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.

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

Dying Matters at Work: Our sensitive dates calendar

21 April 1988 might be more than 35 years ago but for Gill, it feels like yesterday. That was the day her sister died of breast cancer on St Christopher’s on Alex Ward aged just 42.

Gill, who is now a Healthcare Assistant at the hospice, gets a lump in her throat around the anniversary when she enters the room her sister died in.

She shared her story as part of our Sensitive Dates Calendar for staff – an initiative we set up for Dying Matters Week in May. At St Christopher’s, we often talk about the stigma attached to talking about death and bereavement. But sometimes we forget to do it internally.

Sensitive Days Calendar

So for Dying Matters Week this year we focused on supporting conversations around death and dying at work, particularly for our staff and volunteers. We developed workshops, activities and events to support conversations across the hospice.

This included collaborating on the calendar which allowed staff, like Gill, and volunteers to add stickers to days that held personal significance for them.

It may be an anniversary of a loved one’s death, or a particular day when they miss someone special. Watching the stickers accumulate throughout the week was a profound reminder of the challenges our colleagues might be facing each day.

Given so many individuals have personal dates of significance, it is important to remember
that everyone adjusts to work differently after experiencing the death of someone close and that not everyone may find it easy to open up about the impact of these deaths with those they work with.

Idris Arshad, our HR/People & Inclusion Partner, helped support the initiative.

He said: “This idea is a whole new way of allowing people to express the times that are important to them, the times when they may be feeling different from other times of the year.

“Sharing this allows others to be more supportive, more considerate, and more aware of how someone is doing with their well-being. It also helps people feel like they can talk about things that are sensitive to them and that they can bring their whole selves to work.”

:: 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.

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.

Blast from the past: four decades of visits from Bernese Mountain dogs

Since 1985, Leslie has been bringing his Bernese Mountain dogs to the hospice. The friendly giants have been ever present, from the early days of the children’s day centre to the development of our Centre for Awareness and Response to End of Life (CARE).

One of them, Dusty, even featured in our Oral History Project with this photo from many years ago where he was pulling children in a cart. While he’s no longer with us, Leslie’s fifth Bernese Mountain dog, also called Dusty, continues the work of his namesake.

Therapy Dog 1980s
The original Dusty pulling children in a cart at the hospice in the 1980s

The therapy dog visits the hospice once a week and particularly enjoys venturing up to the wards, spreading joy along the way.

“It’s heartwarming to see people smile, even when they are unwell,” says Leslie. “Dusty’s greetings never fail to bring a smile to their faces.”

Therapy Dog 2023
Leslie and Dusty at the hospice in 2023

Leslie originally got Dusty [1] as a puppy for his late wife, who received care from St Christopher’s. “The hospice truly lifted her spirits,” reflects Leslie.

Therapy dogs like Dusty play a vital role in providing emotional support and enhancing the wellbeing of those they visit. Their presence helps alleviate stress, anxiety, and feelings of loneliness.

We’re delighted to welcome them when we can!

:::: 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. To find out more about our The Voices That Shaped Us oral history exhibition, click here.

Loss and Legacy in our community

Do you find it hard to talk about grief or loss, or your feelings about death? Or have you perhaps had a time when you didn’t ask someone who was grieving how they were and regretted it later? None of that is unusual. But at St Christopher’s Centre For Awareness and Response to End of Life (CARE), we’re trying to shift that.

Many of us didn’t learn about bereavement, grief and loss at school or get the opportunity to contemplate a loss, either for ourselves or with others. This can make it harder for us to understand what is happening to ourselves or someone experiencing a loss, its impacts and what might be expected during this time. Is grief finite? Am I going to feel this way forever?

Photo by Rachel Manns

And have you ever made an excuse about how you felt rather than tell someone the truth – I’m sad – because you didn’t want to make them sad too or risk being judged? Have you been unsettled by how lonely grief feels, especially if you feel like people are avoiding talking to you?

