To Absent Friends, a people’s festival of storytelling and remembrance

Guest blogger Mark Hazelwood, CEO of the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care, introduces a new festival.

I’ve some great memories of my friend Helen, who I knew for 30 years and who died earlier this year.  I remember her giggle, her passion for improving the probation service and the time we did an overnight bus trip from Mysore to Bangalore.

To Absent Friends

All of us, except the very young, have memories of people who have died and who remain important to us.  For many people there comes a time when the relationships we have with those who have died outnumber those we have with the living.

People often have their own private ways of remembering people who have died, but in general in Scottish culture, public acknowledgement of the importance of the relationships we have with the dead is very limited.  The exception is Remembrance Day, but of course most people don’t die as a result of military service.

In Mexico every year in November they mark El Dia Los Muertos – Mexican day of the dead.  These two days are dedicated to remembering family and friends who have died.  Graves are tidied and decorated, special meals are prepared, and people remember, respect and celebrate those who have died.

Historically Scotland used to have equivalent traditions.  In pre-Christian times we had Samhain, a November festival during which places were laid at the meal table, to remember and honour dead ancestors.  There are elements of Samhain in the subsequent Christian festivals of All Souls and All Saints, as well as in Halloween.  But with the decline of organized religion and the explosion of hyper-commercialised trick or treating something important and valuable has surely been lost.

Our current culture of silence contributes to the isolation which many people who are recently bereaved say they experience. It is part of a wider silence about death, which can be a barrier to planning and preparing for the inevitable and a barrier to supporting each other.

So if are old ways of doing things are in decline, but there is still a deep human need to remember the dead, what is to be done?

A new festival will take place in Scotland this year from 1st -7th  November – a people’s festival of storytelling and remembrance, called To Absent Friends.  The festival will be an opportunity for people to remember dead loved ones and tell stories about people who’ve died.  It will provide an excuse to build upon the emergent creativity which can already be witnessed in phenomena such as sponsored events in memory of dead loved ones, Facebook and twitter tributes when someone dies, and the growth in personalised and individualised funerals.

To Absent Friends is unprescriptive and completely open to individual interpretation.   It is not an awareness week. It is not a fundraiser.  It is not corporately owned.  It will happen among friends, families and communities – people can mark the occasion – or not – in whatever way works for them.  Participation might be private and individual, for example lighting a candle at home.  It may be private but collective, for example attending a themed concert and thinking private memories.  It may be individual and public, for example posting on an online wall of remembrance or it might be public and collective, for example cooking together with friends and family what was granny’s favourite recipe.

Peacock Tree

The signs are that the festival has struck a chord and we are aware of numerous and varied events being enthusiastically planned.  For example, on the Isle of Lewis, over 60s groups are getting together to do artwork, sing songs, eat traditional food and tell stories of people in the community who have died over the years.  Residents, family and staff at the Peacock Nursing home in Livingston are creating a Remembrance Tree. Wigtown cake

Glasgow University is holding a “remembrance café” for their student nurses. A 20 foot Memorial Wall will be fixed on the famous town railings of the broadest town square in Scotland in Wigtown and there will be free tea and cake afterwards.

As well as grass roots activities such as these the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care has teamed up with arts organisations to deliver some bigger events which will help to raise the national profile of the festival.  The Royal Scottish National Orchestra are playing a concert in Glasgow. In Edinburgh there will be a lunchtime organ recital in the Usher Hall.

Usher Hall

Together with the Luminate Festival To Absent Friends brings an exhibition by photographer Colin Gray.  And story teller Margot Henderson will be telling tales of Absent Friends as part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival.

Heaven and Hull from "The Parents" by Colin Gray

Heaven and Hull from “The Parents” by Colin Gray

It is not too late to be in right at the start of something!  Please have a look round the To Absent Friends website.    Have a look at the events, at the ideas and suggestions.  See if anything strikes a chord.  Tell us your own ideas.

What becomes of the carer?

As a carer, losing the one you are supporting can be a double pain of bereavement and redundancy. Here, guest blogger Christine Rae opens up about her experiences.

Why am I writing this piece about caring?   The reason is simple – because when I became an accidental carer for my Mum I couldn’t find the information I needed to do the task effectively. With hindsight I suspect it was available, but just not in one place, and the conversations I had with others in similar situations seemed to bear this out. This article illustrates my experience and it acknowledges my gratitude for all the help I got from those people who time and again rescued me from the mire.

