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Because family life matters

Lessons from Octavia Wood

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Kath and Mike Coulson, Bereaved Parent Support Coordinators, see the parallels between their personal journey through grief and a storm’s devastation of a special area of woodland. They also explain some upcoming changes within Bereaved Parent Support.

The moment that thin blue line appears on the pregnancy test, we know that life has now changed forever. We are going to be parents. Minds race ahead to nappies, tiny shoes, first day of school, learning to drive, young love, leaving home, life partners, grandchildren … on and on for the rest of our lives. We have so many plans, hopes and dreams.

But for bereaved parents – whatever the age that tragedy struck, whether they lost their precious child before birth or as an adult with children of their own – those plans, hopes and dreams evaporate. Life is no longer, and never will be, how we expected.

Four days before our first child was born, in early 1987, we took a walk into the Kent countryside to a National Trust woodland, Octavia Wood. As we took in the beautiful scenery around us we contemplated how our life was going to change. What would the future hold for all of us? We had no idea – all we knew was that we were about to become a family.

You may remember the Great Storm in October 1987, which swept over the south-east of England, wreaking damage and devastation to everything in its path. It decimated this glorious piece of woodland. We visited again a few months later and it was unrecognisable. Giant ancient trees ripped up by their roots like a sickly weed, huge branches snapped offering little resistance to the unrelenting elements, footpaths impassable due to the random chaos of the trees now lying like a giant game of pickup sticks. Such beauty destroyed. The whole landscape, it seemed, had changed forever.

Little did we know at the time that this would mirror so closely our own story. That precious baby who transformed us into a family was suddenly and cruelly snatched away, just days after his seventh birthday, when he died unexpectedly due to a brain haemorrhage. Our lives felt very akin to the devastation of Octavia Wood; ripped apart, nothing left untouched or unharmed. Our lives, and those of so many friends and family around us, changed forever when Philip died. We worried that we may never recover.

March is a strange month for us containing both Philip’s birthday and the anniversary of his death, but often Mother’s Day too. We have learnt to be kind to ourselves each March – to give ourselves time to remember, reflect and consider how we are doing, often going for long walks and enjoying nature. We moved away from Kent and so one year, decided to revisit Octavia Wood as a fitting place for those quiet moments to ponder. Yes, it certainly had changed from our first visit, but it had also changed dramatically from our visit following the Great Storm. The National Trust had worked hard clearing much of the land, rerouting paths, replanting trees and recreating a truly beautiful place.

However, what struck us most was a large area which they had left to allow nature to take its course. Fallen trees had sometimes re-rooted themselves and begun to grow again in a different shape and direction, dead wood was providing shelter for wildlife, new plants were growing up in areas previously covered by more dense woodland. It was transformed into a beautiful place again – maybe unrecognisable from how it was in early 1987, but with a new and rich beauty because of the damage it had suffered and as it had reformed and revitalised over time

We recognised ourselves in this new Octavia Wood. Over the years, we knew that we had received sensitive care from people who understood how to support those who suffered catastrophic devastation, who helped us to build new paths through our life. We had friends who walked beside us along those difficult paths, helping us to navigate the obstacles and work out how to incorporate them into our new life. And, in time, we realised that things of real beauty can grow from awful circumstances.

We received support from Care for the Family three years after Philip’s death and, during a weekend event, found others who understood and journeyed with us. We discovered that we weren’t alone in this strange new world. Other people’s stories may be different, but that deep companionship of them saying ‘me too’, was so very powerful. As time went on, we joined the team of befrienders, learning ourselves how to offer support and just listen. Eventually we were asked to head up this work and have had the privilege of actually leading our incredible team of volunteer befrienders for the last fourteen years. That has enabled the further development and growth of the work of Bereaved Parent Support, bringing together those who understand the life changing impact of the death of a son of daughter.

This has been a large part of our own journey of discovering beauty amongst the ashes of the tragedy of Philip’s death. We will always wish that it wasn’t this way – but it was. And we are so glad to have met and spoken with many, many other bereaved parents over the last twenty-seven years. Our lives have become far richer because of this community.

However, we believe that the time is now right to pass this challenge on to those who will continue this work. So, it is with very mixed feelings that we have decided to retire in July 2021. We will be handing over the baton of leading Bereaved Parent Support to Dave and Jane Park. They have been befrienders with us for many years and have huge hearts to continue and improve all that we at Care for the Family want to offer to bereaved parents. We are so grateful for their willingness to do this and wholeheartedly commend them to you.

You can read their story and get to know a little about them here.