Jane Harris is a psychotherapist, filmmaker and co-founder of The Good Grief Project along with her husband Jimmy Edmonds. Their new film, A Love That Never Dies, is a tribute to their son Josh who died in a road traffic accident in Vietnam in 2011, and sees them travelling across the US and South East Asia to talk to other bereaved parents. Here Jane tells ehospice about the cathartic experience of making the film and how she is helping people transform their grief into positive actions.
When you were making the film what did you find you had in common with the other parents? People were initially reluctant to talk about their experience until they understood we were also bereaved parents, and then they jumped at the chance. I think like most bereaved parents there is a sense of isolation, because obviously discussing the death of your child is a very difficult subject. They are not lost, they are dead, and that is something people feel very uncomfortable about, so the feedback from all the people we interviewed was that it was a therapeutic experience, because to be listened to intently by someone who is looking at it from the inside out is hugely cathartic. There was definitely a common bond, and though we only spent a short time with everyone we felt we had known them all our lives. It was a very unusual, unique experience.
How did making the film affect you personally?
Making films is difficult enough, but to make a film like this, just the two of us, in the form of a road trip across America where we do all the camera work, sound recording and interviews was hugely challenging. The film was our homage to Josh because he was travelling when he died. For us to travel and meet other people in the country where we had our last family holiday together, which was the States, was really special, but it was also terrifying in terms of can we do it? And is there an audience for this film?
We were feeling quite isolated at the time. We started with Scarlet Lewis in Connecticut who is the mother of Jessie Lewis, one of the six-year-old boys who died at Sandy Hook. We wanted the film to be very diverse and to have a good cultural and class mix. I think we managed to do that because we started in New York, drove to San Francisco and on the way we interviewed parents and siblings too, it was very important to us to include the voice of the siblings who are so often unheard. Siblings will often say, “we are asked how our mum and dad are, but we are not asked how we are” or they feel terribly anxious about their parents so they cannot express their own grief.
How can people turn their grief into something life-enhancing?
We discovered that for us grieving is about doing, and we are the sort of people who had to meet grief head on. We have always made films about life events that have changed us. For example with my father’s hospitalisation with dementia, we made a film because we felt powerless to help him, and making a film about his situation helped us feel that we were making some kind of change. Grief for a child takes a very different form, you have to find ways of working with that, and for us creating The Good Grief Project was our way of doing that by using photography, film and creative writing.
We have our first retreat coming up at the end of May for parents and siblings which is already fully booked. We will be running creative writing and active grief workshops, our son is leading running and boxing workshops, and all sorts of things that people may never have done before. For people who find words difficult, physical activity can be one way of getting alongside when you do not have the words, so we wanted to offer a mix that would fit everyone’s needs. The Good Grief Project is a way of approaching grief in a creative and active way, as are our films.
What things can encourage people to open up conversations about death and dying?
I think what encourages people to open up is the idea that you are not going to try and fix something that cannot be fixed, and if you are feeling uncomfortable when you are talking to a bereaved parent it is important to know it is your own discomfort, rather than projecting it on to them. That is a real challenge for anyone, and everyone we have met has had the most wonderful of intentions but the clichés are always “oh well, maybe they are in a better place, you could have another child, you must be over it by now.” To open up conversations my biggest wish would be that people get alongside their own discomfort, or if they are feeling uncomfortable just recognise it and not overstretch themselves. It is better to say, “I really do not know what to say” rather than be hooked into using sentiments that are really not helpful.
One of the parents we interviewed whose child had taken his life – and I do not say committed suicide, I say taken his life – is that people had said “maybe he is in a better place now.” There is the stigma that if someone takes their life then maybe their life is not as worthwhile, that they did not want to live. When someone takes their life, especially a young person, they are suffering, they are in the greatest pain imaginable, and so the parent has to carry that terrible thought. I am very lucky from that perspective because Josh was happy. It breaks my heart that he died at 22, at the best time of his life, but on the other hand I often feel reassured he was doing what he wanted to do. But for people whose child has taken their life it is very difficult because they are left with that sense of, “gosh, how did it happen?”
You are a member of People in Partnership. What do you want to achieve with this role?
By working together and sharing our stories, however different they may be, we gain insight, learn from each other and can then share with people who may not have a voice, who may feel disenfranchised or disconnected. For me that is important because I know what it feels like to feel disenfranchised in my grief. I do not anymore but I know from my experience of speaking to bereaved parents there are an awful lot out there who do not have a voice, who have cut themselves off, feel very alone and have become physically or psychologically very fragile because you cannot separate the physical and the psychological when it comes to grief and the effects of it on a mother and father. But with People in Partnership it is not just about parental bereavement, it is about all sorts of bereavement, end of life care and palliative care, and that is terribly important to me to work with people who have the knowledge and the experience to help us move forward. It is a wonderful mix from very young to older people, all with their own personal life experience and stories to share.
For more information visit A Love That Never Dies
The film premieres during Dying Matters Awareness Week, the campaign that is encouraging people to talk openly about death, dying and bereavement, which runs till May 20.