Christine Rae

Christine Rae

To me there are two types of carer, visible and invisible. The visible ones are easily recognised, generally wear a uniform and have had some specific training to equip them for their caring role. Invisible carers on the other hand, have in most cases had no training at all, relying on a combination of love, basic instinct, resourcefulness and sheer good luck to enable them to look after their loved one, and are recognized only by their relationship to the person they care for.

I’d hear people saying things like, “Caring is a steep learning curve.”  “It’s a strain sometimes, but what’s the alternative?” “A warped sense of humour helps!” “One day I’ll remember all the laughter we shared, then I’ll feel sad and guilty.” “Mustn’t complain.”   “I love him but I get so tired.” “Where’s the five minutes I promised myself?” “It’s very isolating.”

And what becomes of the carer after their loved one dies? There is the immediate pain and grief, the keeping up appearances in public, the eventual rebuilding of some kind of lifestyle, and superficially at least, they look as if they are managing, coping, doing OK. It is the same problem again. They have loved and cared for their relative, in many cases for years, and have suddenly been deprived of that ability. They are suffering the double pain of bereavement and redundancy, and as a result of a loss of purpose and focus, need help and support to rebuild their sense of self-worth once more.

I found that the most important thing was admitting to myself that I was feeling vulnerable and letting other people help me. Don’t feel guilty about accepting it, they would not offer if they didn’t want to become part of your life. Let your guard down, open yourself up and let the world back in. It won’t flood in, it will only come in as quickly as you need it to, and one day the person doing the helping and supporting will be you, the no longer redundant carer.


This is a ‘Soapbox’ article from our Advantage Magazine (p25). Soapbox columns do not necessarily reflect Age Scotland’s views or policies. To submit an article call Advantage on 0845 833 0200 or email

.. it seemed such a simple thing to do

Deborah Cunningham is part of a growing UK-wide team of volunteer Silver Line Friends, who are delivering weekly befriending calls to lonely and isolated older people around the country. Deborah speaks regularly to Sue* in Scotland and here she describes how the relationship is bringing enjoyment to both their lives.

senior woman on phoneI have a new friend in my life. Like most friends we talk regularly, know quite a lot about each other and have shared a few laughs. But we have never met or chatted over a cup of tea and probably never will, yet both of us are quite happy with the situation. I look forward to our weekly telephone conversations and always (or usually) come away cheered. You see, Sue and I are Silver Line friends, part of Esther Rantzen’s fledgling initiative to combat loneliness and isolation amongst older people.

A few months ago we each put ourselves forward as interested in taking part, with some trepidation no doubt, but also with hope. I signed up after reading that weekly telephone calls were making a difference to the lives of older people who felt lonely, isolated or disconnected from those around them – it seemed such a simple thing to do. Sue got involved a few months after her husband died. She had done her best to get on with life – she met friends, volunteered in charity shops, started learning a language, went to an exercise class and is even contemplating getting to grips with computers! But none of this changes the fractured way she feels inside or the need she has to talk about that and the life she shared with her husband. So she contacted Silver Line Scotland, who suggested a telephone befriender.

We were paired up and now chat once a week for about half an hour about anything and everything; what has happened since we last spoke, funny little events, our families, what has been on the television and, yes, how fractured and irrelevant Sue often feels without her husband, how physically painful that loss is, how she does not want to burden her friends and family with her sadness, how I should cherish my husband and children, how I think she is entitled to feel the way she does, how a year alone is nothing after more than fifty years together, how she could sell snow to the eskimos given her sales success in the charity shops, how she makes me laugh, how I think she has lots to offer those around her.

The more I get to know Sue, the more brave and remarkable I think she is. She is entitled to her sadness but she also deserves some relief from it. I can’t take her grief away because I can’t bring Pete* back but I can hope to provide a little bit of a respite. I can also hope that in the future someone will be happy to do the same for me.

If you’re interested in being a Silver Line Friend like Deborah you can find out more on our website.

The Silver Line is a UK-wide helpline. Within Scotland, the Silver Line and Age Scotland work in partnership to deliver Silver Line Scotland. Whether you’re after information and advice, or looking for a chat, you can call 24-hours a day on 0800 4 70 80 90.

*names have been changed.


