On the Death of Colin Murray Parkes (1928-2024) – Maggie Stroebe and Debbie Kerslake

Categories: Care, Leadership, and People & Places.

Maggie’s Reflections:  

The funeral of Colin Murray Parkes took place in the small church at the edge of Chorleywood Common, through which Colin had loved to walk during the years of his long life there. Approaching the church across these same paths gave the sense of a journey’s end. I felt deeply privileged to be able to join family and close friends to celebrate Colin’s life and grieve together following his death.

The occasion was strikingly fitting, one full of love and loss, a marvellous commemoration of Colin, personally and professionally. Just as Colin understood grief and grieving, so those nearest to him created a service for him so evidently according to his own values and way of being, with much room for close relationships.

Those present comforted each other – reaching out not only to share raw emotions, but also to smile and even laugh together – reflecting Colin’s own joy at the beauty of life amidst the sadness of death. And the service throughout was incredibly moving, beautifully thought-through and executed: from the solemn opening onwards, with the coffin borne on the shoulders of Colin’s six tall, strong young grandsons. With the Chiltern Choir, of which Colin and Patricia were founding members, there to sing so beautifully and honour Colin and Patricia in their own special, uplifting way. And with the tributes, which portrayed the very essence of this remarkable man.

I so respected the courage of those who spoke – I think it was not easy for any of them to present on this occasion, whether or not they were practised orators. As Debbie said afterwards: “I’m not usually nervous speaking in public but I was today, it was so important to me to do this right for Colin and his family”.

In the warm and thankfully not-completely-formal atmosphere surrounding us, encouragement and empathy – with hugs and hands on shoulders to appreciate the speakers and console the family – brought us all closer together. Silent applause was felt loud and clear. Among us was a tiny, very quiet little baby boy, Colin and Patricia’s first great grandchild, Will, just ten weeks old. Colin had been well enough to meet him and to hold him and it is not hard to imagine what this meant to him and to his whole family.

Each contributor conveyed their personal sense of who Colin was and what he meant to each of them: as “Dad” to his daughter Jenny, and as “Granddad” to two of his grandsons, Dylan (who spoke words of his mother Caz as well) and Sam. Amazingly, given that professional matters took so much of Colin’s time and called him so far away so often, all described him as immensely present, demonstrably loving each one of them and being deeply cherished in return, outstandingly good with children, always enjoying their company to the full in his very unique (and occasionally hair-raisingly distracted, inattentive!) way.

Colin’s cup was always half full, never half empty – despite the burdens of his chosen vocation to assist those traumatized and grief-stricken. We heard how his sunny disposition shone through his fatherhood: flinging back the curtains of the children’s bedrooms in the early morning, to welcome another new day with great gusto. We heard too of his wife Patricia’s vital role in supporting him. The words of dedication in his book “Love and Loss” were cited: “To Patricia Margaret Parkes, the sole object of my romantic attachment and main source of my security”. Patricia mentioned to me at the reception “not being part of his work”, which I called into question: They were so evidently a team, she was an integral, fundamental, unmissable part of his work as well. Just as the tributes showed how much his children and grandchildren were attached to Colin, so was it evident that he too firmly needed them, each contributing to his “secure base”, with Patricia at the family centre for him.

Besides being such a devoted family man, Colin cherished his friendships, and one of those closest to him, a long-time neighbour and friend, Ian Watson, shared his treasured memories with us. But first, in this friendship context, and in grateful acknowledgement as well, I would like to mention that his son, Kim Watson, the talented photographer, took the portrait of Colin on the order of service programme copied above. The photograph so touched me. We all have “snaps” of Colin, but this one is way different, somehow managing to convey him in all the intensity, depth and complexity – yet with the lingering sparkle – that we recognize but which is so difficult to capture, be it in pictorial or written mode.

