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Better to have loved and lost

18 April 2019

After his own father’s death, Simon Bray began a photographic project: he interviews the bereaved, and they revisit locations of their snapshots of themselves with those they grieve for


Simon and his father, Peter

Simon and his father, Peter


WHEN as a 22-year old I lost my dad, I really didn’t have much frame of reference for loss — how to process it or talk about it. Lots of my peers weren’t sure how to start a conversation about it, either. I don’t hold that against them at all: who wants to talk about death unless you have to?

As a photographer, restaging an old photograph felt like an obvious way to visually represent loss, but what I hadn’t appreciated at the start of the project was how powerful all the other elements of the process would be.

The photographs are a way in: they give the participants an opportunity to look through old albums, and a reason to return to a specific location — both of which are charged with memories. Going back to that place offers a full sensory experience. That opens up the opportunity to talk to me, a stranger.

When grieving, people want to know that we’re coping, but, really, what we want to talk about is the person who is gone.

This photo is of me and Dad, near the back door of the house that I grew up in, in a village called South Wonston near Winchester. It was taken by my nan.

If Dad was at home and the sun was up, he was in the garden working. He worked really hard to provide financially for the family, which gave my mum the freedom to work part time as a music teacher and train to be a minister.

It was very tricky, actually, to see him unable to help himself, but he was very strong throughout the whole thing. The night before he died, he told us to make sure we all put our faith into action. It was a phrase which no one had ever heard him say before, but literally lying there, in hospital, last half an hour of his life, he was saying, this is the one thing you need to do, put your faith into action; and that’s something that will stick with me for ever.

I can choose to believe that God is building everything together for my good. In some ways, losing my dad, in a strange way, makes me believe that even more. Even the fact that I feel able to do a project like this, helping people think about things, have conversations — there’s no way I would be doing this unless I’d lost my dad.

Working and editing other people’s stories can be exhausting at times, but it’s given me a depth of understanding about loss which I certainly didn’t have before. It’s encouraged an empathy for others, but also a greater understanding of how to look after myself. I lost my younger sister last year to brain cancer, and it still doesn’t feel real. I can’t make any sense of it, and I’ve had to try and comprehend my faith in the midst of it all, searching for the things that I can lean on.

I think that the Church has a significant part to play. Death is something we talk about a lot — not necessarily directly, but as an underlying theme of our faith, which we need to ensure relates to our direct experiences of loss.

There are also so many rituals that are associated with loss, which faith plays a big part in, but I’m worried that we are losing lots of them — those ways of acknowledging death and asking those bigger questions. Bereavement is a confusing time, but individuals need to feel supported to do the things that help them remember and celebrate a person: allowing ourselves permission to make those physical actions, returning to a place, looking through belongings, and then having conversations about the experience.

Our confidence about talking about death and loss needs to spread beyond the walls of the church into our social settings and relationships. We can be the ones to demonstrate that these aspects of life that can feel huge, overwhelming, and incomprehensible can be talked about in cafés, on the bus, or wherever it is that you interact with others.



LOVED&LOSTCheryl and her son, Macsen

THE original photograph is of me and my son Macsen, and it’s in a place in Pembrokeshire called Lawrenny Quay, which is the most amazing place, and not many people know about it.

Macs was a very warm, loving little boy, and a massive fan of hugging everybody, actually. So, the photograph was my husband, Paul, saying, “Give your mum a cuddle,” and that was it. Because we’d taken that one and loved the photo, we recreated it probably about a year to 18 months later, where he’s a little more reluctant, and a little bit bigger, but still a very warm cuddly little boy.

Because we used to spend so much time down here, it got really difficult after we lost Macs to be brave enough to come back.

Macs had bright orange hair — bright orange. Orange is a very significant thing for us. We picked up on it a lot. I’m not a spiritual or religious person in any shape or form, but it’s something that we can still connect with, particularly with the children as well. So, even now, we’ll still buy orange flowers for the house, and anyone who knows me really well will buy me little things in orange. It’s not necessarily spoken about very much: it’s a quiet acknowledgement that’s around.

Macs had quite an old head on his shoulders; he was extremely thoughtful and very kind. He was really funny, and also quite a geek; so, even now, I’m finding tins about the place, where he would have collected shiny looking stones. All through his diagnosis of leukaemia, and his bone-marrow transplants, we and the doctors asked a lot of him, and he was really actually uncomplaining and stoic.

He was a solstice baby. I came across Snowdon Walks. They were doing a walk; so you’d start walking up Snowdon about midnight on the 20th, and get there for dawn. So a group of friends and I decided we were going to do it together. When we got to the top, it’s bizarre, but, hand on heart, there was an orange-hued rainbow at the top.

This year, even five years on, it’s hit me worse than it ever has, I think, because I put it in a box for such a long time, and put a lid on it. It was triggered this year, and the lid came off. I’ve been speaking to a psychologist who’s made sense of it all, and made me see that, even five years down the line, it doesn’t matter, because there’s no formula to it all. I suppose it’ll just always come and go. I don’t think I’m ever supposed to get over it. I wouldn’t want to. I think that’s the wrong word; I needed help to live with it, to live with the loss.

We had a humanist ceremony for him, and he’s buried in a natural burial ground as well. I wanted him, because he was so interested in nature and everything else, to be somewhere where the children that were left wouldn’t feel intimidated by, or think of as a depressing place.

