Emma’s Story

“I wanted a different view this time!” said Emma, choosing the latter as she had already skydived from 10,000ft before.

The skydive was in the memory of her mum, Brenda, who was cared for by St Christopher’s.

Emma with her brother, Steve

Social carer, Emma, and her brother, Steve, took the time to talk to us about Brenda while she was still being cared for at the hospice. Family and community have always been important to the siblings, and so it was a difficult and yet uniting time for them when Brenda was diagnosed with cancer.

Back in January of this year, Emma’s family were waiting on her mother’s test results. At this point, Emma had gone to Uganda to volunteer for its medical outreach – a dream that she had been working towards for some time. Of course, it wasn’t the easiest of decisions to make, given how she still wanted to be there for her family.

“It was tough for me to go, but Mum made me promise that I would,” she said. Emma was able to volunteer for just short of a week before Brenda’s test results came back. Unfortunately, it was confirmed that she was at Stage Four cancer. Emma arranged to fly back home immediately, spending her birthday on the plane.

Emma and Steve's mum, Kirsty

“You always think: ‘Cancer – let’s hope for the best-case scenario,’” says Steve. “We never really thought it was going to be that bad.”

Having returned home, Emma cared for her mum who had been  referred to St Christopher’s. It was at this time that Emma set about to help fundraise for the hospice when the idea of a skydive came up.

Steve told us how proud he was of his sister, highlighting the courage it took to commit to something like this.

Brenda died very shortly after we spoke to Emma and Steve. It only made Emma more determined to raise money in her memory.

“She liked her home comforts, like her coffee and TV. She was a mother and a grandmother. I got 42 years with her; I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Emma's jump from 15,000ft

On Saturday 25 May, Emma completed her skydive, raising over £2,000 to support St Christopher’s – an incredible amount for an incredible act of bravery. The funds she has raised will go a long way to helping continue palliative care for others.

After completing the jump, she told us: “We saluted mum from the sky and I also got to steer and spin the parachute by myself which was amazing. My instructor Joe went out of his way to make it special.”

Emma and Steve both have many things to still look forward to. Steve’s children are a big part of both of their lives, and Emma in particular loves being the fun aunt in their life. Steve is also getting married in September.

“I’ll still be saving Mum a seat,” he said.

Gabby’s Story

To honour the memory of her grandmother and to give back to those who had supported her family, Gabby did something incredible to fundraise for St Christopher’s, braving a new look and the cold winter weather.

Gabby had a close relationship with her grandparents, Sheila and George, who were married for 61 years. Growing up in South London, Gabby was raised by her grandmother, and the happy memories of that time still live with her.

“She would always say after we finished a meal and she was full from her food: ‘Lord be praised, my belly is raised without the help of a man!’” Gabby fondly remembers.

When Sheila became terminally ill in October, it was very tough for the whole family. George took on responsibility for caring for Sheila, who had also been living with dementia, but it was difficult for him, even with the support offered to him by loved ones.

That’s where St Christopher’s was able to help, as Gabby said:

“We were referred to St Christopher’s for my grandma’s end-of-life care, and the very same day they organised a night nurse and other care to relieve my granddad.

“I think we’d really like to thank St Christopher’s for the emotional support – you stuck with my granddad. Before the referral, he had found some other doctors and paramedics to be rude to him.”

Sheila died in November, and so Gabby pondered on what she could do to give back for the support her family had been given during the final part of her grandmother’s life.

“I didn’t know where to start at first,” she said, but then the answer came to her: she decided to shave her head to raise money.

Setting a fundraiser target of £500 to go between St Christopher’s and Marie Curie, who had also helped with Sheila’s illness along the way, Gabby reached out online to her friends and family for sponsorship.

The big shave took place on 12 January, which Gabby herself admitted was brave purely because of how cold it was. Making sure that nothing went to waste, she also donated her hair to the Little Princess Trust, which makes wigs for children with cancer.

By the time all was said and done, Gabby had raised a grand total of over £1,200 – more than double the target she had set – an incredible amount for an incredible act of generosity.

Would Gabby recommend a big shave to others?

“Absolutely – it’s so much easier!” she said. “My hair was so long and curly before; now it’s so much easier to maintain! I now try to keep challenging myself every day, and to not be afraid. I’ve been writing down every day that even if something scares you, it’s still worth doing.”

Gabby is currently travelling the world and has been working on a dragon fruit farm in Mexico, with an aim of returning to youth work when she eventually returns home. We wish her all the best in her endeavours.

Ron and Ann’s story

“Unfortunately, my wife died in the July, and then in the December I was given the fact that I had cancer. So, my world had already fallen apart, but then it fell apart even more. And then St Christopher’s gave me Ann,” Ron bravely tells us as he confronts these difficult emotions. His initial response to being matched with a stranger was slightly sceptical.

Then his eyes brighten as a smile beams forth from his face: “But she was lovely,” he says simply.

For five years, St Christopher’s has been running its Compassionate Neighbours project, which reaches out to the community to train volunteers and connect them with those who have been diagnosed with a life-limiting or terminal illness, as well as those who have been facing loneliness social isolation.

What impact could such a project have on the community? Speaking to us at our recent fifth anniversary celebration of the Compassionate Neighbours project, Ron and Ann told the story of what it has meant to them.

