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Learning to live with the loss of a child

“We’ve tried to share, in an uplifting and positive way, that there is life after the death of your child, however difficult that might be and how changed you are. It’s not the end.”

 

Jane Harris

    Seven years ago Josh Edmonds died in a road accident in Vietnam, halfway through a six month backpacking trip. He was just 22, a video producer at London club the Ministry of Sound.

    His mother Jane Harris is a therapist and filmmaker, his father Jimmy Edmonds, a film editor. Together they have made A Love That Never Dies, an inspiring and candid documentary about parental bereavement, which is launched today and will be screened at selected cinemas across the UK.

    As a way of honouring Josh’s memory, the film chronicles their emotional and real journey on a three-month road trip across America and Mexico, meeting 13 other bereaved parents and their families. Over a glass of water in a London hotel, Harris explains why they made the documentary.

    “Its purpose was to open conversations, to share stories that would give people hope. Death is shrouded in silence and we wanted to normalise a very abnormal situation your child dying before you is the [wrong] order of things.”

    The couple had met at film school and because they had always made films about important life events, it felt natural that their grief took them in the direction of making a film. “We’ve tried to share, in an uplifting and positive way, that there is life after the death of your child, however difficult that might be and how changed you are. It’s not the end.”

    One of the bereaved mothers featured in the film
    One of the bereaved mothers featured in the film

     

    As a child Josh was quite a shy boy, Harris says, with a sharp and caring intelligence and a very dry wit. “We miss his level sense of purpose and his ability to calm a tense situation. Josh took everything in life with a pinch of salt and it wasn’t until he left home [in Gloucestershire] for a life in London that he really grew up. Josh eschewed university in favour of learning on his feet.”

    Two police officers gave them the news of Josh’s death on a sunny January morning. Jimmy collapsed and a doctor had to be called, she recalls. “The rest of the day was spent in a kind of limbo as we waited for Josh’s brother Joe to arrive from London. It was only when we were all together, Mum, Dad, Josh’s brother Joe and sister Rosa, that we really felt strong enough to try and take in what had happened.” The following two weeks were spent organising Josh’s humanist funeral. They made a film about it called Beyond Goodbye.

    The enormity of their loss sank in later. “This was also a time when we began to see that our lives had now been changed forever.” They found support from Compassionate Friends, a peer-to-peer support group in the UK and the US. “They were lifesavers at that point when people felt my grief should be done with and we should be returning to how we were. Maybe it’s hard for people to realise that you can never be how you were. And I wouldn’t want to.”

    Compassionate Friends helped source contributors for A Love That Never Dies. “We tried to get stories from multicultural families, across class, across race, so it wasn’t a middle class film about middle class grief.” says Harris. “It doesn’t matter what your background is, being a bereaved parent is a great unifier."

    One of the mothers interviewed in the film
    One of the mothers interviewed in the film

    She tells me about the theory of bereavement theorist, Robert Neimeyer, who talks about the idea of continuing bonds, that you carry the relationship you have with your child with you for ever, and you continue that relationship with what you do or in the name of that child, which is why many people start charities, paint or write.

    Harris and Edmonds did just that, setting up The Good Grief Project, a charity dedicated to understanding grief as a creative and active process, delivering retreats and workshops. “It’s very much about self care: mindfulness, photography, creative writing and film-making. It’s about finding ways to look after yourself, to make choices about what you expect, what you want from other people.” They often give presentations to organisations such as the police and the NHS, to help deal with discomfort around grief. “They don’t glaze over when we speak because we’re bringing a personal story.”

    There are assumptions and expectations surrounding grief, often because people don’t know how to respond, she says. “It’s always well intentioned. The kindness of folk is amazing, however, the confusion and fear when they can’t fix something is difficult [to deal with]. They don’t know what to do with their powerlessness.”

    After Josh’s death, there was an expectation that she would stop working as a therapist. Instead, she says her experience has made her a better therapist. “Even though it is every therapist’s training, I really understand the importance of being alongside people at a time of bereavement not to fix it.”

    Harris grew up in a small seaside town on the west coast of Scotland. She was not brought up Jewish. “My parents were trying to protect us from antisemitism and the horror of being different,” she believes. Over the years, she has become increasingly interested in her background and was thrilled when she visited Garnethill synagogue in Glasgow and saw a stained glass window donated by members of her family. She identifies strongly with being culturally Jewish, “It’s a big part of who I am.”

    Many people feel that their faith is ripped away from them when they lose a child says Harris and, “so the film is a kind of expression of loss of foundations, whether it’s belief, hope or the discovery of ritual.” Although religion was a big part of the lives of many of the people they met, they decided not to explore it. “I wanted to leave it open to interpretation.”

    The impact of their loss has been profound. The family Joe, now 39 and Rosa, 25, became extremely close. “In the immediate aftermath of Josh’s death it was very difficult to be apart from one another. Rosa initially felt a bit distanced from her friends and Joe was distraught but after a couple of years, he found love in his life with one of Josh’s best friends.” They are now married with a baby, Elsie, who, “lights up our lives.”

    Every time she watches the film, Harris says she notices her emotional trajectory. “I feel very differently and l’m still learning about what it’s like to be a bereaved parent. Josh’s death has changed us for probably the better [in that] we’ve learnt what’s important about life. When your child dies actually this is the big hidden secret you don’t stop missing them, they are always part of you. You don’t get over [the loss] but you learn to live with it.”

     

    Details about the film can be found on www.alovethatneverdiesfilm.com

    The Compassionate Friends

    www.tcf.org.uk

    The Good Grief Project https://thegoodgriefproject.co.uk

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