By Pauline Hammond, Grampians Region Family Support Practitioner
Twenty-two bereaved parents are looking expectantly at us, and we can feel their uncertainty as we commence the Very Special Kids Bereaved Parent Weekend at a retreat in Hepburn Springs.
For Jenni and I, Family Support Practitioners, the weight of expectation sits squarely on top of the weight of responsibility. Whilst we have witnessed grief on a somewhat regular basis; nourishing it, coaxing it, and gently caressing it for an entire weekend, weighs heavy.
We invite the parents to share our space. They place their trust in us and tentatively step in, bringing their deceased children with them. We meet the children through their colours, toys and stories. We see the children’s smiles, strength, and personalities. We imagine the big lives of these small children, who have profoundly changed the existence of those that love them.
Without words, brave and anguished parents quietly commit to follow, and unknowingly, to lead. The ancient retreat with a healing history, holds them. Their newly discovered circle forms an exclusive member only community, and also holds them. And we, their Family Support Practitioners, unreservedly promise to hold them.
Throughout the weekend, the bereaved parents’ journey, and they have the grace to allow us to accompany them. We all cry. We all laugh. They explore one thing only to emerge somewhere else and begin exploring again.
They discover that other people speak the same disjointed, incomplete, and sometimes incoherent language of the bereaved. They take comfort in the shared knowing and dispense with the fluffy gap fillers of politically correct small talk. They dive straight in and talk about their beautiful children, and their unprepared for, deaths. They talk about funerals, illnesses, trauma, anger, and devastation. They share experiences of a health system that sometimes let them down, sometimes became family, and in some cases, became home.
They talked about the experience of disappearing doctors, nurses, and hospital connections, after their child died; realising that health professionals have expiry dates. They also talked about disappearing friendships, broken, or challenged relationships, and diminishing social connections.
Therapeutic workouts exercised bereaved brains and hearts. Autumnal colours, scents, sounds and growth, soothed bereaved senses. And cold, sharp, visible breath, merged internal and external life forces. Champagne of the earth bubbled forth for tasting and bathing from mineral springs. The elixir offering hope of healing and transformative properties. Bodies were pampered with steam and clay, cleansed, and massaged.
And with daily life temporarily suspended, bereaved parents allowed themselves to be totally immersed in physical nurturing, and psychological saturation of uninhibited memories. Time well spent with themselves, their deceased children, and each other.
Grieving is an arduous and unrelenting work horse. But grief doesn’t negate the need, or the ability to experience joy and laughter. A formal dinner, party wear, drinks, and the meditative properties of a flaming fire pit, all served to offer a place of connection, acceptance, and fun. An opportunity not lost on parents longing for the uncomplicated joy of mutual understanding. They all received and provided a familiarity often missing within their regular social supports. Familiarity that eliminated the elephant unsuccessfully hiding in the middle of the room.
Bereaved parents came together on their own terms, in their own time, and in many cases, experienced a weekend that exceeded expectations. Parents were left surprisingly sated, after realising that the weekend was not about saying goodbye. It was a reframing of relationships that continue to exist between them and their deceased children. It was also a coming together of new friendships, support, and understanding.
As Family Support Practitioners, we invited grief in and helped to explore the possibilities of co-existence. Twenty-two parents trusted us and together we landed gently.