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General news Archives - St Christopher's Hospice

Nurse Patrick’s marathon efforts touch people’s lives

Patrick O'Shea

When most people are staring into the abyss as they hit ‘the wall’ about five miles from the finish line of a marathon, that’s when St Christopher’s ward manager, Patrick O’Shea, reflects on where he’s come from, how proud he is of what he’s achieved, how much he loves his work and then pushes on to the end.

You see, Patrick didn’t follow a traditional path straight into nursing – or indeed running for that matter. He did though always have two attributes that meant that, when he made his career change, he was ideally suited to working in palliative care and now can’t imagine doing anything else. As well as being a ‘people person who loves to chat’, Patrick was well acquainted with death from an early age and has always felt comfortable talking about it.

Brought up originally in a fishing village in Ireland, he followed his mother into cheffing, starting out in kitchens at the age of 12. Patrick enjoyed the work but knew deep down that he wasn’t putting his communication skills to good use.

He recalls: “I didn’t like being behind closed doors, only getting to talk to people when I nipped out for cigarette breaks. I knew deep down that I wanted to work in an environment where I could help people.”

So, aged 21, Patrick enrolled on a training course to become a Health Care Assistant. Among the many jobs he took at that time, one changed his life.

“I started working at a hospice at Marymount Hospice in Cork and I just knew then that was what I wanted to do,” he says. “It was the calmness and the individualised care given to patients and families. I loved it there and I would work 12-hour shifts at weekends while I was studying. I just couldn’t get enough.”

Patrick had known about Dame Cicely Saunders for as long as he can remember and so when he trained as a nurse he knew for sure that he wanted to work at St Christopher’s. He moved to England and to broaden his understanding and knowledge of treatments first worked at Guys and St Thomas’s – something he’d advise any aspiring palliative care nurse to do.

He’s now progressed from being a staff nurse to deputy ward manager and now manages Rugby Ward on the inpatient unit at St Christopher’s – a position that allows him to pursue two of his professional passions; making a positive impact on the lives of patients and their families while also empowering his fellow nurses to provide the person-centred patient and family care he so values.

“Being present with the individual is so important and so different to working in a hospital where you’re run off your feet. Here in the hospice, you can really achieve something and touch people’s lives. In a hospital the focus tends to be on what you do wrong, whereas in a hospice it’s on what you do right. Quality improvement and education are also huge for me.”

One of the changes Patrick is proud to have implemented on the wards at St Christopher’s is a simple but significant one. Now, the team – ideally the whole multidisciplinary team of nurses, doctors and everyone involved in caring for the patients there – meet for a 15 minute ‘huddle’ halfway through their shift. He says it’s an opportunity for everyone to check in on the patients and each other.

“It’s been really successful,” Patrick adds. “It’s a way of further improving communication, bringing people to together, identifying any patient and family risks or concerns and provides a time to learn together as a team.”

Given his early life experience, it’s perhaps not so surprising Patrick made the superficially unlikely switch to palliative care nursing. Back home in Ireland, he says he’d attended at least 20 funerals by the time he was 10. Indeed, he, his mother and sister all have their plans in place for their burial and funeral.

“Death and dying have always been massive for me. We celebrate it in Ireland, and I’ve always been comfortable speaking about it. I love understanding different cultures’ approach to death. Yes, death can be sad, but we should also see it as a chance to celebrate life and that’s why it’s so important as a palliative care nurse to get to know someone.

“That’s what I mean about person-centred care – establishing who the individual really is, what really matters to them and what makes them happy. Asking those questions means you can put all the treatments and medication to one side and focus on providing something individual for that person.”

To illustrate this, Patrick recalls touching experiences he and his colleagues have been able to facilitate.

“For one woman who was very young and acutely unwell – what was important to her was to have a cinema night with her friends. We were able to set up a projector and cinema screen so she and seven of her girlfriends could enjoy a movie night with food and drink laid on.”

Two young women who got to know each other on the ward in the summer, and who shared some of the same goals, took their children on day trips to the zoo and beach, thanks to Patrick and the team managing their medicines and all the arrangements.

“It’s very individualised what people want and we’ll do everything we can to support and accommodate that,” Patrick adds.

Communication is key and Patrick has developed his own ways of engaging patients in conversations about their wishes.

“Welcoming people is a big part of what I do and creating a space in which they can trust me. Of course, there are professional boundaries but it’s also important to create close connections and I do that by being very open.”