In his speech, Ian described how Colin would always separate his work from his private life, notably at their regular Saturday dinner occasions. Colin rarely mentioned any of his professional activities we were told, except on a few occasions – once when overcome with personal reactions to the terrible tragedy of Aberfan in 1966, in which small schoolchildren and their teachers were killed. Another time that Colin mentioned his work was far less harrowing but rather typically Colin: perhaps reflecting the balance he sought to maintain by also seeing the joys in life – in this case sprinkled with a touch of impishness. Ian remembered how Colin described teaching young doctors to be sensitive to bereaved people. To this end, he had invited a widow to be interviewed by him during his lecture. As she unfolded her bereavement experience, she recalled how she had met her deceased husband: he had been a lodger at her boarding house for men. As she went on to explain, she had her private toilet with a key, which at some point she shared with this one extra-special lodger. Colin could not resist commenting during his interview with the widow “So it was a marriage of convenience?”.

Tribute was also paid by Debbie Kerslake, former chief executive of Cruse Bereavement Care and herself a major ambassador of bereavement, who represented us – Colin’s colleagues – speaking as the close friend that she had soon become to him.

Her eloquent words below speak for themselves, illustrating his awesome contributions in so many domains of research and practice. It becomes evident that Colin was a man of great stature in many diverse fields. Any one of these would have served to merit such designations as “giant”, “pioneer”, “world leader”, “the doyen of bereavement research”, ones to which the flood of tributes collected since his death attest.

For me professionally, it was the last of these, his unique scientific contributions to the field of bereavement from the 1960’s onwards, which has had the most central impact. He was a hugely creative, trail-blazing researcher, and an appealing author and speaker and yes, as was commented among these tributes, I have frequently said that I only had to look at Colin’s work to realize that any seemingly-new idea I had, he had come up with before me!

The funeral ceremony drew to a close with a fine and warm reception, at which Colin’s daughter Liz so kindly thanked all who had come, and showed us yet another dimension of her Dad’s multifaceted life, holding up a battered old hat, relating to his local group of friends who called themselves “Chaps in Hats” and who met regularly in Chorleywood for coffee.

More Colin stories and reminiscences were naturally exchanged. One incident that grandson Sam told us about involved Colin’s daughter Caz. This never-forgotten “trauma” (what different shapes and forms they come in!) was from her very early childhood. It has remained a sustaining source of smiles since I heard it, sticking in my mind as “The Story of the Wrong Legs”. Caz was charging around just as kiddies of toddler age do, coming to a happy halt by clutching the legs of her always-welcoming Dad, only to discover that they were attached to Sir John Bowlby (come to visit), not Dad. Caz was horrified at this discovery and still remembers bawling her head off. No doubt she was lifted high up into the warm arms and comforted by Dad.

It came the time to say a sincere thank you to members of the family privately, as best I could, for sharing Colin with all of us (“Yes, we did have to share him with all of you out there” replied one of his daughters with a bright and accepting smile). What could we / would we have done without him, without them to be there for him? The world would have remained a much more desolate place had he not been such a godfather figure to all of us: researchers, practitioners and those themselves bereaved. And then it was time to say goodbye. Leaving the church to take the same path back across Chorleywood Common, the surroundings now seemed rather bleak and lonely, because I had left behind a loving community of family and friends, closely joined through Colin.

There are many abiding reflections. Grief is so full of surprises, even to someone who has been trying to understand it for over four decades. Though we search for patterns as bereavement researchers, one is unprepared.

Grieving for Colin is so very different from any other. We knew that he was elderly, we knew that he faced his own death with great dignity, courage and acceptance. Yet this grief is all-consuming. It is hard to turn to other things. There is so much about Colin to think through. And another thing: never has it been so evident to me that one cannot, should not grieve alone. At the funeral, I was so fortunate to sit next to David Oliviere, former director of education and training at St. Christopher’s Hospice. He was very close to Colin, shown in the heartwarming photo below, which I include with David’s permission. We grieved together, it was immensely comforting; David too has since described still “reeling” after the funeral, it was so impactful. So I think David and possibly others who attended the service may share my ongoing preoccupation – it is very hard to let go of Colin, and those of us grieving for him try to keep in close contact to ease the sorrow.