Going it alone

How life can change in a split second! One minute a wife the next, a widow. Sally Curtis gives us to a few suggestions on how to “deal with” the new widow.

Sally on her wedding day

Sally on her wedding day

The death, sudden or otherwise, of a partner is a shock to put it mildly. In my case, although “OH” had heart problems for many years, I didn’t expect that morning just over a year ago to wake up to the sound of him hitting the bathroom floor; by the time I got there he was dead, and from that moment life took on a completely different direction.

For the next few days I was on auto and became extraordinarily high, presumably the result of the shock. Wonderful friends held the fort until the family gradually arrived from far and wide, as did the messages of condolence, phone calls and flowers – hundreds of them – so many that the house resembled a flower shop, all of which was very comforting. Neighbours, friends and family were all so supportive but gradually, as time passes, you have to go it alone and “alone” is not a place I would choose to be.

A few suggestions on how to “deal with” the new widow (from my perspective of course!)

1. Do talk to her – do not cross the road, she won’t bite – if she bursts into tears, that’s normal so don’t be embarrassed. Do not be surprised if she laughs hysterically – it’s all part of the grieving process.

2. Flowers/messages of support/bottles of wine/champagne etc. are more than welcome, but perhaps consider that it may be nice to send some of them a week or so after the funeral once the family have gone, the house is empty and quiet apart from the grieving widow, all the other flowers have died and bottles of wine have been consumed by dipsomaniac daughters.

3. When you suggest a lunch/coffee/dinner party please do go ahead and arrange it. There is nothing worse than an event being suggested which doesn’t materialise. Remember, the widow is suddenly completely and utterly alone and yearns for human contact – especially at weekends.

4. If you offer to cut down the creeper at the front of the house/move a load of logs/fix the broken back gate – please do it; although this widow can manage most things it is lovely to have an offer of help and it can be bit of a let-down if she has to do it anyway.

5. Don’t imagine that she has “got over it” after a few months have gone by. She hasn’t. If you are passing the house, please ring the bell and call in for a chat. Include her in visits to the pub or to the cinema or just for a walk to the park and back.

6. Be patient, understanding and encouraging. It’s almost like reverting to childhood when you need to be told what to do.

The year has now passed and all the “firsts” have been got through – birthdays, anniversary, Christmas, death and I can no longer say “this time last year we were…” Grief is a strange visitor: we all have to face it at some point in our lives and will all cope in our own particular way and have different expectations. The future looks bleak one day and optimistic the next, but life will certainly never ever be the same again.

Sally Curtis

Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief

Guest blogger Derek Blues, Policy Manager with the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care, wants us all to talk a bit more about dying.

Good life cartoon

Death is normal. We can all help each other with death, dying and bereavement.
Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief is a growing national alliance of over 600 organisations and individuals working to make Scotland a place where there is more openness about death, dying and bereavement so that:

• People are aware of ways to live with death, dying and bereavement
• People feel better equipped to support each other through the difficult times that can come with death, dying and bereavement

It is never too early to think about planning ahead for illness and death – making plans when you’re healthy means there is less to think about if you get sick.

Why is thinking about this a good thing? 

One of the normal reactions of members in society is to say that it’s never the right time to think about death but lots of unnecessary harm is caused because people in Scotland are not open about death, dying and bereavement.  For example:

  • People who are dying or bereaved can experience isolation because people don’t know what to say or how to act towards them
  • People die without wills, leaving complicated situations for their families and friends
  • Health care professionals struggle to have conversations with their patients about what care or treatments they want as they approach death. This makes it hard to plan the care that a person really wants
  • If the fact that someone is dying is not acknowledged then opportunities to resolve issues and say goodbye may be missed

What can be done to help?

Taking a few simple steps can go a long way to helping avoid these harms. For example, individuals could:

  • Make a will
  • Arrange a power of attorney
  • Ask their partner if he/she wants to do a power of attorney
  • Bring up their children in a way which doesn’t hide death
  • Allow their ageing parents/partner to tell them about their worries and preferences for care
  • Say goodbye to the people they love or who care about them
  • Be willing to listen to and talk to their neighbours or colleagues if they are experiencing difficult times related to death, dying or bereavement 
  • Discuss with their GP the sort of care they would prefer towards the end of their life

If you are interested in finding out more about the work of the national alliance Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief, please sign up on the website to access their free resources.