In case you haven’t got the message yet, Patrick loves his work.

“I am very excited every day when I go to work. When I step into my uniform, I know I am working for my patients, their families and supporting my team. I am so passionate about it.”

Sometimes, Patrick says, he struggles to switch off from death and dying away from work, but only because it’s a topic he feels so strongly about.   

And then, there are his fundraising efforts for St Christopher’s. A mix of marathon running and bake sales have seen Patrick boost the hospice’s coffers by close to £4,000. Running, he says, provides him with a chance to reflect on where he’s come from and what he does.

“I’ve run seven marathons now. I feel proud and it’s hard to believe that that chef smoker, stuck away in the sweaty kitchen who’d never dreamt of running would be here now.

I write names of people who’re important to me on my hands to drive me on when I get to the 20-mile mark. At the Berlin marathon I was welling up, remembering that I’m running for my job.”

More than anything, Patrick wants the population to communicate more about death and dying and better understand what hospices are really like. He’s started making good on that public information campaign by running sessions for new volunteers at the hospice as well as care home staff.

“I would love for people to know more about what this place is really like and to have a greater awareness of what end of life care really looks like. St Christopher’s isn’t about doom and gloom, it’s about calm, about living well and sometimes about fun too. I really want to help to put that out there more.”

Cyril and Janet’s story

‘I’ll never forget her smile’

From the very first day he spotted Janet out of his basement window, to the day she died, Cyril Titus says he was always struck by her ubiquitous smile.

They were living separate lives as neighbours in Clapham in the mid-70s. After a while, then art student Cyril, plucked up the courage to write a letter addressed to the ‘woman in number 45’.

Cyril, who became a bookbinder at the British Library, and teacher Janet married in 1985 and, when they discovered they couldn’t have children, adopted two children, John and Cherelle.

“She was just a really nice person. You just had to hear all the eulogies at the funeral and what people had to say about her. The first time I realised what a special person she was when I went to see her at the school she taught at, and I saw all the parents coming up to her and thanking her and seeing their joy in meeting her. You could see how they couldn’t wait to thank her. She gave a lot and never had a bad word to say about anyone.”

The couple shared a love of travelling, visiting numerous countries during their 37-year marriage. For Cyril, one trip in particular stands out. Soon after they’d adopted John and Cherelle, he was invited to Ecuador for work. He was reluctant to go but Janet persuaded him saying it was too good an opportunity to miss. Cyril went but always wanted to go back with Janet.

“When I retired, I made a plan to go to the Galapagos Islands and, in the pictures, you can see how happy Janet was and how pleased she was to be there to see the tortoises. She was overjoyed being there with all this wildlife at your fingertips. That was the highlight of all the holidays we ever went on.”

Janet and Cyril had five grandchildren who became the real apples of Janet’s eye in her retirement, or her ‘biggest joy’, as Cyril puts it. He fondly remembers her ever-inventive cooking too. “She was always doing something to please me and never made the same meal twice.”

It was during a trip to Rome in 2016 that Janet started to feel unwell. Tests revealed she had ovarian cancer. After surgery, treatment and numerous hospital stays – all the while being cared for by Cyril – Janet became so unwell she was admitted to St Christopher’s in August 2022 and died at the hospice four days later.

Cyril recalls Janet’s bravery and honesty in her final days. “She told me, ‘you must be happy for me because I am happy to go because I am in so much pain’.”

“I’ll never forget her smile. And the way she was with everybody. We had a lot of friends – mainly her friends!”

Who will you never forget?

Every year, thousands of our supporters dedicate a light on our hospice trees, to remember someone special who has died.

Help light the way for those who need us most.

Donate and dedicate

Anne’s story

Anne Burrell Lottery supporter

Living in South East London all her life, Anne Burrell has always been aware of St Christopher’s. Now, as she and her friends and family reach a certain age, that awareness has been brought into sharp focus and Anne has committed to supporting the hospice in the best way she knows how – investing in our lottery every month.

In fact, when the mother of her oldest friend was nearing the end of her life in the run-up to Christmas 2022, Anne decided to buy presents for fewer people and commit the money to the hospice instead.

“It just made me think about what was really close to my heart and I decided that supporting St Christopher’s was bigger,” says Anne, who lives in Beckenham, close to her 90-year-old mother.

