Your Grief Is Welcome: A Pilgrimage for Bereaved Parents

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Your Grief Is Welcome: A Pilgrimage for Bereaved Parents Your Grief Is Welcome: A Pilgrimage for Bereaved Parents

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When you have had the funeral, and finished the counselling, what’s next? In Britain, we don’t really have many grief traditions for long-term bereavement. BPT's Dawn Champion thinks pilgrimage may be an answer. 

Recently I had the honour of guiding a group of 17 bereaved parents and siblings on a 3 day pilgrimage. We were a mixed bunch - some local, some from the other side of the country. One couple had joined us from the USA. Christians, Buddhists and Nature-faiths, Humanists and Atheists - all brought together by the same terrible trauma. Some had lost their child a decade ago, the most recent loss was just a few months. A startling number were deaths by suicide when their children were in their early 20’s. 

“I have found that it is only in the vast magnificence of nature, whether in the sea or walking in a beautiful landscape, that grief becomes almost bearable” - Helena Grace

I had walked with bereaved pilgrims before, but always when they were a minority within a group with many other reasons for being there. The idea of a pilgrimage just for bereaved parents had come from Helena Grace, a bereaved mother who lived close to the Old Way. Helena was looking for a different way to help parents like herself. She explained “If you lose your parents you’re an orphan. If you lose your spouse you’re a widow or widower. We have no word for a bereaved parent, because it is unthinkable”. Having already set up a sea swimming group, Helena was after a different way to be active in nature and pilgrimage could offer a lot more. She also wanted to make sure there was space for the siblings too, such as her son Ben who would be walking with us as part of a reshaped family.

Our route took us from the ruins of Lewes Priory across the Sussex Downs to the cliffs of the Seven Sisters

So I teamed up with Helena and Julia Sands of ipse wilderness, a Mental Health First Aider and trained counsellor, to create together a special pilgrimage to make a different kind of grief tradition. This pilgrimage wasn’t designed to be therapy, but to offer something else. Everything about the pilgrimage was designed to take people away from their daily normality. It offered time walking with others who understood their loss. A deep, sensory experience of nature. To think new thoughts or walk with buried feelings. To be inspired, or consoled, by holy places and wild beauty. To be physical, using your body to push yourself beyond the routines of everyday life and everyday thoughts. And finally, to honour and remember the loved ones lost to us. 

"It was an extraordinary 3 days. I found it profound and powerful. To be guided, have companionship and support in the gentle and strong practice of walking with intent meant I was able to explore, learn about, feel and leave behind parts of my grief." - Louis

Each day’s journey was enriched with poignant readings, songs, stories and sensory practice. The pilgrimage would be formed of what each pilgrim brought with them - so it was important to also give them space and let the journey do its thing. Julia described the space we created well; “If not here, where? If not now, when?” This was the time to let go of societal boundaries, and do what was needed instead. When we are in grief, we often feel the need to avoid discomforting others, particularly once the duties of condolences have been carried out. On this journey, everyone knew what was underneath the surface. It was the space to reveal, feel, and just be with the messy emotions. The evenings brought communal meals, a closing circle for reflection and shared sleeping in Sanctuary. 

Even now it is hard to put into words what was shared on the path. Small moments had the most powerful resonance. One mother shared a letter written by her lost daughter, and for a moment we were filled with laughter from the words of this witty, bright young girl. Watching a weight visibly lift off a mother as she stood in the centre of a bridge, releasing some private thought to the water below, lingering for the briefest moment in liminal space before turning to move on. One father shared his feeling of a buried scream, and so we found a way to safely release it amongst the mounds above the Long Man of Wilmington. We foraged for small wayside weeds said to lift the burden of grief, we walked barefoot in the river mud. We shared local songs under ancient trees, and gazed in silence at the murals of Berwick church. We ate good food hungrily, fell to bed tired, and confronted the night together. 

"I felt my grief was respected and honoured in the light and community rather than in the dark and isolation."

Our final day concluded with a silent procession to Cuckmere Haven. We were joined by a group of friends, family and siblings who helped us to write the names of lost loved ones on banners which were then carried to the sea, before a naming ritual where we honoured and remembered each child, as well as the names of those submitted by others who were not able to make the journey themselves. 

20 pilgrims and over 30 companions walked in silence to the sea

Whilst I will never forget the moments of profound pain shared during that journey, what has stayed with me the most is the outpouring of love, and shared moments of joy that happen when you let the grief out to air. It was never a case of trying to fix anything, or make it better - what could do that? But we all left some things behind that needed leaving. Everyone helped each other take a few more steps along their grief journey. For those whose loss was still very recent, they had been shown a path forward by those a little further along. 

The final honouring ritual at Cuckmere Haven

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