and sitting calmly. And if it’s possible, try and eat your meals at roughly the same time each day. Strange though it may seem, your body gets used to this rhythm and begins to prepare itself to digest food.

Sleep

Insomnia is a common side effect of stress. But even going to bed and getting up at the same time, perhaps listening to soft music, a gentle audio book, or recorded relaxation can help to maintain the Goldilocks state of homeostasis, and you may find it easier to return to a normal sleeping routine later down the line. Gentle stretching or breathing practices in a dimly lit room before bed can sometimes help.

And finally – Accept grief

Grief is normal, but the biological impact of long term suppressed grief can impact on health. Culturally, we’re sometimes encouraged to “keep things in” but grief is a normal part of life, a common experience that binds us as humans. The loss of a loved one is stressful, but expressing grief in whatever way works for you, and for as long as you need to, releases stress hormones just as running away from danger does.

If you would like anymore information or have any questions please contact Jane Wood via e-mail [email protected] or visit her website https://janewoodacu.co.uk/

Flower seperator

    Join our mailing list

    Be the first to know when we release our blog posts and get our monthly round up!

    Image enlarged
    Save & Share Estimate
    Your estimate will be saved and you'll be given a link. You, or anyone with the link, can use it to retrieve your estimate at any time.
    Back Save & Share Estimate
    Your estimate will be saved with product pictures and information, and estimated totals. Then send it to yourself, or a friend, with a link to retrieve it at any time.
    Your cart email sent successfully :)