Solidarity is a shoulder to cry on: Bereaved parents are finding comfort in a project that opens its arms to all who need it. Barbara Rowlands reports

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Counselling teams have already started to help families, friends and classmates to cope with the shock of the deaths of 12 children and a teacher in last week's M40 crash.

It is the type of situation that the Orchard Project in Newcastle upon Tyne, which specialises in bereavement, is prepared for; but it prefers to move in later, when the numbness caused by sudden loss has died away.

''This time next year it won't be news any more,' says project worker Joan Forrest. 'But those people will still be in terrible pain with a lot of private grief they won't feel able to be public about. This place is for letting go, for feeling OK when you have to put on a mask for the rest of the world.'

The Orchard Project, funded by Barnardo's, runs bereavement groups for young people who have lost children and partners through illness, accident, suicide or even murder. It is the only one in the country in which children, parents and grandparents are all catered for.

There are groups for young widows and widowers bringing up children on their own - one for those at home and another for those in employment - a group for older people who, because of the untimely death of a child, are looking after a grandchild, and one for teenagers who have lost a parent. Groups are created in response to local needs.

'Most people are widowed in their fifties or sixties and many bereavement groups become less user-friendly for young people,' says Mrs Forrest. 'There's a vast difference between losing your partner in your twenties and in your sixties.'

Ninety-five per cent of women and 89 per cent of men die over the age of 55, so few groups cater for the needs of those widowed in their twenties or thirties, or for parents whose children have died.

Cruse largely deals with the over-55s, although it does counsel younger people individually. The Compassionate Friends deals with parents who have lost a child - whatever the age of that child.

Martyn Hughes, now 38, lost his wife through leukaemia seven years ago. When he approached a local widows and widowers club, he was turned away. 'These two men got hold of my arms and said: 'You're not wanted here.' I told them I had lost my wife and they said I was too young. That was horrible, really horrible.

'After my wife died, I felt lonely, empty. I used to get into drunken states and would reach for anything - cigarettes, drink - thinking it would help. Of course it didn't.

'Aggression was my only fault as regards the kids. I'd shout at them. I was annoyed at the situation, annoyed that I was left by myself to look after them. I suppose the only people I could take it out on were those around me.'

Martyn eventually found the Orchard Project. 'You could get rid of your aggression there, if you needed to - and you could talk about it. It would have taken me a hell of a lot longer to come to terms with the loss of my wife had I not gone there.'

No topic of conversation was censored. 'One week we discussed sex and how we missed that side of life. I was 31 when my wife died and still young. At first I didn't miss it then, as time went on, I did miss the sex and felt bad about missing it. Everyone felt the same way. It was a subject we couldn't have talked about in an older group.'

In the young mothers' group are 24-year-old Jayne whose baby daughter, Marie, died of bronchial pneumonia last December; Sharon, 28, who lost her toddler, Norah, in a house fire in December; Ros, whose 17-month-old baby died of Reye's syndrome; Angela, 31, whose five-year-old boy, Paul, died because of a heart defect; Tracey, just 20, whose baby daughter, Chloe, was killed by her boyfriend in April 1992; and Angela, 29, whose baby, carried to full- term, was born dead.

They meet at Barnardo's on a Tuesday morning for a couple of hours. Their children are looked after by a care worker. Mrs Forrest sometimes talks to them individually and sits in on the sessions, but generally keeps a low profile.

'I don't like the word counselling,' she says. 'It smacks of navel-gazing. I think there's more wisdom in people themselves. The support and wisdom that is offered to individuals by the group is worth a million hours of counselling.'

Most clients attend for no more than a couple of years. Martyn, at first apprehensive about going, says the group he joined was like 'one big happy family'. He is now convinced that had it not been for the project he would have killed himself.

All participants draw strength from each other and, when friends grow intolerant of their grief, turn to each other. 'My friends at home don't know how I feel,' says Jayne. 'They don't want to know. When I start talking about it, they all shut up or start talking about something else. But when I come here, Sharon, Tracey - everyone in the group - knows how I feel, because we've all been through it. '

They talk freely about their lost children and their anger at that loss; their mistrust of the medical profession or the opposite sex; their need to get out of the house; and lack of money. In turns they laugh and cry in an environment that tolerates both in the space of a few minutes. They can show each other photographs, sketches and poems they have written for their dead children, knowing they will have an appreciative audience.

'The hardest thing was getting up the courage to go out without a pram,' says Ros. 'I felt as if everyone knew and was staring at me. Coming here eases the pain because you can talk about it - a load is taken off you.'

The women go round to each other's homes and out for meals. There are family nights at the Orchard Project - jewellery-making, beauty and make-up evenings for the teenage group and self-defence classes. There are trips to Lightwater Valley theme park or the seaside, visits to night-clubs and the traditional party at Christmas.

Such trips are not just about clubbing, escaping domesticity or picking up men. They are about having a good time in the company of women who have all experienced the same thing - the death of a child.

'Ostensibly, we have outings just for fun - but what goes on between them is when the sharing happens,' explains Mrs Forrest. 'It's very hard when you've been hammered into the ground by the most awful things that can possibly happen. So to find that not only is it possible to have fun, but that it's OK to, is very liberating.'

Mrs Forrest maintains that schemes such as the Orchard Project are needed in a world where death is taboo and society has forgotten its rituals. In Italy, you can weep over the interred bones of your spouse, which are taken out and unwrapped for you every year; in Britain the grief of a woman like Jayne, surrounded only by young friends with growing families, has a sell-by date stamped on it.

'We don't draw the curtains any more or wear black or raise our hats - if we had any - when a hearse goes by. These rituals might seem trivial, but they used to bring that feeling of togetherness. Now death and grief have been pushed underground and people just don't want to know.'

The Orchard Project, 091-281 5024; Cruse, 081-332 7227; The Compassionate Friends, 0272 539639.

(Photographs omitted)

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