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 www.colingray.net

Heaven and Hull from “The Parents” by Colin Gray http://www.colingray.net

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.  www.toabsentfriends.org.uk

Who would care for your pet if you weren’t around?

At the Scottish SPCA, we care for every kind of animal, including those who sadly find themselves without a home when their owner passes away.

Giving owners peace of mind that their pets will be looked after should they outlive them.

Giving owners peace of mind that their pets will be looked after should they outlive them.

We understand how important pets are to their owners and that their love, loyalty and companionship make them part of the family.

Indeed, pets are often the only family many people have. We also appreciate how incredibly upsetting it can be for people living on their own to think there is no one to care for their pet when they’re gone.

That’s why we offer our free Forever Care service. Through Forever Care we’re able to give owners peace of mind that their pets will be looked after should they outlive them.
Signing up to Forever Care means that, if the worst happens, we will look after your pet and do all we can to find them a loving new home. We’ll look after them in our rescue and rehoming centres and must stress that we never put a healthy animal to sleep.

Recently, an elderly lady who had signed up to Forever Care sadly passed away, leaving behind her jack russell terrier named Mr Tosh.

We took Mr Tosh in and looked after him until we found him a new home. We’re sure Mr Tosh’s previous owner took comfort knowing we would find someone who would love and care for her beloved pet as she had.

It’s quick and easy to sign up to Forever Care. It’s also entirely free. You don’t have to leave a donation to the Scottish SPCA.

Our information pack has everything you need to know about our service. All you have to do is complete a short form and send it back to us in the freepost envelope we’ll provide.
While we ask for the most important information about pets such as their name and their age, some owners also provide extra details, such as their pet’s nickname or favourite food. It’s great to know these things as they can help a pet settle into their new home.

We always advise anyone signing up to Forever Care to ensure their next of kin or anyone else close to them is aware of their wishes for their pet. Everyone who signs up will be sent a Forever Care card to let people know they wish to use our service.

Last year we rehomed a staggering 6,248 animals to loving homes and we have rescue and rehoming centres throughout Scotland.

We’re proud to be able to give pet owners reassurance that their animals will be okay even after they’re gone. If you’d like more information about our Forever Care service, please call 03000 999 999 (option 4) or email forever@scottishspca.org.

Chief Superintendent Mike Flynn
Scottish SPCA

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.