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Stories Archives - St Christopher's Hospice

The power of peer support: why Mick returns to the place he thought he would die

When he first came into the hospice as an in-patient, Mick Reed was convinced he wouldn’t be leaving.

But the former sportsman has since learnt that hospices are not just there for people in the last few days of life and is now living independently in his own home in Croydon again.

When he was discharged, Mick was supported by St Christopher’s team of Allied Health Professionals (physios, dieticians, occupational therapists etc) as well as the community nursing team. He quickly regained some of his weight and now can get up and down the stairs again.

“When they advised me to go there, the first thing I thought was that I would never come out,” he says of the moment doctors at Croydon University Hospital referred him to St Christopher’s. “They tried to convince me I was going in for respite, but I thought it was to pass away. But they’ve done such a great job.”

Both Mick’s sister and brother-in-law died at the hospice, but it was only when his cancer stopped responding to treatment that he experienced St Christopher’s care first hand.

“I learned what St Christopher’s is all about and that’s care and attention,” he says. “They don’t leave you alone for five minutes. I had a room on my own and they left the door slightly open and they would not pass without coming in to see that I was ok. They look after you so well and I wouldn’t be like I am now if it wasn’t for those nurses – no way at all.”

Mick is now back home in Croydon

What stands out most for Mick about the care he received was being treated like an individual.

He added: “I wasn’t a patient; I was a person they all got friendly with. They made you feel different and looked after me so well, I can’t fault them in any way. Nothing was too much trouble for anyone.”

Mick certainly needed some building up. His weight had dropped from 11 to just nine stone when he was admitted. Now he’s back up to 10 stone two pounds and takes a regular weekly call from the hospice dietician. A six-week course in the gym with the physio has been another key factor in helping make him strong enough to cope at home.

“That pulled me round. I was very low. I was on the ward when they first took me – I was in a wheelchair –  and did all the minor exercises. I went for six weeks for an hour and loved it. It was the best thing ever. I love training – like for football or boxing and the physio pushed me.”

Despite putting on weight and building up his strength, Mick wasn’t certain he wanted to leave the comfort of the in-patient unit when the doctor told him he was ready to go home.

“I wasn’t sure I was ready. I just didn’t want to leave the safety of the hospice – I felt really safe in there. And I didn’t think I’d feel safe at home. They were right though to send me home and to do things.”

A new mattress and a commode were just two of the practical items the community team installed for Mick to aid his move home. He’s now walking about and climbing the stairs as well as working on restoring his garden to its former glory.

It was Mick’s physio that recommended a further service that’s had a hugely positive outcome on his mental wellbeing – a weekly bereavement group.

“The first time, I got to the doors and someone came up behind me and asked if I was new and offered to take me in. I said I was just going home but they stopped me and took me in.”

Mick at the weekly Bereavement Help Point

“I’m so glad they did,” he adds. It’s given him the space to reflect on the death of his wife of 54 years, Sandy. The couple met at Mick’s sister’s wedding and were inseparable until she died in October 2021.

“The bereavement group is so relaxing and laid back,” says Mick. “It’s really done me the power of good. We’ve all lost someone and it helps so much, even though I didn’t think it would. There’s really no pressure and you don’t have to talk about your bereavement.”

The volunteer-run group is one of a dozen facilitated by St Christopher’s across South East London, taking place in church halls, community centres and other spaces. The one Mick attends takes place right next to the Sydenham Hospice at St Christopher’s Center for Awareness and Response to End of Life.  It’s a real mark of the total turnaround in the way Mick thinks about hospice care that not only would he recommend it to others, but that he returns each week to the place where he thought he was going to die.

“I love to go back and see the people who looked after me. I just got looked after so well,” he says, adding: “If I met anyone who was nervous, I would just say you’ll get looked after so, so well and everyone has got time for you.”

Click here to find out more about St Christopher’s Bereavement Help Points.

Bereavement group helps young widow Jane rebuild her life

September 26 marked the second anniversary of Michael Mogford’s death. For his widow Jane, there was a long period when she really didn’t think she could cope without him, on her own. That is until, somewhat reluctantly, she found the Bereavement Help Point group at St Christopher’s. Now, after a year or so’s weekly get togethers, with a new, tight-knit group of friends, Jane feels strong enough to rebuild her life, has moved away from London and is looking for work.

