Grown men cry too … handling grief in prison

* (Names of prisoners have been altered to preserve anonymity)

The man’s voice trembled as he read out a poem about Mum. He struggled to hold back tears as he spoke of how he missed her now she was gone. Across the group, another man was reacting. The reader stopped abruptly, went to the man now also crying, placed his hand on his shoulders and mumbled ‘I feel the same as you’. They stood for a moment, in united grief and understanding.

For two grown men to be able to support each other in this way may be unusual, but these were no ordinary people. Both were long-term prisoners, seen to be ‘hard’ men, prone to anger and violence. Any glimpse of vulnerability would be seen as a sign of weakness. Yet as they faced their inner feelings together, they received some kind of healing and peace.

As a prison chaplain, I met men withdrawing from drugs and alcohol, and questioned the origin of their addictions. I was taken aback to hear that it was often linked to bereavement and loss. ‘When my Nan died…’, ‘When my brother was killed in a bike accident…’, ‘When my best mate was killed in Afghanistan…’, ‘When my baby died in hospital…’ 

Whilst most people might be expected to come through such trauma with the understanding and support of others, many in prison come from such maladjusted and dysfunctional backgrounds, they find it impossible to cope with such circumstances. Consequently, they turn to drink or drugs which at least dulls the pain for a while.

Some of their bereavements are so shocking that few of us would come through such experiences unscathed. Cameron’s daughter spilt a bottle of perfume over herself and got set alight by a match.  She lived for three months and had endless skin grafts, but then died. Cameron was promised counselling, but there was a waiting list. He turned to drink. 

Simon found his mother dead on Valentine’s Day; she had taken an overdose and he blamed himself because he delayed visiting and could not save her. He turned to professional fighting and to body-building drugs. Mark lost his mother to cancer and his wife in a car accident, and several close friends and relatives in the same year. He was told by his doctor that he was the saddest person he had ever met, and he was found to be too depressed for counselling. He also turned to alcohol.

And death is not the only major loss that people experience; living bereavement when separated from a loved one may be equally distressing. Peter curled up on the floor in the Chapel in the foetal position, sobbing his heart out over the possibility that his little boy might be taken into care. Trevor had been living in a detached house with two cars, but he lost his job, and then his relationship, which forced him onto the streets where he had turned to alcohol to keep warm.

The group was entitled ‘Living with Loss’. Using sitcoms, we discussed death, how we are expected to react, and how we actually feel. We talked about anger and guilt and regret. The men lit candles for their losses. The course was not overtly ‘religious’ but at the end, we presented the Christian message, and spoke of the hope of forgiveness and restoration through Christ.

Did the course help the men? The older prisoners often helped the younger ones to see life more constructively, whilst they were often stunned as they faced difficult issues for the first time.  Jonathan admitted that he had been ‘dumping’ his anger over bereavement onto all the people he loved most. He said this revelation would change his life – and he never returned to prison. After the course, Joseph told me he felt that he had been ‘born again’, which were not words we had used. 

Many said although it does not necessarily ‘make it better’, it enabled them to see that they were not alone in struggling to cope with their emotions. We pray that this seed of hope may grow into a deeper understanding of the God of all compassion and hope.

  • Do you recognise some of your experiences in the stories in this article? If you’ve got a story to share or want to comment on how bereavement affected you, email editor@inspiremagazine.org.uk

Rev Canon Katy Canty, August 2019

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