Equally, this can be a problem when we are considering how to support someone who is grieving. It can feel so difficult that sometimes it’s easier just to say nothing rather than risk ‘getting it wrong’.
Palliative Care doctor, Dr Kathryn Mannix asks us to stop “bracing ourselves to do something difficult” and normalise talking about death and dying. Only then, can we support each other through the full diversity of experiences of grief and loss.

That’s why at St Christopher’s CARE, we’re working to help members of the public and the local community to explore the concepts around loss and to understand more about them together. Our Community Learning programme offers ‘Loss and Legacy’ courses to members of the public which explore different aspects of bereavement, loss and grief, and how they might make us feel.

These Community Learning courses use peer learning principles: we all have knowledge, experience and wisdom to share. Between us all we can help each other understand more about death and loss, working with a facilitator who also has a personal experience of the area.

It’s reassuring to know others also struggle with so many aspects of loss and grief

Our aim is that in doing so, we create opportunities that are often missing from public settings:
the opportunity to reflect on and learn about something that is a key part of everyone’s life and human existence. And often this gives people the opportunity to come to terms with things and recognise that we have confidence and knowledge ourselves, which may also help us now and in the future.

Our Community Learning Facilitators work with volunteers to facilitate the courses. When people have the opportunity just to sit and listen to each other, and talk about loss, things change and it starts to feel far more normal for them. People often join with the idea they’ll listen to others and pick up new knowledge, but actually it stimulates them to start to share and help others too. And other attendees have shared that the method helps them accept the idea that loss is part of life.

One attendee said “It was helpful to discuss experiences and hear about the experiences of others. I have a better understanding of different experiences and ways of dealing with loss.” While another shared, “It’s reassuring to know others also struggle with so many aspects of loss and grief.’”

Last year, the UK’s Commission on Bereavement launched eight principles for change for how we as a society can more sensitively and confidently respond to grief and loss so that everybody has support if and when they want and need it. They state that bereavement is “everybody’s business”.

We agree. Working with our community and the knowledge they have to share with one another, we are helping people be more confident and comfortable when talking to each other about death, dying and loss. We are always seeking people from our communities who would like to share their experiences and help others learn. Do get in touch on to find out how to get involved.

:: 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.

Second Hand September

Second hand September

Ever since St Christopher’s opened its first store back in the 1980s, our ever-expanding selection of outlets (we have over 20 now) have been at the forefront of the sustainability agenda – helping shoppers breathe new life into their unwanted items, while clothing them and furnishing their homes with quality pre-loved outfits and household objects. We really do like to see ourselves as champions for change and this September we’re looking to motivate as many people as possible to join us as we celebrate Second Hand September

At the end of a summer in which most of Europe (if not the UK!!) baked in abnormally high temperatures and suffered terrifying fires, none of us should need reminding of the urgent need to look at how we can all do our bit to protect the environment and do more for the planet.

Oxfam started the Second Hand September campaign in 2019, encouraging us all to do a one-month shopping detox – to buy no new items of clothing for the 30 days of September. When you think that the fashion industry produces 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions every year (that’s ten percent of ALL global greenhouse gas emissions) and that 11 million items of clothing end up in landfill every week, you can see why now is the time to act!

According to Oxfam, if everyone in the UK took part in Second Hand September the country would save the same volume of emissions as flying a plane around the world 900 times. In 2022, more than 26,000 actively engage in the campaign – only buying second hand clothes for the whole month. That’s a lot, but we reckon there’s potential for South Londoners to make a massive difference.

Maybe think about it as like Dry January for shopaholics, but way more fun!

Half a million of you visited our stores in 2022, breathing new life into 1.2 million items, so we’re starting from a good place. 

When shopping app Vinted asked people last year how they felt about switching away from new, a third said many of their favourite outfits were pre-loved while one in five said they felt more confident wearing second hand. Knowing they were doing something good for the planet meant half felt less guilty shopping this way. So, not only does it do good, but it feels good too.

UK charity shops keep 339,000 tonnes of textiles out of landfill or incineration each year – that’s equivalent to the weight of 27,000 double decker buses – almost four times more than the total fleet driving around London. Everyone who shops in one of our stores is contributing to that. And, during September, you can engage your family and friends in this more conscious shopping behaviour too. The range and quality of clothes we have in our stores is incredible – they really will be pleasantly surprised.