Nursery worker Jane, 55, and university superintendent Michael, married in 2004, 14 years after meeting for the first time, and lived happily in Crystal Palace for seven years, until he was diagnosed with dementia. Jane then juggled work and caring for Michael at home right up until his death in September 2021 aged 82.

Jane fondly recalls the early days of their relationship. “I think I was probably driven to him by his car, if I’m honest. He used to come and pick me up after work and we’d go down to the coast – Brighton, Eastbourne, or somewhere like that. We’d have a walk on the beach and a meal. It was lovely. He was so funny, he really used to crack me up. 

Jane and Michael

“He was nearly 30 years older than me, but you’d never have known that back then as he was so fit and we used to go walking in Wales and for weekends to Blackpool. He loved Blackpool.”

Two months after Michael died, Jane was struggling to come to terms with her grief and decided to seek help.

“Because I’d had the experience of losing both my parents by the age of 21 and knew how terrible I felt then and how long that feeling had lasted, I thought maybe I should get some help, but I was worried they’d think I was stupid because it had only been a couple of months.”

When Bromley Hub suggested Jane contact St Christopher’s, she dismissed the idea at first, even though Michael had been a volunteer driver for them many years earlier.

“I knew nothing about the hospice. I just thought, why would I go there. I’m not going to die. But I phoned them and of course they didn’t think I was an idiot. Instead, they just showed me love, care and humour.

“The first few times I went to the group, I spent a lot of time in tears. It was just a small group then with everyone in a similar position – they’ve all lost someone and are all on the same wavelength.”

A St Christopher’s Bereavement Help Point

Jane says for any outsider observing them you’d sometimes struggle to know they were a bereavement group. “We don’t tend to look ill, upset or worried and sometimes people just want to talk about the football or even just sit and listen. But it has been amazing and really changed my life. Recently I’ve been helping some of the newcomers settle in too. Like a true south Londoner, I tell them, ‘this c*#p does get better!’”

Moving to the Isle of Wight (another place she and Michael used to enjoy visiting) this month means Jane won’t be able to attend the Thursday morning sessions anymore. She says though that she definitely won’t be severing ties with the group that now boasts around 20 regulars, about half and half, men and women, with a good mix of ages too.

“There’s a core group of us that have become very close, and we’ve been on trips together to Greenwich and Battersea Power Station. In fact, a posse is threatening to come and visit me here on the island.”

The volunteers running the bereavement group have also told Jane that she is welcome to drop in any time she is back in London.

“It’s so different to anything else I have ever experienced in my life and the volunteers are amazing. I want Michael back, especially now I’m living here as it’s perfect for him. But, this group of all different personalities has been the best possible therapy for me and I would recommend it to absolutely anyone.”

A number of Bereavement Help Points take place each week across South London, including at St Christopher’s CARE every Thursday morning. Click here to see the full timetable.

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.

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

The struggle to talk about death, dying, loss & healthcare

I am quite new to St Christopher’s Hospice, and have only been working here for a few months. Before joining the team, I had always suffered anxiety around death, dying and loss – so I was quite worried about working in a hospice.

Like many, I also believed the myth that a hospice is a place where people go to die. However, within my short time here, I truly understand the value a hospice brings to the community.

Coming from a Black British Caribbean household, my family believes it is important to live life to the fullest, and that death is a normal part of life and we should embrace that we won’t be around forever.

At the age of 10, my grandmother died, and it was a devastating loss to myself, and my family. My grandmother was loved and adored by all. She was completely fit, fairly healthy and very outgoing, so it came as a complete shock to us when she passed suddenly.

Trying to understand death at any age, can be challenging, but can be a particularly difficult concept for children. Since then, I have sadly lost quite a lot of family members, and all of them were sudden. It has been a difficult few years, but I am grateful to have such a supportive network of family, friends and neighbours.

Within my family, and in many Black Caribbean households, we host a community wide nine-night when someone dies. A nine-night has similar principles to a Christian wake, where family, friends, fellow church goers, neighbours, extended family and so on come together as one big community, to celebrate the life the person that died. I didn’t understand the importance of a nine-night, but as I have gotten older, I truly appreciate the community coming together, laughing, crying, and sharing memories over music, food and occasionally dancing. Nine-nights are often a time for celebrating the life lived, rather than the life lost.

