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Interview: Jane Oundjian, bereavement specialist

19 March 2021

‘We’re not pulling people out of the ditch: we’re getting down into the ditch and sitting with them’

I retired a couple of years ago from leading the Bereavement Journey, a series of supportive talks for bereaved people and small groups, at HTB [Holy Trinity, Brompton, in London]. I developed it 25 years ago as a live event group at HTB — the first of the family-life courses that developed subsequently.

It’s two short talks and two small-group experiences for five evenings, with group leaders and facilitators. I very much believe in small-group experience for people who don’t want or can’t afford one-to-one counselling.

Other churches were asking for transcripts of the talks, and the guest manuals for each participants; so we helped equip and train other churches to run the course. Eventually, we added an optional sixth evening talking about faith, because I believed this was a great evangelistic tool, and lots of people came to it because they’d made friends with the people in their group.

I’m a trustee of AtaLoss.org, a secular charity formed to help bereaved people find support. It directs all those who are bereaved through a bespoke website to helplines, services and resources that are right for them.

During the pandemic, the Bereavement Journey has been easily adapted to Zoom, and I was asked to support the team who facilitate the groups. It’s worked very well, and now, through the joint-church project Loss and HOPE, it is being used by churches throughout the UK.

Though it’s disastrous, the pandemic has presented churches with an opportunity to serve their communities.

Church leaders sometimes find there’s a big gap between their expertise and the bereavement experience of most people. They often say that our courses reveal they really didn’t understand what grieving people are going through. We all hold Christian hope, but there’s a moment where we have to be with people in the mess and darkness of where they are, and not try to move them out.

Thousands of Christians who come to our courses say the hardest place is church. You’ve got very tough questions to answer in any bereavement, and some are especially hard. Without faith, you can say, “That’s just how life is.” If you’re a Christian, how do you reconcile how you feel with the proclamation of a loving God? We need to acknowledge the silence and darkness of Holy Saturday.

We’re not pulling people out of the ditch: we’re getting down into the ditch and sitting with them until they see a glimmer of light to move forward. People do move forward, but they need time, patience, and acceptance. They pick up on the good things surprisingly quickly, and very few go through real hardship saying that they wish they were the person they were before.

Thousands are feeling abandoned because of being separated from someone at death, or the restricted funerals during the pandemic, or not being able to attend the funeral at all. Wearing mourning was abandoned in the First World War because the losses were overwhelming. I think that is what we’re experiencing now. Many are suffering, and feeling inadequate for suffering, knowing that so many others are going through the same grief.

The death of my mother when I was a teenager, and the death of our first son, aged 14 months, made me feel very passionate about bereavement care, and that it should be available for all. I trained 25 years ago as a counsellor with Westminster Pastoral Foundation, and worked for Cruse in North Kensington, providing one-to-one bereavement support.

My mother died in 1964, and it was the time when you buckled up and got on. No one cried for my mother; so I supposed I shouldn’t either. No one at school mentioned it, though I’d been living alone with my mother up till then. I retreated into myself, like a stuffed Victorian animal under a glass bell-jar. My teenage years were pretty miserable after that, and I married when I was 20. I was so relieved to have someone to take care of me and take control of my life.

It took us nine years to have our first child, and, at 14 months, he died of a viral infection to the gut in four days. The incredible difference was that we were recommended counselling immediately. My husband had a complete breakdown, but we were given support from a counsellor every week. Much later, when we had three more children, I decided to train as a counsellor, but it was only when I started at Cruse that I understood why I was there, and the difference that counselling could make.

My childhood was blissful, as far as I was concerned, until I was 12. I spent all day outside running free and up trees. Then my father left the family, and so we lost our family home and garden. Shortly after that, my mother became ill, and so things became less carefree.

Nick and I had a transformational experience when we returned from living abroad to West Sussex, after the sudden death of our son. The local vicar, who didn’t know us, came to visit and spoke about the wind of the Spirit. I understood very little about what he was saying, but it sowed a seed.

I’d say my experience is quite typical of bereaved people. Bereavement is a very disturbing experience that causes us to rethink life and our purpose, and if churches reach out to people to support them in their grief, it can very often lead to them finding faith and becoming part of the life of the church.

A couple of years later, we moved back to London, and had another child. A friend took us to Holy Trinity, Brompton, and I realised, as we started going there, that I couldn’t sit on the fence any longer. What they were teaching was either madness or true.

When my mother died, I inherited half of her little cottage; so that was really home. We lived in Switzerland, and then in Paris and London, but holidays were always there. Fifteen years ago, my husband retired, and I’ve created a wonderful, rather wild, garden here in Sussex. Caring for that and walking on the beach are two of my greatest pleasures.

My happiest times are when we’re having people sitting round our long kitchen table to share a meal, and walking in the countryside with a dog.

I used to have a private pilot’s licence, and I dream of a flight in the twin-seated Spitfire that is kept at an airfield near here. I learned to fly because I became so frightened of flying that I couldn’t bear to get in an aeroplane any more; so I needed to understand how it all worked. That was 45 years ago, and I’ve been passionate about it ever since. It cured the problem. I’m planning to go wing-walking on a Tiger Moth for my 80th birthday — though my husband is unhappy about that.

Professionally, I feel angry when those who have been bereaved are told to “get over it”, or pull themselves together, usually pretty soon after the death of a loved one. In daily life, it’s the amount of litter that people throw out of their cars as they drive along, with no thought for those who must pick it up.

The resilience and reliability of nature and creation give me hope. The sun and moon rise and set every day, and bare trees withstand storms in winter, and they always burst forth into bud in spring.

I pray for the people I love to have life to the full, in spite of their challenges, and also for the Church to regain its place at the centre of the life of this country.

I’d pick Henri Nouwen to be my companion if I was locked in a church for a few hours. I’ve learned so much from his writing, and he’d be a gentle, empathetic, and inspirational person to converse with.


Jane Oundjian was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.



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