25 year-old architecture student Joe Bass from Snodland, Kent, was just five when his mum died of cancer. It’s twenty years ago since he attended one of our bereavement weekends with his siblings. Although his memories from such a young age are hazy, his experience of grief and the support he received from HOLG continues to have a profound effect on him.
It’s inspired him to shape his career to help other children and young people coping with the death of a loved one:
“My mum, Melanie Bass – ‘Mel’ – was only 44 when she died on 18th July 2003. She had been diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in 1999, when I was one. She had chemotherapy and radiotherapy and went into remission, but in 2002, doctors found brain tumours and she was given a terminal diagnosis. She died 22 days after my 5th birthday and five days before my sister Rosie’s 10th birthday; my brother Sam was eight at the time.
“I think we noticed her getting ill. She lost her hair so I mostly remember it being short and grey but my siblings can remember her with long blonde hair. People told me she was sick but there was reassurance that she was fighting and was determined to get better; no one had really mentioned the possibility of her dying.”
“My most vivid memories of that period are my dad picking us up from a family friend’s house and taking us home to tell us that she had died. The permanence was tricky; I didn’t really understand what he meant. It was only when I saw her for the last time at the place of remembrance at the hospital that it really brought it home that she was gone. I remember some of the funeral too.
“After that, my memories are quite blank, but I do remember the bereavement weekend at Demelza House with Rosie and Sam. We went about three months after Mum died. I can see it like a series of film slides in my mind. One thing that stands out is the space; it was so light and bright with a really welcoming atmosphere.
“I knew we were going there to talk about Mum and that there would be other people there who had someone who had died. I remember playing in a sand pit with toy cars; it was really quite a fun time. We did a lot of art activities too; we made badges and threw clay at a wall. We also all held a web of string, which represented someone who’d died and you had to find someone whose person was similar to yours. It showed how we were all connected by grief. We snipped the string and that set the tone that this was a ‘clean slate’. We also put different coloured salt in a jar and layered it up, with each layer representing a different memory. We used to go to the beach with Mum a lot so for me, yellow was the sand.
“My brother and sister remember different things, like the music. Looking back, I can see that all the activities were tailored to help us express different emotions.”
Joe and his mum Mel
“We all went to the same school and I was in year one when she died. It was a very small school and everyone knew her so they all took her death quite hard. They announced her death in assembly, which upset my brother, but the teachers did try to give us lots of support, for example, they’d let you leave the classroom if you were upset and needed to cry. They also planted a memorial rose bush for her.
“It was hard because it was a big thing for our school but I didn’t want to be defined by it and have people walking on eggshells around me. As a child, you don’t want to be left out or favourited, but you’ve got a big weight around you.
“HOLG helps you to understand that you’re not alone in the process. When someone dies, you hear the same phrases from people – “She’s looking down on you”, “She would be so proud of you”- as well-meaning as they are, it’s hard for people to say anything that really matters.
“But being in a room with other children who are dealing with the same things as you feels a lot more personal and emotive. And HOLG made me feel so welcomed; they didn’t need to know my mum to be empathetic.
Above – Joe’s salt jar he created when he was 5, at his HOLG bereavement support weekend
A career-defining experience
“I’m now studying for my masters in architecture at the University of Sheffield. In my fifth-year design project I looked a lot at children, play and playgrounds, and how children experience spaces differently. It made me think back to my experience with HOLG, and how the light in the room really stuck with me. It made me contemplate the significance of environment for people who are grieving. So, for my dissertation, I’m exploring how a child centred approach to the design of bereavement spaces can aid in the process of healthy grieving in young children.
“Lots of bereavement spaces such as in hospitals or places of remembrance are centred towards adults; they’re either quite clinical, or tranquil, reflective and quiet spaces where you often sit alone. But children don’t experience grief like that; they process their emotions through playing and talking to people. I realised that many of these types of environments are just not tailored to children.
“Even school guides to bereavement advise taking a child to a quiet place, but there’s no mention of making it light and bright, or even private – children could find themselves in a large cupboard with no daylight, or a big hall where there is no privacy. Even small adaptations to a space can make a child feel they’ve been considered.
“For my research I’ve been interviewing the teams at HOLG and Demelza House, as well as at the professionals, volunteers and project architect at Alder Centre in Liverpool; it’s the first purpose-built bereavement centre in the UK and is part of the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, designed for bereaved parents. I wanted to look at how spaces can be made more appropriate for children who are grieving, and how it affects the grieving process.
“Demelza House and the Alder Centre feel like domestic spaces, as though you are in someone’s living room, which is a much more comfortable, familiar environment for a child. My memory of HOLG is that they adapted the space for the bereavement weekends to make it feel like this too: cosy and inviting. One thing I learnt from the interviews was the power of bringing a rug to a counselling session – it’s a really good way to create a boundary and define your own space that’s safe and comfortable. Architecture doesn’t have to be about shiny new buildings, it can be as simple as making small adaptations like this to make a child feel welcomed, safe and free to talk.
“Through my research, I’m looking to create a series of suggestions showing how to make spaces more appropriate for children: does it feel homely? Are there views to nature? Can they easily access the outside? It would be amazing if my ideas could contribute towards wider guidance and expand the debate on the significance of grieving spaces for children. My sister also commented that it’s a good way of honouring Mum’s memory and making the best of the experience.
“I’m doing better now; the main thing is time. It was a lot harder when I was younger; I felt there was more isolation in not having a mum and I always felt I was missing out. There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ now – mostly, I’d just love to sit and have a lunch or a conversation with her. People in the family bring up memories which is nice but my whole mental map of her is made up of others’ stories and things I’ve been told. On her birthdays, we visit the church and bring chrysanthemums, her favourite flowers. I used to write cards to her too but now I’ll sometimes go for a walk, look up and say hi to her. We had a special memorial flowerpot made this year for her 20th anniversary; it’s odd to think about how old she would be now.
“The advice I’d give to other people supporting someone who is bereaved is to listen; often they want to relate to you by talking about people they know who have died, but I think just listening is better. Everyone reacts differently to death so being supportive of their process is important. Just let them know you’re there, and for children just carry on doing normal things like playing with them. A lot of people are affected when someone dies; be there for them and share nice memories you have – it gets better.
“Looking back on my 5-year-old self, I’d say don’t be afraid to talk about Mum. It’s ok to miss her, it’s really painful but it’s ok to feel that.
“Grief support feels a bit like a postcode lottery. It’s shocking that there is not more universal help for children. It’s often up to the parent, carer or school and it can still feel like a taboo. HOLG does a fantastic job though; my siblings and I were all at different developmental stages, but they put so much work into tailoring their support towards the ages of the children, and the type of death they’ve experienced. It’s amazing just how much everyone involved in HOLG cares; doing these interviews with them has made me want to help bereaved children even more.”