Speaking about death can be extremely triggering and, in some cases, traumatic. It can often feel isolating, and a lonely experience. It can be difficult, but speaking about death and dying is an important conversation to have. You may need to find out if there is a will in place, specific funeral plans and arrangement, and it can also help with the grieving process too.

I think it’s important to recognise that Black communities are not a monolith, we have many differing cultures, communities, and practices. It is also important to reflect on some of historical and, current medical practices that are extremely harmful to Black people today, and why there are often some anxieties discussing death, dying and loss within the Black community.

Racism is still rife today, and can also be found in places where all should be treated equitably, even in healthcare. For many years, there have been myths & stigmas about Black people; from having a stronger pain threshold, to medical practitioners denying pain medication, or refusing to investigate symptoms even further. It is only recently within the last few years that when searching online regarding dermatological ailments, we can now see examples of skin conditions on darker skin, which could be life-saving.

Systemic racism includes discrimination in healthcare, leaving many Black patients to feel they cannot rely on healthcare services. It is important that we continually bring race equity into conversations around healthcare, and understand the importance of having visibility, representation and an inclusive workforce. To address these societal challenges, we need to first have open conversations about the disparities in healthcare.

St Christopher’s Hospice has been working with a wide range of community groups to ensure that we normalise and encourage speaking about death, dying and loss. By bringing the very community members into the conversations, we can be led by experience and ensure our communities have a voice that is heard.

For more information about the topics discussed please read the following links:

My fantasy funeral would be like a Viking Funeral

After more than 40 years working at a hospice, it’s perhaps not surprising that St Christopher’s Senior Maintenance Technician, Bill Punyer, is pragmatic about the end of life and is quite happy to hand over responsibility for the dramatic final journey that his wife and daughters have planned for him.

Bill Punyer

It was clear from his very first day at work, back in 1979, that Bill was at ease with death and dying.
“The very first job they gave me was to change the lightbulbs in the fridges in the morgue. It didn’t bother me at all,” he says matter of factly.

Now 67, Bill is the longest standing member of staff at St Christopher’s and is proud of his family’s deep – literally built-in – connections with the place.

I’ve always said I don’t want it to be a bleak day, but a celebration of life and once I’m gone they can do what they like.

“All my family is tied up with the place,” he says proudly. Bill’s father worked on the construction of the hospice, installing all the plumbing and a nine-year-old Bill appears in the background of a photograph from when the first shovel went in the ground. Years later, his father was cared for as an inpatient, and Dame Cicely Saunders invited his colleagues from the original build for a tea party shortly before he died.

Dame Cicely went on to become godmother to Bill’s two daughters who both attended the nursery and did work experience at the hospice.

The connections don’t stop there. Bill’s mother-in-law was a seamstress, sewing the nurses’ uniforms and his wife worked on reception for 22 years.

Incredibly, Bill finds time to run his own business renting out equipment for discos, weddings and other events. It’s this second life that gives a small clue as to the frankly inflammatory plans for his funeral.

Viking Ship Fantasy Funeral

“It’s always been a standing joke in the family, because of my connection with the discos and the hospice, that my wife and daughter will dress me in my St Christopher’s maintenance uniform. They’ll put me in the back of my van – no coffin – at the top of the hill by our house near Mottingham”.

Bill jokes that his family will then set light to it, like a Viking funeral, and take the handbrake off, with Disco Inferno playing on the stereo.

One thing is for certain though, Bill’s ashes will then be buried in the family plot in Ramsgate cemetery.

“I’ve always said I don’t want it to be a bleak day, but a celebration of life and once I’m gone they can do what they like.”

:: This story was from our Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of Connect magazine. To read the full magazine, or to sign up to receive future editions, please click here.

A day in the life of our Learning Disability specialist nurse

As a teenager, Phoebe had no idea that the job she now does ever existed. It was experiences in early life that inspired Phoebe’s career choice – once she’d discovered it was an option.

“I used to be a carer for two young adults including my neighbour,” she adds. “I never knew there was such a thing as a Learning Disabilities nurse but as soon as I discovered there was, I started training at 18 and I’ve never looked back.

“There is such a huge gap in access to palliative care for people with learning disabilities and so many inequalities. I think St Christopher’s is the first hospice to create this specific role and that’s why I wanted to take this job.”

Phoebe joined St Christopher’s in January from the Advance Care Planning Team in Tower Hamlets and has set about making this brand new role her own, while making as many people as possible aware of her presence.