Anne, 56, works part-time for Boots opticians, alongside supporting her mother to live as independently as possible.

“What happened to my friend’s mother made me realise how precious my time is with my mum, and how lucky I am to be able to spend this time with her.

“I’d known my friend’s mother pretty much my whole life. She was in a care home and when she became ill, she really wanted to go to St Christopher’s. When she was admitted there, my friend said she could finally relax. She felt reassured because she knew she was in a place that is filled with care and compassion.”

Having been a long-time supporter of a national cancer charity, Anne said what with her friend’s mother, a cousin and another friend all with serious illnesses, everything seemed much closer to home and she wanted to support an organisation rooted in the local community.

“I bought a few presents for some of my friends but then I saw the lottery and thought, what a great way to give money regularly even if it’s not a huge amount. Christmas shopping can be such a stress too, so this seemed like a great idea.

“I feel a part of the community I live in and would like it to be there for me or one of my family members if we ever need it. It feels like I am doing something meaningful.”

Anne will definitely be keeping up with her monthly payments to St Christopher’s, but hasn’t decided yet who’s on her Christmas list this year!

“I’ve got three people being treated for cancer at the moment and I guess we all have to accept it at some point, we just don’t know when we’ll need St Christopher’s care. If everyone could just pay what they can afford every month then we’d be sure it would be there for everyone. I’ve heard such brilliant stories about how people feel so cared for. And I even had a little win on the lottery and treated myself to a coffee and a croissant.”

If, like Anne, you would like to support a fantastic local organisation and be in with a chance of the odd cash windfall, play the St Christopher’s lottery

Creative connections made at a conference

The impact and importance of creative arts as part of a holistic approach to treating what Dame Cicely Saunders described as Total Pain, was high on the agenda as delegates were treated to inspiring presentations full of real-life case studies demonstrating the effectiveness of several different approaches.

There were several recurring and strong themes for delegates to latch on to and to take back to their workplace, including the importance of creating a safe place for people to express themselves, even if that can take many different forms, the need to focus on what matters most to people rather than what the matter is with them, using creative arts to make a connection with people, the power of the metaphor and, last but not least, ensuring that as a professional working in palliative care you’re equipped to deal with the inevitable ‘tsunami of pain and suffering’ that comes with the job.

Mandy Bruce, Psychological and Spiritual Care team lead at St Christopher’s, opened the conference spelling out its intention; to give people a better understanding of the various ways of using creativity in palliative care to honour the patient experience.

She said that by understanding and treating, in the widest possible sense, people’s physical, psychological, spiritual and social pain, a multidisciplinary team can provide the right support at the right time.

“It’s human nature to resist pain and to try and push it away. We’re not trying to fix it but help them to turn towards it and create a space in which they can face it,” added Mandy.

“Creative therapies provide a safe and secure therapeutic space to explore what works, warts and all. We reach into pain and suffering in a way beyond words.”

Mandy and her colleague music therapist Sean Kenny shared four case studies illustrating the effectiveness of giving people a chance to experience what it means to be mortal. These included a A retired military man, bashful about his creative capabilities, who made an armadillo out of clay with a thick outer shell and a crumbling interior, an apt metaphor for how he felt. There was also a middle-aged man struggling with unresolved grief following his mother’s death and challenged by his own terminal diagnosis was helped to process his grief and pain and come to terms with own impending death through music, singing songs he sang with his mother and then recording a CD for each of his children.

Picking up on the theme of the safe and secure space, Art psychotherapist Deborah Kelly described the success of Groups in Nature, a weekly group she set up in the woods in Sussex.

Nature, Deborah said, provides a supportive and creative space for people. Just being in nature helps our mental and physical wellbeing and we’re hard-wired to love open spaces. And by witnessing the changing of the seasons we can reflect on the cycle of life and come to terms with the fact that we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves. People reported that it gave them a sense of belonging, relieved loneliness and helped them to understand where they would like to be cared for and to die.

Linsey Clark, Dance Movement Psychotherapist who works at Weston Hospice Care in Weston-Super-Mare, talked about a very different but equally secure, safe place for people to come together and express themselves – in a closed room in the hospice. In her talk: When the door is shut, we shut everything out, she shared the work she does introducing patients from the hospice to dance.