In saying goodbye, I think back to my first meeting with Colin, in the early 1980’s, when I mentioned my interest in the poetry of grief. With typical generosity, he immediately said he would share his own collection with me, and sure enough, some days later a package arrived through the post, all the way from England to Germany. Given our joint love of literary portrayals, I end with this well-known poetic rendition, words that resonate and comfort a little, following our loss of Colin. They were written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson commemorating the death of his own beloved friend:

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

 

(In Memoriam A. H. H., 27.13-17)

Debbie’s Tribute at Colin’s Funeral

When I got Jenny’s email, asking me to say a few words today, I was hugely honoured, but also if I’m honest, intimidated too! Honoured, because Colin was a pioneer, one of the most important and influential people in the world, in terms of bereavement. Intimidated, because how, in a few minutes, can I pay tribute to this wonderful man, the father-figure in the field of bereavement care, who is so universally loved and revered.

Like so many people, I knew of Colin before I actually met him. Training to be a social worker, I read Colin’s Bereavement; studies of grief in adult life, and, as someone whose Mum was widowed at the age of 45,  I was inspired, thinking this is someone who truly ‘gets’ bereavement and all the challenges it presents.  I also learnt of Colin’s huge influence on the hospice sector, working closely with the founder Cicely Saunders, and setting up the first hospice-based bereavement service and carrying out the earliest evaluations of hospice care,  beginning a life-long relationship with the Hospice Movement and particularly St. Christopher’s.

I was absolutely delighted then when in 1999, I joined Cruse, and was introduced to Colin, as the Life President. Colin was key to Cruse from the beginning, including being Chair for 20 years, introducing supervision and training of volunteers and ensuring practice took into account latest developments in the field. On retiring as Chair, Colin became Cruse’s Life President in 1992. I quickly learnt that Colin was very ‘hands on’ in this role;  chairing the Editorial Board of the journal Bereavement Care which he’d set up; sitting on the Board of Trustees; acting as Clinical Advisor; being a media spokesperson; chairing masterclasses; giving presentations and developing Cruse’s role in major incidents, drawing on his extensive experience.

Colin helped co-ordinate support to families following the coal spill in Aberfan in 1966, which killed 116 children and 28 adults. In a talk I was at 40 years later, Colin became visibly upset, as he described the personal impact of this involvement.  Colin went on to act as adviser in many disasters including, the Bradford Football Club fire, the capsize of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the Pan-American Flight 103 explosion over Lockerbie, the Rwandan genocide and the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. In all these disasters Colin not only focused on those who had been bereaved, but also the support of all the supporters.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I was in Cruse’s Head Office, when a call came in from Buckingham Palace, seeking advice as to what Queen Elizabeth might say, in her message of condolence to those bereaved. It was Colin, of course, who Cruse turned to.

And it is Colin’s words -“Grief is the Price we Pay for Love” which the Queen used.

Now, if you google the Queens’ most famous quotes, this comes up. Prince William, after her Majesty’s death, quoted his grandmother using these words. But the words were actually those of Colin.

Shortly after the attacks, Cruse got a call from the Foreign Office asking us to provide support in New York to bereaved UK families who were being flown out.                                                                                                                     Colin was the first to go, leaving just hours later, and helping establish the systems of support for all the UK families.

In Cruse, Colin continued to be key in major incidents, acting as advisor following the 2004 Tsunami, the London bombings and the Grenfell Tower fire.

Colin was always a huge support to me personally, as CEO of Cruse; helping to develop new training; being on call for any difficult client situations; bringing his wisdom and expertise, in his gentle and unassuming way to the Council and presenting at events, from the largest conference to the smallest Branch meeting.