It’s fantastic to be able to reduce health inequalities

From one day to the next, her job changes drastically. She can go from contacting, meeting and building relationships with professionals and organisations to working with a patient group to taking phone calls from patients or colleagues.

She also liaises with the learning disabilities teams, social workers, palliative care teams in hospitals as well as care homes in the area. It’s clear she’s already making a difference.

Recently, she helped a woman to move from hospital after she had expressed her wishes to die in the hospice. The woman used Makaton – a communication programme which uses symbols, signs and speech for people with learning or communication difficulties.

Learning Disabilities
A workshop run by Phoebe called No Barriers Here

“Our staff were so receptive to getting to know her needs, they quickly learned her signs and it meant we were able to fulfil her wishes,” Phoebe says.

Keen to raise awareness and dispel any myths or fears, Phoebe has been running workshops both internally and externally. This autumn, she’s planning to shift those fears amongst people with learning disabilities themselves.

“It’ll be informal and we’ll give people a guided tour of the hospice, talk about living and dying and try and make it all feel less scary.”

“It’ll be informal and we’ll give people a guided tour of the hospice, talk about living and dying and try and make it all feel less scary.”

Phoebe knows the importance of accessibility and has been working with our communications team to create easyread versions of our patient information booklets which cover topics such as the services we have on offer, tips on creating a Will, guidance on support after death and the importance of planning ahead.

The first of these to be finalised was the easy read version of our Welcome to St Christopher’s booklet which was launched during Learning Disabilities Week in June.

Currently, Phoebe is working with colleagues on a three-year strategy and by 2026 she’s planning to have significantly raised awareness amongst patients and professionals, created processes specific to patients and increased the experience and quality of care.

Phoebe concludes: “It’s fantastic to be able to reduce health inequalities. You only have one chance to get it right and hopefully we’ll be able to create lots of opportunities to improve the end of life for people with learning disabilities.”

:: This story was from our Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of Connect magazine. To read the full magazine, or to sign up to receive future editions, please click here.

Shakun’s Story

Fifty years after liaising with Dame Cicely Saunders to set up a supervised community service programme in the gardens at St Christopher’s, former probation officer Shakun Banfield is herself now benefiting from an array of the hospice’s services – many of which she had no idea it provided.

And it’s not just the breadth of care and support she’s received that has so impressed Shakun, 84. She says that every single one of the St Christopher’s employees she’s encountered has met the same high standards.

“What’s really struck me is that everyone is so consistently helpful and does what you require,” she adds. “That’s very unusual. It’s like they have all be chosen to give that extra something and if they say they are going to do something, they do it straightaway.”

Shakun Banfield
Photo by Rachel Manns

Shakun had some previous experience of hospices, visiting her brother in one in north London 20 years ago. “That had a big impact on me, but I had no idea about the outreach or the huge range of things they can help with.”

It was a need for some emotional support that led Shakun to contact St Christopher’s in December 2022.

“I had a real sense of déjà vu walking into the hospice. I’d been there in 1974 when I placed offenders to work in the garden under supervision. Dame Cicely was very keen on the idea and for the hospice to be involved with this new type of court order.”

Shakun was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. A third recurrence of the disease in 2018, by which time tumours had moved to her lungs, was diagnosed as treatable but not curable. This has left her with a number of symptoms and side effects which different departments at St Christopher’s have been helping to address.

A community nurse visits Shakun at her home in Bromley, where the Occupational Therapist has also been and installed several aids in the bathroom.

After an initial assessment with the rehabilitation team, Shakun and her husband of 53 years, Tony, attended breathing classes. “That was my first real introduction to St Christopher’s, and it was so helpful and reassuring,” she adds.

The couple have also benefited from regular sessions with a social worker which, Shakun says, are not formal therapy, but are an opportunity to address important issues that otherwise can too easily be avoided.

“The social worker, Vincent, sees us together and we find we can talk about things with him that would be difficult to discuss if we were on our own. He just makes it feel ok to have those conversations. It’s not psychological intervention, just a helpful, steady support system.”

Keen to remain active and retain her strength, Shakun has also benefited from six sessions in the gym where she rides on the cycle machine, lifts dumb bells and jumps on the trampoline.

“I usually feel pretty awful in the morning, so this really livens me up and makes me feel energised and the staff are so supportive and enabling,” Shakun says.

