“I believe we are saving lives”

Sandra Smith
Sandra Smith

Recently I’ve had the honour of visiting many small charities across London, all doing incredible work with almost no resources. I’ve been trying to tell their stories. One of them has just been published. As an experiment, I thought I’d paste the full text here. I reckon it’s a 5-minute read.


“I believe we are saving lives”

Suddenly, Marie’s hands begin to shake. The tears fill her eyes. Matilda gets up from her chair, walks over to Marie, and puts an arm around her shoulder. “You’ll be all right with us,” she says. “We’re all in the same boat.”

The ‘boat’ these two elderly Londoners are in is the crippling grief that can follow the death of a loved one. Marie had been talking about her husband, Ernie. He died on September 5, 2015, after nine weeks in St Joseph’s, a local hospice. Ernie had bowel cancer.

“I talk to him every morning,” Marie continues eventually. “I get out of bed and I kiss his urn.” For the two months since her husband died, bed has been the sofa downstairs. She can no longer sleep in the bed they used to share.

The tears just now were caused by anger. Marie feels that Ernie’s doctor missed the signs of cancer, that four months of maybe life-saving treatment were lost. “Sometimes I feel I could kill him,” she says of the doctor. “I could go round there and smash his windows.”

Matilda reassures Marie that it’s ok to feel angry. She talks about her own husband, who dropped dead in the street. Pauline, sitting across from them both, has been there too. Her husband died in an operating theatre, during surgery that was meant to be straightforward. Bill lost his wife. Leon is grieving for his mum. Everyone in the room has felt the same pain.

It was to help grieving people like the ones chatting over tea and cake this morning that Sandra Smith and her friend Olive Brade opened The Bereavement Drop in Centre in Plaistow, in 2011.

Olive and Sandra first came to know each other in an online forum for widows under 50. Olive’s husband, Ashton, died of cancer in 2005. Sandra’s husband, Martin, took his own life two years later. When the two women realised they lived near each other, they moved from online chat to real-world coffee.

“We got so much comfort from each other,” says Sandra. “There was nothing else out there. No counselling. No help. We realised that if it’s working for us, it must work for other people too.” So with no experience of doing anything like it, they decided to open a centre where grieving people could find support.

It took a year to find a suitable space and nine months to get it into shape. In a mid-terrace building rented from T Cribb & Sons, a local funeral directors, they offer one-to-one and peer-group counselling, a range of practical complementary therapies, and drop-in sessions where anyone can stop for tea and a chat. They organise social events too: a Pie & Mash dinner, a talent competition. Today, everyone is excited about a trip to the West End, to see the Christmas lights.

The centre has helped over 500 grieving people so far. Some are referred by their local doctor. Others, like Marie, have dropped in while passing – the location is handy, directly opposite the entrance to The East London Cemetery & Crematorium.

They find ways to cope with the problems that can follow loss – the anxiety, stress, sleep deprivation, anger, and depression. And they find the comfort of spending time with people who know what crippling grief feels like.

“If you’ve been on the journey, you know. It’s a monster,” says Sandra. “This place works because people feel supported and they feel heard. They realise they are not going mad; they are in grief, they are bereaved.”

Sandra offers a tour of the building. The private counselling room has two armchairs facing each other, touching distance apart. A box of tissues on a side table, another box for donations.

A smaller room with a massage table smells of warm, herby oils. Massage can ease grief’s physical toll, explains Sandra. There used to be funding for treatments, but it’s gone now. Yet professional masseuse Annette, who’s here today, has stayed. She offers her skills for no payment. “When you see the difference it makes, you can’t not do it,” she says.

In the back garden it’s sunny. There’s a concrete patio, two blue picnic tables, a couple of benches next to a barbeque. Bill, who was one of the first people to use the centre, now looks after the garden. On the wall is a colourful mural he painted. “It’s better for him than tablets,” says Sandra.

Back in the lounge area, which is about the size of a dentist’s waiting room, the group is talking about bus routes, parking problems, the people who left them, how they would all have gladly swapped places. Bill is proudly showing off some seascapes he painted. Leon has made a collage of bus tickets that he found in the attic.

There are laughs and more tears as the conversation continues to flow between trivial topics and those that are heart-breaking. “This is how it works,” says Sandra over the chatter. “We can just let them get on with it.”

Marie says that in her mother’s day you wouldn’t need a centre like this to help you through a loss. “My Mum would have said ‘come in for a cup of tea’. But that doesn’t happen any more.”

Now when her neighbours see her pushing her wheeled tartan shopping basket along the street, “they get in their cars and drive away. You shut the door and think, nobody wants me.”

She has family, but it’s hard for them to understand what she’s going through. The bereavement centre is like an oasis. “I feel safe here,” Marie says. “It’s calm. This is more… oh, I can’t explain.”

It can be hard to find a way of talking about how you feel, about your loss, says Sandra. You want to get back to your old self, but that person has gone now. You have to find a way to become someone else.

When her husband died, “I felt like someone had cut my heart out,” says Sandra. Her daughters were worried about her opening a centre for grieving people. “They thought it would be all doom and gloom, that I should move on. But this is brilliant. A lot of people who come here are suicidal. They would rather die than carry on. We are trying to bring people back. I believe we are saving lives.”

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