Colin was revered and loved by everyone in Cruse. A volunteer at the Cruse Conference asked if I would take a photo of her, but could I get Colin in the frame. She was too in awe to ask for her photo to be taken with him. I asked on her behalf and of course she got her treasured photo, as well as a lengthy conversation.

When I decided at the age of 60, to retire in 2018, I was embarrassed to tell Colin, because at the age of 90, he was asking me what more could he do for Cruse.  He was the only person I wanted to be the keynote guest speaker at my final AGM, and of course he was absolutely wonderful.

Colin’s impact on Cruse has been immeasurable.  Of all the thousands of volunteers, involved with Cruse, over its 65-year history, none has given what Colin has.                                                                                                          The longest serving volunteer ever, with a remarkable 60 years of volunteering, he worked tirelessly, always willing to share his experience, his time and his vast expertise.

Colin was a member, since its foundation in the 1960s of the IWG – the International Work Group on Death, Dying and Bereavement. Within minutes of the news of Colin’s death being shared to the group, messages started to pour in from all over the world.  Individuals shared stories of the support Colin had given in their work as well as in their own bereavements, the inspiration he had provided and the huge admiration they had for him. As Carl Becker from Japan, simply put it – “He is a loss to our world”.

I am grateful to Ruth Marijke Smeding, who has put together a short summary of the messages sent in, which I ‘d like to share with you.

At IWG, each one of us had her or his own Colin. An inspiring person, a theoretician, a researcher, and clinician, with a sense of humour, curiosity and above all, a “mensch.” Recalling him brings images of raucous sessions, at IWG or even on buses as we travelled to various sites singing all types of songs, ranging from hymns to popular ditties. He brought education, insight, and laughter to all of us. He was a giant in our field with such wonderful inner qualities, like generosity, humour, joyfulness, warmth, playfulness, intelligence, and rigor.                                                                     

We at IWG are all grateful to have sung, dined, joked, and worked with him, from London to Japan, Australia, Brazil, Israel, Canada, the US. We would like to mention especially the Working Group on The Cycle of Violence, which produced a still relevant product for today’s conflict and wars.                                    

We will cherish his memories and very much miss his warm blanket of collegiality, empowerment of mentorship and sharing of his knowledge. Although death, dying and bereavement is core business, during meetings, Colin could make us smile and happy too.  It was work and play.                                                                                                              

And when one of us looked at Patricia, just wondering how she was coping with all this presence and liveliness of her husband, a quiet smile was seen on her face.

His spirit and contributions will live on for us all.

It is so appropriate that the IWG had recently launched The Colin Murray Parkes Scholarship.

Like my colleagues from around the world, I am so grateful to have known Colin, for his wisdom, compassion, expertise and support and his generosity in sharing all of these with me and for being my mentor, colleague and friend. He has left me with wonderful memories, including the time when we were both presenting at an event at Stormont. Colin spotted a beautiful ballroom, which he said was perfect for dancing, suggesting that we sneak in for a waltz, when no-one was looking. On top of all his many qualities, Colin was fun too.

Colin said, “in every moment of every day of our lives we are permanently changing the world for better or worse. It follows that although the “I” dies, the effect of each life does not. Indeed, viewed that way, we all live on forever. We live on in the consequences of our lives.  

Colin ‘got’ bereavement and its impact, and he spent a lifetime helping others to ‘get’ it too.

Through Colin’s writing, research and practice and his involvement with Cruse Bereavement Support, the Hospice Movement, the International Workgroup and so many other organisations, professionals and volunteers, throughout the world, it is no exaggeration to say that he has impacted the lives of millions of bereaved people and will continue to do so.

Colin will live on forever.

Debbie Kerslake

Copyright 2024 © Margaret Stroebe and Debbie Kerslake 2024

 

Comments

  1. Rod MacLeod

    Thank you so much for these beautiful tributes to a fine man. I had the privilege of meeting him and spending time with him and found him to be as warm and welcoming as you say. His legacy will live on for many generations I think

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