Acupuncture is the latest therapy she’s trying, for nerve pain in her leg, a result of previous surgery. She’s looking forward to the second treatment in June to see if it’ll provide some relief.

Sometimes the services Shakun has accessed at St Christopher’s have served more to reinforce that she’s already doing the right thing rather than provide her with fresh support. “I’m always very careful with my diet but it was reassuring to see the dietician so they could tell me that there really wasn’t anything I could improve on.”

Shakun was most surprised by the support she received from the welfare team who filled in the forms and were successful in their application for attendance allowance, providing her with very welcome additional income.

“I’ll be 85 in August, and I think you have to keep going. I feel less anxious and calmer now I am getting comprehensive support at St Christopher’s. I’d like to thank all the staff and volunteers for providing this safe place,” she concludes.

If, like Shakun, you didn’t know about the full range of care and support St Christopher’s can provide, take a look here.

Wendy and Glenn’s story

“I get great joy remembering the times we had, Glenn and I. There are seasons in your life and that was one of the seasons of my life, and probably one of the best seasons. I enjoyed every minute of it, till he died.”

Glenn and Wendy McMahon

Wendy McMahon reminisces fondly about the brief time she shared with her husband Glenn, before he died, aged 53, just 15 months after they married.

They’d actually known each other for years, since meeting through the youth club their children attended in Chislehurst. Then, when they both divorced, they got together at a friend’s party.

Wendy was attracted by Glenn’s enjoyment of sports, food and wine as well as a wide range of music and all-round vivaciousness.

“It was the worst diagnosis, our second chance at happiness”

It was while they were dating that keen golfer Glenn noticed something was wrong. Playing golf, he started having difficulty moving his right foot. After scans and a biopsy in 2013, he was diagnosed with Glioblastoma multiforme, Grade 4.

“It was the worst diagnosis, our second chance at happiness, and we knew it would be cut short,” Wendy says.

Doctors ruled out surgery , and they told Glenn he had  a short prognosis.

Glenn & Wendy McMahon

The couple refused to let Glenn’s terminal diagnosis prevent them from enjoying what time they had left together. He coped amazingly well with all his treatments and was only ever ill due to his own mistake of insisting on cooking and eating out of date sausages, Wendy remembers.

“It was during his courses of chemo that we decided to get married. So, we had to time it very specifically and we had a very, very happy wedding day, surrounded by our friends and family.”

We had 15 fantastic months together, I like to think we packed 50 years of marriage into 15 months, because we did something every single day

After the wedding in February 2014, the couple enjoyed a wonderful honeymoon in Italy and continued to cram in as much as they could in the time available.

I like to think we packed 50 years of marriage into 15 months

Wendy remembers fondly: “We had 15 fantastic months together, I like to think we packed 50 years of marriage into 15 months, because we did something every single day. Even if I’d been at work, I’d get home and he’d say where are we going today? He was very vivacious, very much a talker.”

They’d often meet up with friends at Westerham Golf Club where Glenn, a former printer, had been captain.

Glenn started to deteriorate after that Christmas, losing the use of his right arm. Soon after his speech began to deteriorate too. Wendy says his lust for life continued right up to the end though.

“Even in the last week of his life, we were doing something every day, even though I could see he wasn’t doing so well. So, he died very quickly and very painlessly – thankfully – we are always grateful to God for that.”

Glenn was admitted to Princess Royal University Hospital in Farnborough and died there, surrounded by his family.

I don’t get cross about it, I bask in the beauty of what we had even though it was only for a short time

The couple had been married just 15 months. Wendy says that despite feeling like their future was stolen from them, she is eternally grateful for the special times they had together.

“I can’t answer the whys. I don’t get cross about it, I bask in the beauty of what we had even though it was only for a short time. Sometimes they say, you only have something for a short time and it’s really, really sweet.”

After Glenn’s death, Wendy decided to continue work as an Occupational Therapist, which she still does – now here at St Christopher’s. She adds: “I just decided if I was going to do it I would do it better, with more empathy and more understanding.”

Volunteers’ Week: Judith and Jacky’s stories

If, as the poem goes, it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a community to care for people at the end of their lives. To help us to care for more than 8,000 people every year we rely on the incredible skills, generosity and dedication of our amazing 1,070 volunteers.

They perform a huge range of crucial roles – serving customers in our busy high street shops, tending our beautiful gardens in Sydenham, baking cakes, being a bereavement buddy or helping out in our spa. That’s just a tiny taster of the array of opportunities and whichever ones best match your skills will almost certainly require less of your precious time than you think.