Everyone in the room has something significant in common, they can take comfort from it but don’t need to say it. Being together in a room with the door shut provides a further security – allowing them, Linsey says, to feel no limitations, to push boundaries, readying themselves for the unknown. She added that while she can’t change’s people’s outcomes or take their pain away, she can help change their experience of that pain.

Drama therapist Peter Darby-Knight highlighted the power of stories in the palliative care setting, in his talk, Once upon a time. With every example of the impact stories can have on people, he came back to the same powerful point – connection. Whether it’s the 4,000-year-old tale of Beauty and the Beast or the cowboy films featuring stoic, granite-jawed heroes like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood that his father so admired, we all find our own connection in stories.

Peter illustrated this with the story of a teenage boy struggling to come to terms with his mother’s terminal diagnosis and who was very reluctant to engage with him. They made a connection over a shared love of Star Wars and soon the boy had written a script full of emotion and grief, expressing his feeling in a way he most likely wouldn’t have without that connection with the story.

Sculptor Lisa Snook focused on connections too. She works with both bronze and clay and says that sculpture is something we feel, that connects to the body as we push and pull the clay. For her, she says, contact with the clay is like a form of meditation aided by the 17,000 touch receptors in our hands.

When clients come to her, Lisa says, they’re often stuck, but touching the clay can help them change that, to make sense of the world.

Find a safe, secure place is as important for professionals working in palliative care as it is for the people they work with, stressed Michael Kearney, who recently retired after more than 40 years working as a doctor in palliative care, starting out at St Christopher’s in the late 1970s.

Most of Michael’s presentation, delivered via video link from his home in California, was aimed at the health and social professionals in the room and designed to provide them with some tools to cope with the pandemic of burnout to which everyone is vulnerable, he said.

Deep security provides people with the resilience to stave off burnout’s three main symptoms; overwhelming exhaustion, depersonalisation and low personal accomplishment.

Take away that sense of deep security and, Michael said, we find a lot of unhappy people walking around with protected hearts, cut off from creativity.

Michael did offer some pathways back to security and that all-important resilience – all based around different models of self-care to help you live better with the tsunami of pain and suffering you come across. He used the metaphor of water to describe three ways of coping – traditional self-care which is like holding your breath under water and then come up for air. The second type is self-awareness self-care which is like breathing underwater. While the third approach, which came to Michael on a walk in his favourite Californian woods, involves letting the water, or experience, flow through you.

Tricia and Vee’s story

Veronica Stylianou died aged just 45 at St Christopher’s in March. For her mother, Tricia Ellis, it’s left a huge hole in her life, highlighted most notably by the conversations they can no longer have.

“I’ll never forget our chats on the phone”. Tricia remembers fondly.

“She was a great one for talking. I’m not a natural chatterer on the phone, but she loved to chat and the one person I would do it with.

“She’d say, ‘Mum, can I run something past you?’ and two hours later we’d still be talking. She’d call several times a week and was always up for a chat. She wanted me to give an opinion and for her to be reassured about all the small decisions in life. She was completely different with the big things. Like the way she coped with the gobsmacking diagnosis of cancer without ever questioning it and asking “Why me?”. That’s my abiding memory of her.”

Tricia and her husband, Mike, adopted Veronica, or Vee (as Mike quickly christened her and as she was known by everyone) when she was four. Vee was always creative growing up and went to Cardiff Art School. “Art was her passion. She was also a very sociable person and had so many friends. Vee brought everyone together with her loving and exceptionally caring nature.”

This was probably best illustrated at the funeral. The 150-person capacity was far exceeded, with family and friends attending from far and wide, including Australia. The funeral also typified Vee’s selflessness. Once she knew her prognosis, she insisted on making all the plans for the funeral, including visiting numerous venues in search of the right one – Bluebell Cemetery near Sevenoaks. She didn’t want her husband Alex to be burdened with all the funeral arrangements after she’d gone.

Vee had enjoyed a successful career working with fabric companies as an account manager. She was married to Alex, and they had two sons, George and Leo, and lived in Hayes.

She was diagnosed with bowel cancer in April 2021. After major surgery, several hospital admissions, six months of chemotherapy followed by immunotherapy, Vee was referred to St Christopher’s in January this year and died on 14 March.

Tricia visited almost every day and held the fort at home as she had throughout much of Vee’s illness. This allowed Vee and Alex to spend as much time as possible together.

Vee’s husband Alex was so grateful for the care the hospice provided, he set up a giving site which has so far raised more than £10,000 for St Christopher’s.

