By Jo Moulton
What can be more powerful than a charity born out of a personal event? An event so hard, that for the luckiest among us, our worst encounter with it will be a brief but mere imagining of it.
So, imagine, if you will, what happened to Alison.
Alison lost her brother Pete to suicide ten years ago when he was just 24. In her words:
Pete Wicks was just 24 when he took his own life. He had no history of mental illness and gave no indication that he was suffering. He was popular in his home town in Cornwall, had loads of friends and had a family that loved him dearly. We will never understand why he did what he did. We feel the impact of his loss every single day.
On the day that Alison went to identify his body, she decided to mount a charity effort to raise money, so she could thank the Search and Rescue Team that found him. That event, a bike ride from Land’s End to Twickenham, raised enough funds to buy a brand new Land Rover and was the start of a series of fundraising events for various charities, one of which being Exeter based ‘Balloons’, who helped her children deal with their bereavement at the time. Her drive, determination and energy had a name -Pete’s Dragons.
After four years, Alison realised that her supporters, her Dragons, were, in her own words, ‘here to stay’ and so made the decision to enter charitable status, gaining trustees and a full calendar of projects directly helping those bereaved by suicide in Devon and Cornwall.
Today they offer a range of support including practical advice, financial assistance, hampers designed to share a feeling of understanding, and a long list of services that can be called upon when offering their bespoke bereavement service, tailored specifically to individual’s needs. Needs based on an experience of shock, trauma and distress, often coupled with shame, guilt and stigma.
Suicide Bereavement has been described as “grief with the volume turned up”, its effects on families, communities and society as a whole are devastating and tragic.
As a county, a nation even, we are all too aware of the public-facing difficulties our communities are currently facing due to the coronavirus outbreak. We hear stories of people’s struggles with the supply of food and medicine, social isolation, even their mental health, and those things are, of course, valid, important and life altering. But what about those difficulties that are considered more private, personal, internal even?
Grief is a fragile thing. That’s why the work the Dragons do is so important. They establish an intimacy with their clients, a trust that is born at the most difficult and harrowing time of a person’s life often. It’s a two-way relationship that now has the coronavirus slap, bang in the middle of it. Not only does that make interaction hard, but it also adds vastly to the need for that relationship.
We spoke to Alison at Pete’s Dragons at the very offset of the outbreak, and she was already putting measures in place to minimise the interruption to their services as much as that was possible.
“We are offering increased contact to a level of their [client’s] choice, using a variety of technology to ensure that they have somewhere that they can discuss their worries and concerns in a confidential nature and also continue through their grief uninterrupted. We very much hope to be a constant source of security and comfort to them.”
An effort that we, at Devon Community Foundation were able to support, with a grant from our Devon Coronavirus Response and Recovery Fund.
They’d told us:
“We are finding that our beneficiaries in conjunction with their grief, trauma, distress, and isolation are now also scared, increasingly vulnerable, lonely and have gone backwards in their grief journey. We know that their immune systems can be affected by grief and trauma which could put them at increased risk of the virus. The issue at hand is keeping those people bereaved by suicide safe in an unprecedented situation.”
With funding of £3,864 from our emergency fund, Pete’s Dragons are currently able to extend the hours of operation for their Suicide Liaison Officers (SLO’s). They told us:
“Our SLO’s are carrying a caseload of approx 70 cases each, an average of 210 individuals of all ages being supported directly (which makes 630 approx overall).
“We are seeing an increase in demand from our current beneficiaries and need to have the capacity to cope with new referrals throughout this period.
“We expect demand for SLO contact to go up to daily in most cases as the pandemic continues.
“We need extra capacity during this period to keep our beneficiaries safe and well.”
Pete’s Dragons are continuing to be the backbone of support that their clients have come to rely on, including those that may be at risk of taking their own life. A service that is both a tribute to the compassion of Alison and her team and a lifeline to her clients, but also an extension to our NHS and emergency services, because they are easing a possible impact on them too.
At present, we know little about how or when this pandemic, its immediate impact or even its after-effects, will end. What Pete’s Dragons know for sure is that they will be in need of further financial support when their current loan runs out.
“After consulting with colleagues in the suicide prevention/bereavement field sees general consensus that suicide rates may level/decrease in the early weeks of the pandemic due to it’s distracting nature meaning less new referrals. The likely longer term impact of numerous COVID-19 deaths, loss of jobs and businesses etc indicates the wake of the pandemic could have quite the opposite effect. However it is important to state that nobody actually knows what the impacts will be but the increase in hours will most likely need to be maintained throughout Response and Recovery.”
Which is why our appeal for more funds stays strong, and will need do so throughout both our current ‘Response’ phase of funding and our later ‘Recovery’ that comes after.
Alison and her team sent us lovely words of thanks that we would like to extend to everyone who has supported our fund so far. Please let’s keep the momentum going. We’d appreciate it enormously, if you’d give, if you can.
“Thank you all so much. You are simply amazing and we are astounded at the speed with which you have helped us and made a HUGE difference to our beneficiaries and how we are able to support them. You have also given the team who are working in very hard and worrying times a real boost. We genuinely cannot thank you enough.”