It being Volunteers’ Week we wanted to take the chance to thank all 1,070 of our terrific team for their priceless contribution to our work. Collectively, our tireless team members like Jacky Norman and Judith Freeborn dedicate more than 160,000 hours a year.

Judith is a great example of someone using more than one skill to support our work. As well as leaning on her nursing training to help out on the inpatient unit, she also spends time on reception, welcoming visitors to the hospice. She sees it as a privilege to help people overcome their nervousness and preconceptions when they arrive.

“You can almost feel their relief that you are friendly and with a big smile you take their hands and physically take them to wherever they need to go,” Judith adds.

Equally, time spent with people at the end of their lives on the ward leaves Judith feeling a real sense of purpose.

“Sometimes we might sit with a patient for their final breath which is something very special to do, so it’s a very special role.”

“I never leave a shift without knowing that I have made a difference to somebody, if not to quite a few people.”

For Jacky, the urge to volunteer came four years into retirement with the sense that she wanted to do more for the local community. Like Judith, she’s enjoying it so much she’s just taken on a second role.

Having started out in our Beckenham shop in 2020, Jackie’s just starting as a bereavement buddy.

“I was looking for something to do and I love charity shops. I went in there one day and I was chatting to the manager and asked if they wanted any volunteers, and she said yes! I started and I am part of a lovely team. I love it. I am on the till, so I get to interact with customers. Who knew, I’m actually quite good and really enjoy it.”

A typical day sees Jacky start at 9am and combine a mixture of advising, interacting with and selling to customers. She also helps make the shop front look attractive to help entice people in.

Jacky’s been impressed with the help and support she’s received, preparing for her second role, as a bereavement buddy which will see her paired with someone who has recently been or is about to be bereaved.

“I have had some fantastic training and the ladies who co-ordinate and run it are so supportive. We also have development meetings with the other buddies to discuss our experiences and knowledge.

“The best thing about volunteering is you feel like you are part of something bigger, helping to support people and contributing to such a great cause.”

With research showing that people who volunteer also live longer, more fulfilled and purposeful lives, what are you waiting for? Follow Judith and Jacky’s incredible lead – start by checking out all the current volunteering vacancies and get in touch now.

A Living Wake? What’s that…

Late last year, in December 2022, around 80 people gathered in the beautiful church hall of the Holy Trinity, Penge to celebrate the life of their friend Tim Lund. A further 40 or so watched the event online. The odd thing, though, was that Tim was very much still alive. In fact, he was in attendance! This was his ‘Living Wake’.

As a supporter and now a patient of St Christopher’s, we asked Tim, as well as his friend and one of the organisers of the event, also called Tim [Walker], to share their thoughts of the event and any advice they might have for others planning a Living Wake. We also recorded a video with the two Tims where they shared their thoughts more widely.

Tim Lund: I have stage 4 bowel cancer, but I’m not “raging at the dying of the light”. Nor am I just “slip slidin’ away”. That’s from a favourite Paul Simon song [Father and Daughter].

Facing death, I feel that same need to explain, but thankfully I have my daughters, and we can talk.

So, when some friends came up with the idea of a “Living Wake”, I jumped at the idea. How much more could they learn than just from me from all the friends and old colleagues who would come along for the party?

I like seeing friends, and seeing them chatting to each other, making new connections – a bit like how my Mum and Dad used to enjoy a wedding anniversary party. And at a Living Wake, people are going to say nice things about you, so that’s uplifting too. Thanks to the chemo, the cancer, and an operation I’ve had to have, I don’t have the energy I used to, but I was up to saying something to everyone about it being about staying in touch, especially with my daughters. I’ve tried myself to make sense of my parents’ lives, putting them in context, explaining the things they did, and these connections are invaluable. Long term, the best of the Living Wake for me will be helping them do the same for me. But I’m not gone yet, and I still want to talk with friends, so now the invitation is out there, to come round to talk about any number of things I’m interested in. Talking about my cancer is unavoidable, but it’s not the main thing I’m interested in. I also have some projects I can still get on with, which can keep me happy.

I have stage 4 bowel cancer, but I’m not “raging at the dying of the light”.