When Tricia looks back, she remembers fondly an occasion which was typical of Vee’s creativity, planning and generosity.

“I remember Christmas 2021 when she was feeling ok during her treatment, she invited Mike and I plus her older sister Jenny and her husband and 3 sons for a Christmas meal. I went into the dining room and she had set it all up and the table was just – wow! I curse to this day I didn’t take a picture of it. It was just so stunning, and beautifully colour coordinated. That was a nice memory of a very happy family day as it was the last time we had all the family together with her hosting it.

“But most of all I’ll miss our chats.”

Who will you never forget?

Every year, thousands of our supporters dedicate a light on our hospice trees, to remember someone special who has died.

Help light the way for those who need us most.

Donate and dedicate

Frances’s story

Frances Dormer Volunteer Orpington

People of all ages volunteer for St Christopher’s, supporting us in a huge range of ways, motivated by a host of different reasons.

For Frances Dormer it started by chance. Now eight years on, Frances is driven by her own personal reasons and a deep love for what she’s become a part of. She and her daughter Belinda have also teamed up in a canny scheme to raise money for the hospice.

It started because Frances’s daughter-in-law is friends with someone in the fundraising team and they needed someone at a short notice to help out with the Bluebell Walk, so she stepped in.

“It was such good fun and everyone was so lovely and a pleasure to be with,” Frances says. “So, I then got involved with fun runs and fetes as well as events at Christmas.”

Then seven years ago Frances’s sister died.

“She was my best friend. We lived ten minutes apart and saw each other every single day. Nurses from St Christopher’s came and cared for her at home and they were so wonderful, making sure she was comfortable.”

Some of Frances’ fellow volunteers mentioned that the hospice’s shops were always looking for volunteers and thought she might enjoy it.

Sure enough, the retired secretary was quickly into her stride, sorting donations and hanging clothes, working three half days a week.

“You don’t get a moment to breathe, but I like to be busy and the camaraderie with the ladies is fantastic.”

It didn’t take Frances long to discover a coincidence with one of her shop colleagues.

“Sylvia and I soon realised we were both Taureans, as we’re both quite fiery, then we discovered we were both 82 and born on the same day.”

That makes for a double celebration and shop manager Gill provides the cake to celebrate the ‘twins’ birthday.

It was another kind of a party organised by Frances’s daughter Belinda that helped raise funds for St Christopher’s.

“Belinda organises children’s activities at The Walnuts Shopping Centre and when she visited her mother in the shop and saw a big influx of teddy bears she had an idea. As part of the shopping centre’s free summer events she planned a Teddy Bear Picnic for children to bring along their favourite teddy bear. If anyone “forgot” to bring a bear she had the idea that children could adopt one. She asked Gill if she could take the teddies from the shop, gave them badges and asked the children to give each one a name. 22 teddies found new homes, raising £60. The children loved it and every penny went to St Christopher’s which was great as we normally only charge 50p a teddy.”

Having been a widow since 1998, Frances loves keeping busy now her grandchildren are grown up too and would recommend volunteering to anyone.

“I would say to anyone to come and join us. It’s such a nice atmosphere, the customers are lovely, it’s a really nice thing to do and you’re supporting a wonderful organisation.”

Find the right volunteering opportunity for you and discover all the ways you can help us raise funds to continue to care for people like Frances’s sister.

Waltraut’s story

Volunteer Petts Wood Waltraut Gilchrist

The 1,000-strong army of volunteers that helps keep St Christopher’s functioning is as diverse as the boroughs we serve, but perhaps few are as old, long-serving and dedicated as Waltraut Gilchrist.

Ever since she retired as a chemistry technician at the old grammar school in Bickley in 1989, Waltraut has given up her time to help out in various of our 23 charity shops.

Now 93, Waltraut is looking to build on the more than three decades of service, still driven by the same motivation that started during her childhood in wartime Germany.

“I suppose it is about helping people. I have seen so many unhappy people who needed help and I got through, so I still feel an urge to help people. In the same way as I can’t bear to throw food away because we were so hungry at times.”

The times she is referring to were truly terrifying for the young Waltraut who was brought up in East Pomerania in the far east of Germany, close to Poland.

After her mother’s premature death, Waltraut and her sister were sent to boarding school, first in Potsdam and then in what was Czechoslovakia. Once on the week-long journey home the train came under fire.

