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A satisfying cuppa in a safe, supportive space: how friendship can ease the burden of bereavement

When Michael’s wife Eileen died two and a half years ago, his world collapsed. 

“My wife and I were married for 59 years,” he says. “People say your best friend is your wife, and she was mine. We did everything together; went everywhere together. Holidays – even shopping. When she passed away it was like losing one of my arms. She was my world, and I still miss her to bits.”

Michael knew he needed some form of counselling – to talk to someone about his feelings, and find an outlet for his grief. But, after enquiring with various charities and services, he found it was going to take months to be seen.

Then, serendipity stepped in. Because, as it happened, Michael’s daughter-in-law lived next to Jill – a volunteer at ellenor. On top of providing palliative and end of life care for patients with life-limiting illnesses, ellenor also supports the families of patients in a range of ways. Among these are bereavement support, counselling, chaplaincy and befrienders, as well as music, play, and complementary therapy.

 For an 82-year-old man who’d just lost his best friend and life partner, it was a lifeline.

So, one Thursday morning, Michael headed down to the Glentworth Ex-Service Club on Lowfield Street to attend one of ellenor’s support groups, called ‘Bereavement Cuppas’.

With weekly or monthly dates – and venues across Dartford, Swanley, and Gravesend – Bereavement Cuppas allow people living with grief to come together over a hot drink. To share their experiences in a safe, supportive environment, and do so with people charting a similar course through grief.

“Initially, I didn’t fancy coming into a group,” Michael admits. “It didn’t appeal to me – I did it for my daughter-in-law. But coming down to ellenor was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.

“As soon as I walked through that door, Jackie took me to one side and I just bawled my eyes out. I said sorry, and she replied that we don’t use that word here. We’re all amongst friends, she said – and, if you want to have a cry, you can. That put me at ease, and then she introduced me to the group. From then on, I haven’t looked back.”

Along with ellenor’s Walk and Talk support group – a bimonthly 5.3-mile stroll with other people living with grief – Bereavement Cuppas provide an inclusive, welcoming atmosphere. Attendees can open up about their lost loved one and their experience of grief, or they can simply enjoy the company of others. Which, as Michael explains, is crucial.

“You lose your Mum, your Dad, your friends: so you’re no stranger to grief. But for me, the passing of my wife was nothing like I’d ever experienced before. To open that door and walk into an empty house; to get home and not have her there to talk to; it’s devastating. That’s the problem – you’re on your own. And when you’re sitting at home, alone, grieving? It’s not doing any good.

“At the Bereavement Cuppas, you’re not alone.”

One of the main reasons for this, Michael adds, is ellenor’s staff.

“The staff there – Jackie, Jill, Rebecca, – create such a safe, supportive environment where we always feel welcome and included. It’s hard, actually, to put into words what they do; the lengths they go to help other people.

“Take Rebecca, for instance. She was bereaved herself a few months ago. But that woman came down here and was still listening to other people’s problems; still supporting us all. It takes a very strong person to be able to do what she’s doing, and not show her grief.”

Thursday mornings soon became a staple of Michael’s calendar, as the Bereavement Cuppas began to transform his experience of grief. So, when Sheila – the wife of Michael’s old friend Brian – died, Michael reached out.

“At first, I didn’t want to come”, Brian says, “because I’d be reminded of my wife’s death. I didn’t want to talk about it, or be involved in any conversations that would take me down that path. But I’m glad I did – it was the best thing I’ve ever done.

“Now, I realise that talking about the person you’ve lost helps you remember all the good times you had together. The holidays you went on; the presents you gave; the laughter and the love.”

Michael agrees. “Recently, I took an album with more than 100 pictures in it to the group. That album brought so many memories back, and that helped – even the process of putting it together helped. Remembering the person you loved is still a hardship – but it’s the most important thing you can do.

“When you talk about them – those husbands and wives and brothers and sisters – it gives the sense that they’re still here. That comfort; that relief. I can’t put it into words how much it means to us – without ellenor, we’d definitely be in a much darker place.”

Two and a half years on, Michael and Brian’s Bereavement Cuppa group is more close-knit than ever. They now meet twice a week, and communicate regularly via a WhatsApp group. They get together one Sunday a month to have lunch, and have even been on boat trips. It’s a group of people who became friends. And a group of friends who became family.

Yet if it wasn’t for a stroke of fortune, neither Michael or Brian would have known about the Bereavement Cuppa at all. Prior to discovering more about the range of services on offer, ellenor would still, to Michael, be simply the name of a charity shop he occasionally popped into for a jigsaw puzzle.

“I don’t think people know about ellenor, or realise what it is; what it does. That it’s here to help people, and that, to participate in the Bereavement Cuppa, it’s free. They’re not asking for money – just for you to go and get the support you need.

It should be publicised that there is a place there for people – for you. Don’t wait months to speak to someone. If you’ve been bereaved, get in touch with ellenor – it’s a lifeline.”

Are you grieving the loss of a loved one? Come and meet others on a similar journey, in a safe, supportive space near you. No need to book – just turn up.

Dartford: Glentworth Ex-Service Club, 10-12am every Thursday.

Gravesend: ellenor hospice, Coldharbour Road, 7pm-9pm every Thursday.

Swanley: Swanley Link, 10am-12pm third Saturday of every month.