Maybe thanks to where I was in the chemo cycle, and the excitement, by the end of the afternoon I was pretty tired, but two days later, I was recovered, and managed to get these thoughts down. It hasn’t felt like a stage in “the dying of the light”, and it came as a bit of a surprise to register the poignancy with which a friend, who’d managed to fit it in with visit from Australia, pointed out this would probably be the last time we saw each other. Well, that’s going to be true for many friendships without us knowing it. There was another old friend there, who I’d not seen for over thirty years, who I hope he will take up that open invitation to come round to chat. Without closing our eyes, life goes on.

Tim Walker: Tim L had widely shared news of his terminal cancer diagnosis with friends and family in July and it was while having coffee in our local park that my friend John and I discussed a suggestion from another mutual friend. Tim was taken with the idea of a Living Wake, and was looking for someone to organise it. After some reflection we agreed that if Tim was serious then we would do it.

We didn’t really know what a Living Wake might be. Looking around on the web we gained some idea of what others had done. But we quickly realised how there was no real formula, each is a one-off and it all depends on what the family wants. We wanted to carry the burden of organisation on behalf of Tim and his family. They had more than enough to deal with already as Tim’s health fluctuated under a series of medications and hospital admissions.

Tim wrote down his initial vision of what it might be. A small event in the local park, a marquee a few speeches, maybe 30 or so people, ideally Zoomed to a wider audience. But we needed indoor comfort for autumn or winter so we scoured the locality for venues. It soon became clear that over 70 people would probably attend.

Having found a date and venue we then dealt with the practicalities, co-opting two other friends to help and to stress test our ideas, plans and messages. The idea of Tim’s living wake needed to be introduced and explained. We drafted and sent a suitable invitation from an email address set up for the purpose so that we could manage responses. Meanwhile we covered all the usual things you need to think of in organising a gathering. Seating, food, drinks, order of events, setting up and taking down tables, recruiting volunteer help for the day, flowers, name badges and so on. Plus the technical aspects of Zoom for those who could not come.

In parallel to these things, we involved Tim whenever we needed guidance or something more personal – the invitee list, music choices, family photos to be displayed and so on. We realised that we needed Tim, his wife Viv and their two adult daughters to be very much involved in developing the content and format of the day. We guided each other as we felt our way through devising an event that would be new to us all. I remember Tim asking if people did music at a living wake. None of us knew but it sounded like a great idea, so we did.

Responses to our email invitation were often poignant. Generally very positive, though not everyone responded. Some were uncomfortable with the concept, or perhaps shocked or saddened, having not already heard Tim’s news. We handled responses to emails daily, dealing with all administration but passing on personal messages directly to the family.

The day itself went as well as we might have hoped. As people arrived there was a memories book to write in, and we will paste in other remembrances and pictures that guests have emailed to us.

It’s something to enjoy. Come cheerful, leave more so.

Guided by our volunteer master of ceremonies we had three guest speakers, all selected by Tim, before breaking for people to chat informally over drinks and food, then a further three speakers.  The range covered family, friends going right back to schooldays and others who know Tim locally. As the afternoon progressed a rather beautiful jigsaw of Tim and his family, his life, and the love and respect for him and his achievements was assembled through the words of our speakers. We had time for a dozen or so more to say a few words too, each adding their own, often moving, perspective.

There was much laughter and conversation, friendships renewed and of course a few poignant moments drew tears. The main thing of course was that Tim was there and was well enough to be able to speak about his life, his family and friends and to remind us of his continuing need for visits, friendship and conversation.

Tim and Viv nominated three local charities to share a collection, including for St Christopher’s. Donations were generous, with many giving cash at the event and others using the Just Giving QR code we publicised before and during the event.

Reflecting back, I feel we got the important things about right. I think it might be emotionally very hard for close family to organise something like this, so Tim did well to ask outside the family. Being a little more detached meant we could focus on what needed to happen, and also involve the family only when we needed them. In turn, they needed to be able trust us with this most personal of events, and we tried to help with this by sharing a clear and written plan as we made decisions with their help. We found it very helpful to have a small group who could meet over a coffee, think through the project, add and adapt ideas and change direction when we needed to.

It was Tim, in an early email exchange, who drafted a note for the organising group about what a Living Wake meant to him. “First, it’s something to enjoy. Come cheerful, leave more so.” That phrase struck a chord and we used it in all our messages. Tim and his family were the last to leave, clearly in very good spirits, and perhaps that’s the best measure of how things went on that December Saturday.

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