When Germany was divided after the war her father who’d been taken prisoner by the British, was on the West while Waltraut and the rest of the family were in the Russian East. She escaped to the West as a 14-year-old, before emigrating to the UK in 1954 where she met her husband Thomas, and they settled in Orpington.

Waltraut has lived in the same house there since 1960. Widowed six years ago, she loves to keep active, tending to her large garden and making the weekly two bus plus walking journey to the shop at Petts Wood.

“I’ve been in all sorts of shops over the years and my husband used to go around pubs collecting money they had raised for St Christopher’s.

“I’ve always done whatever the managers asked me to do but never handled any cash.”

Recently, Waltraut is kept very busy when she volunteers every Thursday sorting the many books that are donated at the Petts Wood shop. She says it’s a highlight of her week.

“I really look forward to my Thursdays as I am living by myself now and there’s nothing much happening. I really enjoy the work though I am exhausted afterwards.”

Waltraut is also something of an ambassador for the hospice and the many opportunities it can provide people with.

“I have spread the word. I am always telling people how good this shop is so they come and shop here and how good it is to volunteer. You are doing something that helps somebody and is of help.”

With four children, ten grandchildren (including one, Nathan, who plays cricket for Kent) and two great grandchildren, Waitraut has a busy family life but also manages to find the time to study history and science at u3a.

Waltraut says she has no plans to retire – for the second time – and says she’d encourage anyone, whatever their age, to volunteer for St Christopher’s.

Discover all the many volunteering opportunities at St Christopher’s and how you can get involved in supporting the hospice in the role that suits you.

Influencer Emma’s mission to make us all charity shop treasure hunters

Sustainable Fashion Ambassador

St Christopher’s fashion ambassador, Emma Fowler, turned 50 this summer and she can’t remember the last time she bought a new item of clothing, except occasionally underwear.

Growing up on a council estate in Hackney, money was tight for Emma and her family. She took an interest in fashion from an early age but knew she couldn’t afford the clothes her friends were buying new and had to find a way.

“I was probably in my last year of primary or first secondary when my Mum started taking me to Lewisham market,” she remembers fondly. “I’d pick out fabric and have ideas for clothes and then Mum would make them.”

Then, as charity shops became more commonplace, Emma’s fashion horizons widened.

“I started to realise I could have things my way, on a budget, and not feel like I was being left out of the fashion,” Emma added.

By the time she had her first child, aged 22, in the mid-90s, Emma was a charity shop pro, having furnished her flat with pre-loved items.

Now, almost 30 years later, Emma, who was also once Head of Sales for Fred Perry, not only dresses herself in bargains she finds in charity shops across South East London, she has her own small network of pre-loved pop-ups, operates as a personal charity shopper for lots of her friends and volunteers as a stylist and blogger for St Christopher’s.

“I absolutely love it. I wouldn’t say it’s an addiction, but I just get such a thrill being in a charity shop. Some people love sweets. Others love cake. I love charity shops.”

Emma has built a social media following thanks to her posts highlighting that day’s bargain outfit. It was these that brought her to St Christopher’s attention.

When she was approached to support St Christopher’s with its Wedding Fair earlier this year, Emma says she couldn’t believe her luck.

“When they asked me to come to the wedding event and be a pre-loved ambassador I thought the heavens had opened and all my dreams had come true. It was an incredible day and one of my friends bought her wedding dress there. It was worth £2,000 and she got it for £500.”

As well as ample qualifications for this ‘dream’ role, Emma was thrilled to be asked as she has a personal connection with the hospice too, as it cared for her grandparents and an uncle.

“I think St Christopher’s holds a special place in the heart of everyone I know locally. That’s what makes me feel so proud to be part of it.”

During Second Hand September, Emma went into St Christopher’s premium store in Crystal Palace, went through the rails, picked out items she knew worked together, took photos of them laid out on the floor and then tried them on and had shop volunteers take photos of her in them. Emma then posted these on Instagram urging her followers to come and find their own hidden gems.

So, what’s Emma’s secret?

“I think what I do is show how accessible a charity shop is and how you can do it. A lot of people say they can’t find what I find. I do have an eye for it but I’m also able to imagine how you could wear an item in a different way or have it taken up or out. You’ve got to go in with an open mind and give yourself time to look.”

Emma’s keen eye and love of charity shopping does mean her own clothes collection is pretty large.

