Many years ago at my grandfather’s funeral, we played a CD of Enya that he’d enjoyed on a family trip back to his homeland Scotland.  I cannot hear Enya to this day without feeling an ache of connection with Scotland’s rugged landscape, mixed with the pain of disconnection at his loss.

One of the pieces that most haunts me from that album, contains the following lyrics –

“I hear the real, though far-off hymn, 

That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife

I hear its music ringing,

It sounds an echo in my soul,

How can I keep from singing?

To me that final line speaks of the moment we recognise life within our grief. Death may have taken someone from us and yet here we stand beside the space; numb, anguished, destroyed, relieved, raw but somehow… still alive. In my experience, it is in that moment, that all we are and hope to be comes together and we are flooded with the energy of being.

For me, the sentiment of Enya’s lyrics speaks of that moment. Through all the upheaval and pain of death, how can we keep from opening our hearts to joy? 

Those lyrics resonated with me again a few years back when I came across a TEDx talk by Dr Kim Bateman entitled ‘Singing over Bones.’ In the talk, Dr Bateman encourages us to consider how we can honour loved ones who have died by creating rituals to celebrate their life.

She found inspiration in legends from the desert states of America and Mexico which speak of La Loba – the Wolf Woman. La Loba gathers up the bones of animals from the desert floor and sings over them to bring a new creature into being.

Dr Bateman facilitates workshops that help people find ways to ‘sing over the bones’ of loved ones we have lost, recognising that –

          “When we lose a loved one, we still love.”

She tells the story of a little girl whose mother died of breast cancer, who sets out a cup and saucer for her at tea party’s because ‘Mama loved tea!’ And the woman who was moved at finding single gloves lost around her neighbourhood after her husband died, who now collects them to hang on trees in her garden.

But these rituals are about more than just comfort and remembrance. In honouring another’s life and death we are also honouring our own. We are not only singing over the bones of the dead but singing out the music of our heart as it says for now I am alive. I want to live, I want to be.

“We have to do this – we have to gather the bones

 and reconstruct them because we have to author our loved ones story

and at the same time author our own.” 

The rituals I choose to honour my Granddad are simple ones. I buy a poppy for Remembrance Sunday, dig the garden, feed the birds, shell runner beans, tell his stories.  Father’s Day – the day he died – will always be his day.

As I reconnect with him, I connect with a part of myself and with my own timeline as it stretches from the past into the future. His story is a part of my story. When I sing, I do not hold back.


Click here to watch Dr Bateman’s TEDx talk. The following steps to help you honour a loved one by ‘singing over their bones’ are adapted from her talk.

“So what of this singing over bones? How can you do this in your own life? …  Start with the great drum of your own heart and let that be your guide.”

  1. Ask yourself – what brought your loved one great joy?
  2. Think about the physicality of your loved one. Were they small like a bird or tall like a giraffe? What music did they like to move to?
  3. When you were with your loved one, how did they make you feel? Was it like climbing into a comfortable chair or a rollercoaster ride?
  4. What did they feel strongly about?

“Try to incorporate all of these into your own ritual. Sit in the greatest place of love and sing over their bones. Sing up new life for our loved ones and for ourselves too.”



Soaring with grief…

Recently I was trying to describe to someone why I think it’s important for our society to be more open in talking about death and dying. I described my desire to bring wholeness to life’s circle of births and unions by helping to make death just as natural a part of our thoughts and conversations.

I used terms like ‘normalise’ and ‘day to day.’ However something about the idea of that fell flat for me and I wondered why. I realised it’s because, although grief has brought me a lot of pain and sorrow over the years, it’s been a very precious experience too that’s been anything but ordinary.

For one, it’s given me a bittersweet sense of the world which I’ve often expressed through poetry. Whatever the results might read like to a literary pair of eyes, the creation of that poetry has been a touching and beautiful process I would not have foregone. To imagine normalising that experience or making it routine is missing something vitally important – which feels like more than just an irony given the subject matter.

It reminded me of some feedback I once received about one of my poems, the theme of which was flying. A kind reviewer described the way the words take the reader flying along beside the writer until a couple of clunky lines at the end bring both back down to earth.

‘Before that, you ‘soar with poem – and who wants to come down?’

Sometimes I have soared in my grief – been touched by the cold biting wind of it as much as by its numbing chill. But in the feeling and rawness of that bite I have come alive. And who wants to come down from life?

I do still, very much, want to help take some of the fear and loneliness away from the experience of grief if I can, by making it a topic people do not shy away from talking or hearing about.

But I also now strongly believe we should leave space within loss and bereavement to soar – so that we can also appreciate the heights and depths and poetry which encountering death can bring us closer to.

* * *

Paragliding at Annecy 4/9/2010


The breeze that whistles past, the view

Of lake and cloud and hill and coloured hue

In time suspended, captured on the wing

The human birds in flight and glory sing.


Gestures to the wing tip, tweaks and turns

Now grace again that on the beat returns.

Down, down then up but always down,

So must the birds return to level ground.