Like all Compassionate Neighbours, Ron and Ann began with a simple phone call; this is a way to get to know each other: a way of getting to know one another’s lives, interests and personalities.

“I’m more of a listener than a talker,” explains Ann, and the pair agree that this certainly works for both of them.

“I have someone that I can talk to,” Ron concurs. “I have a family – but you can have a family and still be lonely.” The initial phone calls certainly helped him unburden himself, and over time their friendship blossomed to the point where they now meet regularly to check in with each other.

Ann reflected that the two “had something in common. I had lost my husband about a year before Ron had lost his wife, and so I had the same sort of feelings – I knew what he was going through. I think it made a lot of difference that we had this sort of commonality.”

For so many, the power of the connection is having someone there to listen, to build a friendship with and to connect them with their communities.

“My wife was my life,” Ron nods in agreement. “But now I have someone to talk to again.”

Most important of all, the relationship between Compassionate Neighbour and Community Member is based on respect and mutual benefit. Because of this, individual relationships flourish.

To use Ann’s words: “It’s not just the person you’re matched with that finds it helpful; I think you get something out of it yourself. I think it’s a brilliant scheme.”

Compassionate Neighbours is always looking for volunteers like Ann to help people like Ron. If you would like to find out more about this scheme, or to apply to volunteer for it, click here.

I am definitely in a better place

Now entering its third year, the Croydon Death Literacy Project is going from strength to strength under the stewardship of Project Coordinator Malcolm Gill, Community Connector Jarmila Whiteley and colleagues from across the St Christopher’s Community Action team

Malcolm and his colleagues are working closely with community-focused organisations, including the likes of MIND, Purley Masjid, Lives Not Knives, and Croydon BME Forum to provide people who often face multiple health inequalities with the skills and confidence to have important conversations about death, dying and loss, in the project funded by Croydon CCG.

The work with Croydon BME Forum is a great example of how the programme is reaching out to, and engaging with, people who may have not found the opportunity to have these tender conversations before. The Forum recognised the need, has embraced the opportunity and is now hosting regular sessions that are meaningful to the regular participants and are starting to have a lasting and significant impact.

Shelly, Mental Health Community Development Worker for Croydon BME Forum, explains why they wanted to get involved: “There are a lot of people hurting in the community post COVID and there are so many deaths happening all the time, we felt it was important to run something here in the community.”

“The name Compassionate Chats felt right as we knew it was important to show people it’s going to be a warm friendly space where they will be helped and supported with the grief and loss they have experienced.”

The 12-20-strong group meets monthly for two and a half hours and attracts both regulars and newcomers each time. Malcolm welcomes everyone and, after introducing the theme of the session, will facilitate the conversations, allowing everyone to speak if they want to, while respecting the silence of those who don’t. Before saying their goodbyes, Malcolm ensures everyone does some mindfulness and breathing exercises.

Shelly, who has also received training from the Croydon Death Literacy project team, says some people find it a very emotional experience. “Sometimes people come and join the group and they just end up breaking down with their losses.”

As well the opportunity to express their feelings in words, members of the group can use arts-based activities to explore their feelings.

Some people, says Malcolm, speak more than others. One man who attends regularly speaks rarely but is often the first to arrive and benefits from having a safe place to come and occasionally share his thoughts and feelings.

Shelly is delighted with how the project is going. “It’s been going very well. People are blown away by it and just say they wish they’d had it before.”

Malcolm adds: “It’s proving that there was quite an unmet need. We’re also understanding the cultural differences relating to death rituals – what to say, what not to say and the boundaries that exist for some people.”

Malcolm says there are people in the group at all stages of the grief journey and that enables people to see a way ahead and appreciate that they’re not the only one to have been through an experience.

He adds: “The real magic is seeing someone who has been stuck for years, starting to move forward and able to help others. It shows that the group can support itself.”

Two of the group’s members, Faye and Jay, who, having never met before, have become close friends.

Faye heard about Compassionate Chats through Shelly at the Young at Heart group. She really felt the loss of her father when he died in 1986. “I’ve always felt isolated, like I needed him to be there, and his presence had gone, and I’d never really talked about it.

“Listening to other people’s experiences and struggles has opened up my mind, given me a greater sense of acceptance and help put my bereavement and loss into perspective. I am definitely in a better place.”

Jay has suffered a number of bereavements and never trusted anyone enough to share her feelings with. Shelly invited her to try a session.

She adds: “Malcolm was brilliant. Some people don’t really listen. He listened, was patient and never hurried anyone. You can also have a private word with him and he’s just really nice, honest calm and softly spoken.

“I’ve had a real a breakthrough thanks to the group. I was very wary talking to anyone at first. But I soon found that I could trust Faye, Malcolm and Shelly. I’m now sleeping better, feel lighter and have recommended the group to a family member.”

Jay and Faye would encourage others who may have faced similar situations to try the group.

Faye says: “I look forward to it every time as they are genuine, honest people and its nice environment – not at all scary.”

And Jay adds: “I’d say to anyone, come and meet Shelly and Malcolm. They will listen to you, no one will judge you and it’s warm, kind and understanding place.” Please get in touch if your group would like to talk about death, dying and loss in Croydon with us. We’re here to help you and your communities build on your confidence, compassion and care for yourselves and each other around the end of life. Please contact Malcolm Gill on m.gill@stchristophers.org.uk

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