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After their son Josh died suddenly, psychotherapist Jane Harris and filmmaker Jimmy Edmonds discovered creative ways to rebuild their lives and support other bereaved families.

“The agony of untimely or parental grief is beyond words,” says Jane Harris. In 2011, her 22-year-old son Josh had a road accident during a trip to Vietnam and never came home. “When Josh died, I discovered that nothing much helped”. Jane and her husband, Jimmy, also found that grief can be a very lonely journey. “I realised bereaved people represent other people’s worst nightmares,” she says. As a psychotherapist Jane knew nothing could take the pain away: “You have to get alongside the grief and tolerate the discomfort.” But years of training to support others is very different from experiencing the death of your own child.

Love that never dies

To escape the silence and isolation at home, Jane and Jimmy – a BAFTA award-winning film editor – decided to take a road trip. They wanted to meet other bereaved families and learn from their hard-won wisdom. Having met in film school, they decided to make a film in their son’s memory. The result was A Love that Never Dies, a moving insight into grief across Vietnam, India and the USA.

The experience would also teach them something new: That articulating their grief actively and creatively was the key to making it more bearable. More films followed, Jimmy wrote a book called Released and in 2015, The Good Grief Project was born, founded on their family’s experiences of losing Josh. Today, their small charity encourages people grieving the untimely death of a loved one to express their pain through photography and film, talks and retreats – even boxing workshops.

Breaking the silence, creating new bonds

Approximately 6,000 young people aged under 24 die in the UK every year, leaving up to 50,000 bereaved relatives who often don’t know where to turn. “We live in a culture of silence when it comes to talking comfortably about death” says Jane. “But silence is deadly. Grief will find its way out either psychologically or physically. If we don’t acknowledge it, it can be catastrophic.” She says countless people have described watching their films as a turning point, because they realised there was hope out there. As well as supporting people to open up about bereavement, The Good Grief Project provides ways to create continuing bonds with the person they’ve lost. For example, using photos of their child to create a montage.

Taking the mask off

By the end of a weekend retreat, Jane often notices a difference in participants’ body language. “They’re amazed at what they can create and start to show other people instead of wanting to keep it private,” she says. “Through photography or just being with other people they’ve been able to take the mask off and be themselves”. At a time when we’re wearing masks physically as well as metaphorically, she feels it is more important than ever to give our grief a voice. A new film, Beyond the Mask, tackling loss and isolation during Covid-19, will screen online early in the new year.

Life after death

The Good Grief Project has always been a family venture. During their retreats, Josh’s sister Rosa does the cooking, while his older brother Joe, a personal trainer, runs boxing and fitness workshops, having learned to handle his own depression by being physically active. They welcome siblings as well as parents. “Bereaved siblings appreciate having a voice,” explains Jane. “They lose their parents in a way because they are so grief-stricken and watching out for them is a double whammy.” Almost 10 years after losing Josh, she feels the experience has changed her for the better. “There is definitely life after the death of a child. I would do anything to bring my son back, but he has taught me so much since he died.”

“It’s a huge relief when you realise that grief can become part of your life,” she explains. “You learn to carry that person with you and fold them into your heart. We’ve created new rituals – at Christmas we raise a glass to Josh – we talk about him, and there are pictures of Uncle Josh in my grandchildren’s bedroom. “As time has passed my love for Josh doesn’t lessen. You love your child forever.”

Image – Photo montage of Josh © Jimmy Edmonds