good life, good death, good grief

Demystifying Death Awards 2023

Inspiring Community Shortlist - North Berwick Compassionate Community

Hello, this is Fiona and Deborah. We are volunteers and founding members of the North Berwick Compassionate Community. We thought you might be interested in our experience of creating a Compassionate Community. You might be thinking about creating your own Compassionate Community? If so we can share with you the development of our project, our successes and challenges. And we can also share all the things we had wished we had known before we started!

We had started in 2015 with annual events for Absent Friends week. The first event was a coffee morning showing the film ‘Seven Songs for a Long Life’ that explored the intimate lives of patients and staff at Strathcarron Hospice, and directed by Amy Hardie. It is an uplifting film and touched many of the people who attended. The film generated lots of discussion and we put ‘death café’ questions on the tables. But we didn’t call it a death café. I think at the time we were anxious about whether this would put people off attending. Over the next few years we continued to hold events. Our most successful event was when we included lots of local organisations in the day. The local choir sang appropriate songs. The local writing group wrote pieces and performed them for us. And the floral art group made a memory tree for people to hang the names of loved ones who had died.

In 2019 we became aware of the Truacanta Project and considered applying to be one of the five Compassionate Communities in Scotland. We were ambivalent about applying at first. Mostly concerned how much work it would involve and whether we had enough support. We decided to hold a public meeting before the annual Absent Friends event. We said that we wouldn’t go ahead if less than 30 people attended. And we were delighted (but wary!) when over 30 people helped us to create a vision for the project. We decided to have a ‘Big Conversation’ thread to have the conversations at local events as a way of increasing confidence about talking about death, dying and grief. The second thread was the ‘Support’ thread that would aim to offer support by local people to individuals and families who were facing a terminal diagnosis or bereavement. We were hesitant about offering support as volunteers to people at a vulnerable time in their lives. We were also anxious about managing the volunteers and disclosure and safe guarding etc.

We were delighted to be chosen as one of the Compassionate Communities. And then along came COVID and lockdowns……

After our initial concern about how we could proceed we developed regular ‘Armchair chats’ on Zoom. Each online event has a theme linked to the ‘Compassionate Community’ ethos. Our events have grown creatively, with live, ‘light’ music, poetry readings and book excerpts from authors. The aim was to support live speaker discussion on some of the issues associated with death, dying, grief and loneliness. Engaging with the community during COVID required us to think creatively on how to sensitively have Big Conversations during a national and global crisis. We found combining the conversation with uplifting activities such as music and poetry worked well. Between 25-40 people signed up for each session. We also had a book group at Fringe by the Sea. This all culminated in a Big Conversation event at our local Fringe by the Sea with Kathryn Mannix and Richard Holloway and attended by over 130 people. As the format of a singer and music worked for our zoom events we felt it was important to include singer at the big event. One of the most touching moments was when the BSL signer for people who are deaf signed and danced to the music. It was one of the most beautiful things we have ever experienced. We also learned that day the importance of the ripples of conversations that can occur after such an event. People want to share their stories.

The support thread of the project has been more challenging. We partnered with St Columba’s Hospice to create a group of Compassionate Neighbours for North Berwick. We provided the EASE (End of Life Aid Skills for Everyone) course locally. We now have three EASE volunteer facilitators and we have delivered the course to over 75 people. We run the course twice a year.

In 2022 we collaborated with a local organisation North Berwick Coastal Community Connections to employ a paid coordinator for ten hours a week to develop the Compassionate Neighbours locally. Piggy backing on other organisations has been one way that local volunteers can further develop the support part of the work. We have had many successes during this time and have supported four people and families at the end of life. It was such an honour to walk alongside at this time of their lives.

There has been lots of learning through this process and initially we thought we could have a local Compassionate Neighbour programme but have now decided to stay with St Columba’s Hospice, as part of their team of Compassionate Neighbours. To develop a local service takes time, networking, support and more time is required. We will continue with the local conversation events. Our hunch is that our local community requires more time to develop confidence to support people. Many of the people who undertook the EASE training were more interested in developing skills to support their own families and friends. We have learned and value more the benefits of the ‘small conversations’ that can enhance people’s confidence and resilience.

Our learning is that it takes many baby steps and we do remind ourselves of why we believe this work is important. Death and dying and grief are probably one of the last social taboo, so it takes a lot resilience to keep going. At the same time it is life affirming and the ‘small conversations’ feel so important.

Read about the other Demystifying Death Award nominees here: Demystifying Death Awards Blogs

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