“I have my own bedroom to myself and it has a lot of wardrobes which are full. I think at the last count I had 35 coats. But then if I have a clear out, I either give things to my friends’ daughters or to charity shops. It’s that circle of life and sustainability that I love. We’ve got to stop buying so much new stuff.”

It’s not just the wardrobes in Emma’s house that are testament to her charity shopping skills. Every item of furniture and even the knives and forks are sourced the same way. And she’s determined to change the hearts and minds of anyone she comes across who has a mental block when it comes to buying pre-loved.

“I love taking people with that mindset round some charity shops and showing them what they can find. I’ve converted so many people and lots of them are now buying vintage only.

“If you look hard enough there is treasure. I sew the seeds for people and then they go and find their own treasure.”

Find your local store and join our campaign for change.

Kerry and Roberto’s story

When I met Roberto, I was drawn immediately to his gentle and kind nature and his impressive intellect. Although his background was in computer science, something I knew nothing about, he was interested in everything from politics to economics to history. We married a few years after meeting in a beautiful villa in the hills outside of Rome – the city where Roberto grew up. Over the years we often travelled to Italy and some of our best memories were holidays spent exploring the country, especially Sardinia, from where Roberto’s father originated.

Finally, after 12 years and numerous miscarriages, we joyfully welcomed our son Gianluca, who was the image of his father. A passionate photography buff, Roberto accumulated thousands of photos of our son throughout the years; from Gianluca’s first day of school to the numerous tennis tournaments he began to compete in from the age of five. We used to tease Roberto for always having at least two large cameras strapped across his chest anytime we left the house. He was always behind the lens and rarely in front of it!

When the pandemic hit, Roberto lost interest in taking photos. He began to feel tired; he suddenly became impatient and moody.  All changes easily attributed to the impact of lockdown. One day while working from home, Roberto complained he was struggling to make sense of emails. We thought it was time for a new eyeglass prescription. But within a few days he became alarmed and emailed the GP.  Eventually, he was sent for blood tests which came back clear, and an MRI, which did not.

We got an urgent call from the GP to go straight to A&E where a neurologist would be waiting for us. With our nine-year-old son in tow, we rushed to the hospital. Once Roberto was finally admitted, my son and I were told to wait outside. I’ll never forget the call from the attending physician telling me my brilliant husband presented with the worst dementia symptoms he had ever encountered. But it wasn’t dementia. Instead, it was stage 4 brain cancer, the most aggressive type, glioblastoma.

A few weeks after receiving the diagnosis, on Father’s Day, my husband again was rushed to hospital. We were told he had deteriorated so quickly that the only way he could undergo radiotherapy and chemotherapy was as an inpatient at Guy’s in London. He spent more than a month in hospital slowly losing the ability to walk. When he finally came home, it was to a hospital bed in our downstairs bedroom. I stayed by his side. He needed help with everything – eating, drinking and washing. It was devastating to see my once strong husband so weakened and ultimately robbed of his dignity. 

By September, Roberto was admitted to St Christopher’s. The kindness we were shown as a family from the moment he arrived was incredible. Doctors took the time to speak privately to both myself and Gianluca about what we could expect. More importantly, they spoke to Roberto like the intelligent person he was, thereby preserving his dignity. More than once I cried on the shoulders of staff and volunteers. There were brief moments of happiness amongst the sadness. I’ll never forget how Emily, one of our favourite nurses, arranged to bring Roberto out in a wheelchair to the tennis club across the road to watch Gianluca play, or the three of us making clay handprints from the hospice’s art studio, or the lovely music therapist Sean playing The Girl from Ipanema on his electronic piano. With my family living in the US and Roberto’s family in Italy, St Christopher’s became the second family we desperately needed in our darkest hour and for that I am forever grateful.   

Roberto died peacefully in my arms in the hospice on November 11 2021, just seven months after diagnosis. As he slipped away, with nurse Emily holding both our hands, the setting sun blazed such intense fiery red orange and pink hues like I had never seen. I took comfort from the fact his suffering was over but for my little boy and myself ours was never ending. Thankfully, in the year that followed we both received support from St Christopher’s through group and individual counselling. I learned that kindness can be found even in the darkest of times. Something else that was a real godsend was the help I received from the Welfare Team sorting out my husband’s pension and our leased car, which I would have really struggled with on my own. We are so very grateful to all the staff at St Christopher’s.

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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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