It’s always easier to take a new path when the steps along the way are marked out – so here are four for you to follow to help you really own Second Hand September.

Re-connect – stop and think about how your clothing is made – all the resources that go into it and whether you need to buy new.

Re-wear – Once you’ve bought you’re pre-loved clothing – take pride in wearing those outfits again and again.

Re-purpose – for those wardrobe items that have really had their day, learn how to repurpose them and use the fabric to make something entirely new and if you’re not super smart with a needle and thread find your local textile bank or give it us to recycle. It’ll be sent off to be made into an entirely new item of clothing.

Re-place – Operate a one in, one out policy. So, every time you come shopping in one of our stores, come armed with an item you’re no longer going to wear but which you’d like to donate – the higher quality the better.

Sustainable Heart

Work to these four principles during September and you’ll be kicking off the autumn in stylish, sustainable fashion.

Sustainable Heart

If you’re a charity shop newbie – no problem. Staff and volunteers in all our stores will be delighted to welcome you and you won’t miss the Second Hand September window displays.

We’ll also be going big on social media. Do share photos of you in your favourite Second Hand outfits – there will be prizes, in the form of St Christopher’s retail vouchers, for the best.

Together, we can all be Champions for Change – starting this September.

Why become a champion of the Global Palliative Nursing Network?

Back in June Marie Cooper shared the news about our new Global Palliative Nursing Network. The first event happened on 11 July and the network is going strong. In this blog Heather Richardson outlines a super opportunity to be a Network Champion!

In December 2019 a number of us met in London to work up some ideas for a new global programme of learning for leaders in palliative care from low- and middle-income countries. We envisaged a relatively small group of around 40 non-clinical leaders, meeting in India the following February drawing on the learning of the Institute of Palliative Medicine in Kerala with support from St Christopher’s.

Heather Richardson 2020

Four years later a thriving global fellowship is in place with a current cohort of learners of 200+ and an alumnus of at least 400 people. Many of the individual learners have become major change agents in their local area/region and are making a real difference through innovative service development, education and training, community connections and policy change. They remain in contact with other members of the Fellowship, share stories of success and challenge, contribute to the next Fellowship programme by acting as a mentor or teaching as part of the faculty.

You may be wondering why I am telling a story of participants on the Fellowship when this is all about a new network for nurses. Well, I have learnt so much about how to create sustainable and significant change through the Fellowship and the way it works. Most importantly, I think we could draw on some valuable principles to guide the way we develop our new network.

1. Invest always in the next generation of leaders

Right from the beginning Suresh, Libby and I were looking out for the participants who were interested to continue to participate in the Fellowship as mentors or teachers. They have created new capacity, they bring energy and commitment to the ambitions of the programme and a freshness to the learning that other participants really value. We want to do the same in the network.

Our invitation to you: Come and become a champion to be part of that next generation of leaders

2. Spend time building the capability and confidence of these new leaders right from the start

They are often already very gifted and interested but they may not know how good they are or where some small changes to their approach and practice could increase their impact significantly.  We are keen to invest in our champions by helping them be strong leaders, networkers, mentors and teachers.

Our invitation to you: Consider signing up for that development opportunity as a champion

3. Create a community of which they can be a part

So many of the outstanding pioneers on the Fellowship were professionally lonely and isolated in their efforts. They didn’t get feedback when they did something amazing; they weren’t supported in their efforts to do something really challenging and most of the time they were planning and implementing their ideas without reference to others with comparable experience. Being part of a community that cares can change that and we are keen to create that for the new champions. We don’t need or want everyone to be the same in the community; in fact we welcome difference. We would love this community to be rich and vibrant – drawing in nurses from different regions in the world, different specialties and different contexts of care.

Our invitation to you: Consider joining the community if you enjoy learning with others, supporting their efforts and sharing your own challenges and opportunities

To apply to become a champion email

Click here to join the Global Palliative Nursing Network.

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