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Surviving bereavement: a friend to those in need

27 October 2023

Abi May runs retreats to help people support the bereaved. Huw Spanner finds out more

Abi May

Abi May

ABI MAY was in her early twenties in 1982 when her son, Pax, died suddenly, aged three. “I was a young Christian, and I didn’t know how to handle my grief,” she says.

Her husband at the time was not supportive. Neither was her church. “I was literally told, ‘Don’t cry!’, which is a very harsh thing to say to a mother. It was very much the old-fashioned line: ‘He’s with the Lord now.’ I didn’t feel that, as a Christian, I should be expressing my grief; so I held it in.”

Then, in 2011, her other child took her own life at the age of 30. “Catherine was a lovely girl — smart, witty and very kind; but she had mental illness. I was completely devastated. I was not only grieving for her, I was finally grieving properly for Pax, and for the fact that I had no more children, and I would never have grandchildren. There were so many layers to my grief.”

Mrs May found that she could not continue going to her church, “because it was so upbeat. I couldn’t really understand how God had allowed this. Also, we had had the funeral there, and every time I went there I could visualise the coffin. It was just too much.”

Mrs May had counselling, and found it helpful; and became involved with Compassionate Friends, a national charity for bereaved parents, siblings, and grandparents. She also started going to an Anglican church for the first time, and found comfort in its rituals. “I found taking communion very helpful, because, at that point, the only thing I could really believe was that Jesus had died. There was nothing else I could hold on to.”

She began writing a journal, which turned into A Valley Journal: Surviving bereavement, published by a small publisher, Onwards and Upwards.

Mrs May started giving talks about the reality of grief. “I met somebody who ran retreats, and I said: ‘Would you like one on grief?’ It was a bit of an experiment, really, but people found it helpful.” She now runs several Living With Loss retreats a year; the next one takes place on 13-17 November at Lee Abbey, Devon (in the Beacon Centre).


“ALONG the way, I noticed how often those who are grieving have a general idea of how they need to cope, but it is the words and actions of others that make their grieving harder to bear.” This led towards the idea of helping individuals and churches to understand grief better, and to improve their support for those around them, with the online course “Grief Companion Training”.

Part one of the course consists of six 90-minute sessions on Zoom: living with loss (“the broad impact of bereavement”); expressions and experiences of grief; goals of grieving, and the duration of grief; continuing bonds of love; the language of grief; and walking alongside grief.

Part two has a similar structure, and covers “the many faces of grief — theirs and yours”; person-centred counselling, cognitive behaviour therapy, and grief support; “sitting with sadness”; secondary losses; reorientation and reconciliation; and a final session shaped by participants’ requests and earlier discussions.

The training, she says, seeks to help people to understand grief so that they can better support others who are grieving. “I’m very clear that this is not training to be a grief counsellor. I see grief companionship as a life skill. What grieving people need is kindness.”

On her retreats, she asks participants to put down words that express things that people have said or done that have helped them, and words that express things people have said or done that have made their grief harder to bear.

“Basically, I always get the same answers. People are helped by little things: a phone call, a text, a hug, being remembered on their wedding anniversary or their loved one’s birthday, someone taking their dog for a walk.”

On the other side, she says, are “the people who boss you, who think you should be getting over it, who think you should be ‘letting go’. Or else they ignore you.”

It is “shocking”, she says, how many people have told her that their friends or neighbours cross the street to avoid them, when they see them coming. “Or they go to church, and nobody will acknowledge what’s happened to them.”


SOME churches, also, are not good at handling grief, she says. “The kind of response I received when my son died was extreme, but, even to this day, the clichés, the platitudes! A dear friend lost her beloved sister to cancer in her forties. It was a couple of months before they could hold the funeral, and after it people came up to her and said, ‘Do you have closure now?’

“What does that even mean?”

In fact, she says, for someone who is bereaved, the funeral is not the end. “After the [committal], someone who has been widowed after 50 or 60 years may go home to an empty house. Some older people have never actually lived on their own before, and it can be frightening to be alone.”

The grief training is not specifically for believers, but the Living With Loss website says that it has “gentle Christian elements”. Mrs May gives an example: “A passage from the Bible that really struck me was the story of the death of Lazarus. Reading between the lines, it seems that his sisters, Mary and Martha, were quite stunned that Jesus let him die. But then there’s that very short verse: ‘Jesus wept.’

“In my earlier Christian life, I had been taught that he wept because he was distressed by their unbelief. No wonder I was messed up! Reading it again now, I realised that he wept because the people who weep with you, when you’re grieving, are the most comforting of all.”

Mrs May also refers to the death of Stephen (Acts 7.54-8:1), and the way his friends mourned him deeply, even though he had had a vision of heaven open, and the Son of Man standing at the right side of God. “It doesn’t matter if you believe absolutely that your loved one has gone to a better place. You still mourn their absence from your life in the here-and-now.”

Many of the people who have done the training have themselves recently been bereaved. “People who have had an experience of grief themselves relate very easily to what we talk about,” she says. “It becomes a little dual-purpose, where they’re coping with their own grief, and also thinking about other people.”


ONE such person is Canon Roger Knight, a retired priest of 82 who first encountered Mrs May in 2017, at Launde Abbey. “I had signed up for a retreat there because my wife had died the previous year,” he recalls.

Canon Roger Knight

Canon Knight had amassed a great deal of pastoral experience over 57 years of ministry, but he found the retreat helpful, both in dealing with his own loss and in helping him to work with other people who are bereaved. He even went to see the Warden to commend Mrs May, and wrote to his bishop to ask whether she might be involved in training clergy.

Canon Knight has since done the online course on being a grief companion. “In my small community, in a town of about 10,000 people, near Kettering, there’s a well-being café in the church which meets once a week. I and the others who run it with me, and the Rector, are now planning to set up a bereavement group. A lot of people who come are basically lonely, and often that’s related to grief.”

He also leads short walks locally, and has found that many of the people who join them want to share experiences of loss: “it might be the death of a loved one, but it might be a divorce, or the loss of an animal. There are many different forms of grief, of course,” he says.

“One of the essential lessons is that everybody’s grief is different. When you’re a companion to somebody, the one thing you don’t say is ‘I know how you feel.’”

Although he is due shortly to relinquish his permission to officiate as a priest, Canon Knight will continue with this pastoral work. “Not only is it valued,” he says, “but it’s also been a great help to me, in giving me a sense of purpose.”


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