I think, earlier on in the year, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it [take the photograph], but I do feel like I’m coming out of a fog, somehow. I want the memories of him to be talked about. I don’t want to avoid it any more, and, as hard as it may be, we all miss that person.



LOVED&LOSTDarren and his brother, Craig

THE photo was taken on a family walk. There’s this stile that I’m sat on with my brother Craig.

We hung around and did a lot of stuff together all the time, really. Where we lived, we had a wood behind our house; so we’d always play in the garden or go through the wood on to the park behind. We shared a bedroom, for a while, for a long time; so, yeah, we were very close.

You can get a bit tagged with the clichés, can’t you? “The nicest person who’s always smiling” — and he did smile a lot, and was very positive. He worked as a joiner; he got an apprenticeship with the council, which was much sought-after, and then he started working for a window firm. Those last couple of years when he was working, he got himself into a position where he was almost living the dream.

If he was my son, I’d be chuffed to bits with him, thinking, “Ah, yeah, he’s on the right path.”

I think the really tough thing, for us — for me, but for everybody — was that it was sudden: we didn’t expect it. I’m sure people have had a shared experience, but I went through a period of time where it was so shocking that I almost felt like it wasn’t real. Weeks and weeks after, I seriously thought I’d wake up and it hadn’t happened.

I got frustrated with how close we are as human beings. I just thought: it’s so rotten that we are so close that we have to deal with this parting, I thought it was wrong. I thought f*** you, mother nature, you know!

We go to the grave. That’s at the church that my family is associated with. He used to be a bell-ringer as well, because my dad rings the bells. Soon after he died, I used to go there every Friday.

But now — and it’s the saddest thing — I do look back at that time and think, we were still quite close then, but you do move on, and, in a way, you don’t want to, because I think about him now on odd occasions.

We had one of our friends who organised a get-together at the pub when it was the ten-year anniversary; so we came up for that, and just drank Guinness all afternoon, because that was the drink we both got on to at the time.

I found the most healing in talking to someone who’d never met him. When I’ve moved jobs, I’ve felt it’s this thing that I’m hiding. It’s like I want them to know that I had a brother, but he’s died, and they can say, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and that’s it. It’s important to me, that. I don’t know why it is, it’s just important that people know. Maybe it’ll come less and less as time goes on.



LOVED&LOSTJonny and his fiancée, Sophie

THE original picture I took was one of several. I think we maybe even have 20 or 30 photos from different times that we went to that place. Its just next to the Thames, in front of a collection of houseboats. It’s where we first started falling in love, really; so a lot of conversations that we’d had there; so it’s got a real intense quality to it.

I spent quite a long time journalling after losing Sophie. For me, it really helped to process some of what I was going through, to get all of these very intense feelings out on to a page. I had a real urge to try and understand what had happened, and to try and get across how much she meant to me, and how honoured I’d felt to have been with her for those three years.

She was so full of energy and this luminous, charismatic presence: she charmed everyone she was in contact with. She also had this remarkable capacity for empathy, and to be there for her friends.

She was diagnosed with bipolar in her twenties. I think depression, and, in particular, bipolar, is really poorly understood by the majority of the population, and even doctors. Being seen as someone with bipolar has this stigma attached to it. So I think in the beginning she found it quite hard.

Initially, I wanted to try and fix things, try to be useful and try to make it better, but I think, over time, I just learnt to try and hold space for her, to just be there for her and remind her that she was loved, and that this was just a bad storm that was coming and that at some point soon she’d feel good again. It felt to me very much like her brain was hijacked.

When she was in that state of anxiety, she believed two things, really: she believed that she was being a burden to myself and to her family; and that it was never going to get better. She didn’t see that it was going to improve, and so the tragic and false conclusion that she came to was that it would be better for everyone else if she took her own life, and because she was this very stubborn and very driven person, she carried it out before anyone else could intervene.

Almost inevitably, following suicide, there is always going to be, in my experience, questions of “What if?” guilt. I can imagine why that stops a lot of people from talking about it, because it’s not only very painful, but there can be a lot of shame associated with it. What I’m thinking at the moment is that, whenever something is in the dark like that, I think it can start to fester, and if you’re able to talk about things, shine a light on them and be curious, then they tend to lose their grip on you.

I knew that I had a tendency to maybe not feel my emotions as much, maybe it’s being British as well, something about our DNA, unfortunately; so I ended up doing a Vipassana, a ten-day meditation retreat, which is a silent retreat.

Lots of people say when you lose someone, “You’re being really strong,” “Stay strong,” and to me it was almost the opposite — you need to learn how to not tense up, surrender into the obliterating pain, and let it completely break you. Once I’d allowed myself to feel it, it kinds of turned a little bit and became more a sense of tenderness.

I think talking about death in our culture and society is so rare. It’s really unusual to have honest conversations about death generally and losing people that are close to you. Intellectually, we all know that at some point we’re going to die and those close to us are going to die, but it really doesn’t hit home emotionally, on a visceral level, until you go through something like this, or at least it didn’t for me. I think that, along with the shittiness of that process and how devastating it is, there’s also an awareness of not only how short our lives are, but also what matters at the end of it all, as well.

I don’t know what the future holds; but I know that I’ll always carry Sophie’s spirit and energy with me, and I want to try and spend as much time in nature, which is where I feel closest to her, and live in a way that would make her proud, if she was here to see it.


Manchester Cathedral will be exhibiting “Loved & Lost” until 27 April. For more stories, photographs, and filmed interviews, visit www.lovedandlostproject.co.uk.

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