Clearing the decks…

It seems a strange time of year to be spring cleaning and yet that’s exactly what I’ve found myself doing. Pulling out old clothes and books to go to the charity shop, getting right into nooks and crannies to clean…

There’s been a sense of wanting to clear the decks ready to make way for something new. I’ve wondered how that links with setting up Dust2Dust but of course it makes sense.

Earlier in the year I explored my grief in detail for the first time, really drilled down into it. It was a difficult period, not only in relieving some of the experiences which have impacted upon me but in trying to understand them. Finally I realised I couldn’t. Certainly not in a cognitive, ‘now this makes sense’ sort of a way. But in the doing of that work I reached a different conclusion – acceptance.

Acceptance of death, acceptance of loss, acceptance of all the pain… That reminds me of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s important but misinterpreted stages of grief * with acceptance as the final stage of the journey after denial, anger, bargaining and depression.

But for me the destination is different. I’m not stopping there. Something else is happening. As I’ve been sorting and tidying I’ve realised what. I’m preparing – literally getting my house in order ready to receive in the new.

Because in the acceptance and processing of my grief, I’ve changed. I feel renewed and reinvigorated, ready for action – motivated by the loneliness and struggle I faced to hopefully make it a little easier for others.

I didn’t feel able to talk about my grief and so it stayed inside, locked away. I know there are a lot of others out there who feel the same way. Now I want to talk – in part because I want to honour my personal journey and those that I’ve lost. But also because in doing so, I hope I’ll be able to unlock some of the doors that prevent other people from talking too.

I wonder how many people reading this will resonate with that? If you do, read on. Hopefully you will find here plenty of inspirations and resources for your own journey so that together we might clear the path for a new way of being that allows for more openness and hopefully more acceptance.

* * *

* Elisabeth Kübler-Ross formulated her five stage model of dying after listening to terminally ill patients talk about coming to the end of their life. These testimonies formed the basis of her 1969 book On Death and Dying. She went on to adapt the model for those who have been bereaved, as her 2005 book On Grief and Grieving sets out.

The five stage model provides a helpful tool for illustrating some of the emotions related to loss but can be unhelpful if seen as a rigid step by step process. Unfortunately, the model has often been misinterpreted in this way although that was never her intention. Whatever the model can teach us, perhaps Kübler-Ross’s most important lesson was that we listen to the thoughts and feelings of those who have come close to death – ourselves included.

“Live, so you do not have to look back and say: “God, how I have wasted my life.”

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Death: The Final Stage of Growth, 1975

Death is for life… Not just for Halloween

Over the last few weeks I’ve noticed an abundance of death related events popping up across my neighbourhood and on social media. As well as the usual nightclubs offering Halloween fancy dress specials, I’ve seen everything from a Day of the Dead film festival to a life-less drawing class and zombie bike ride.

Of course, my suspicion is it’s just another way for companies to cash in on a seasonal theme.  However my hope is it demonstrates a return towards more enlightened times when we can be more open in talking about death because it wasn’t always such a challenging topic of conversation.

Halloween began as Samhain – the old Pagan Feast of the Dead. It was believed to be a time when the spirits of the dead could re-join the living and was an important way of remembering and celebrating the lives of those that had died. When the Christians adopted and relabelled it All Hallows Eve as the vigil pre-ceding All Saints Day and All Souls Day, it kept some of its older associations with honouring lost loved ones. In some Catholic countries like Mexico, that special association morphed again with indigenous beliefs into el dia de los muertos – the Day of the Dead.

Nowadays, we in the Western world can find it very difficult to express our grief openly. There can be a lot of pressure to accept the death and ‘let go’ of the person who has died. So what changed?

We know the Victorians observed strict codes of dress and conduct during mourning, but even these rituals gradually fell away until by the 1960’s, the subject of death had become taboo.

Since then the likes of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Colin Murray Parkes and Dame Cicely Saunders have begun the important work of understanding the reality of how we experience death and dying, and there’s been a shift again towards recognising the importance of openness in how we communicate about it.

Despite this, those conversations can still often be uncomfortable. I’ve chosen this special time of year to begin Dust2Dust, as a way of expressing my belief that greater openness is vital in helping to break down the barriers people can still face when someone dies or as they come to prepare for their own death. Barriers which can make an already painful and difficult time, even more fearful and lonely.

Through Dust2Dust and in the wider world, I’m hoping to make death a part of our everyday conversations and inspirations. I’d like to invite you to join me so that together we can try and change some of the ghoulish connotations and fearfulness it conjurs up.

Because I believe death is for life, not just for Halloween. That through greater openness and understanding, an awareness of death can lead to transformation and celebration by reminding us our existence is finite but even more precious and worth celebrating because of it – even after the pumpkins and fake cobwebs have been packed away.

* * *

On Monday 3rd November you’ll find me at the Dying Matters Day of the Dead conference in London. Dying Matters is an umbrella coalition of organisations which aim to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement and make plans for the end of life.