This blog has been very quiet for the past month. I have been deeply affected by the loss of a close family friend, who chose to end his life at the age of 24.
I’ve known James all his life. He was a kind, funny, warm and intensely loyal person. He was also an autistic person. Around 1 in 100 people in the UK are autistic. Statistically, autistic adults are 9 times more likely to take their life than members of the general population. Autistic children are 28 times more likely to think about, or attempt suicide.
When I heard the news I tried write something that evening, simply as a way to try and process my thoughts, to put down how I felt, my initial reaction. I did come up with something – the verses are short, ragged, and of the moment. I’m not sure what to do with them, share them here, send them out or just stick them in a drawer. I do think I need to give the family the option to see them first, which is why I’m not posting them here. Yet.
I was honoured to be asked to write a poem to be read at the funeral on Thursday. I’ve written a lot from personal dark spaces in the past. This was on another level, and the most difficult poem I have ever written. My focus was to remember James for who he was, whilst also reflecting on how he passed, and how we can try to reconcile this with how we all try to continue. We are all scarred by the suicide of a loved one – some of course more deeply than others. But all who knew James are changed by his passing.
From a practical perspective, I wanted to try and include different aspects of his life that different members of the congregation on Thursday could take from the poem. I also needed to use a form that was easy to read as I didn’t know how I would be affected when trying to read the poem.
I also wanted to reflect on society’s attitude to those who are different from what is considered the norm (whether in a neurological context or for any other reason). As a general rule it is nothing like good enough.
If you are looking for guidance from our country’s leadership on what a compassionate society looks like then you can forget it. If you haven’t noticed their attitudes towards the poor, disabled and anyone else who is vulnerable in this country then you really haven’t been paying attention. Look at their actions over the past 10-11 years, look at their policies. Look at the language they use. There is consistency in this.
If someone keeps punching down despite the evidence of how it is affecting the people they are hurting, then they clearly do not care about the consequences.
So we have to reflect and work on our own attitudes, how we engage with people in our own lives. We can’t be complacent. This is always a work in progress. We do not know what anyone else is going through. We just need to be kind. Try to help in our own small way.
The day of the funeral was a bright, cold late autumn morning. As someone who worked with light, (James was a lighting engineer working on cruise ships), I’m sure he would have appreciated its’ beauty. The service was desperately sad, but at the same time there was so much warmth, kindness and love. Each address fitted in with the others perfectly. I got through my poem, just.
I’m sharing it here, not for any weird kind of self-promotion, but purely because I want something positive to come from this tragedy. The family have set up a page in memory of James, with the option for people to make a donation to the Autism Society. If you feel able to donate, the link can be found here;
And if you are reading this, and have been considering taking a similar course of action to that which James took, then please, please, speak to someone. Ask for help. Phone the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123. You are loved far more than you will ever know.
For everyone else, please be kind. That person who is in your way or who has held you up in a shopping queue for a couple of minutes or is a bit of an irritant in your day? That person who dresses differently, who acts slightly differently to what you see as being normal? Take a step back. Think about how you are going to interact with them. And if you can’t be kind then keep your mouth shut and walk away. Go home, take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror and try to be better next time.
Poem for James
You who so lived for light’s beautiful glow,
so talented at illuminating the cast,
to make them the centre of the show.
Now in this place, we are all here for you.
There’s a black hole in the middle of the stage
as we sit here waiting, wishing for your cue.
But though we are broken, lost, and confused,
this darkness is spot lit with solace to take,
for each of our memories will not be diffused
like so many messages from those who you knew,
from school to university to shipmates at sea,
of how lives were enriched when shared with you.
I remember a boy who lived passions to the full –
Thomas the Tank and happy meal toys,
dens in the woods and light-sabre duels,
the only person I’ve known who liked attack of the clones.
But yours was a force in so many lives,
if only you could see you were never walking alone.
Liverpool FC and northern flat caps,
but you were at home in the Winchester downs,
riding up hills or throwing sticks for the labs,
or here in this church with congregational friends.
So we sit here wrapped in our individual thoughts,
this dark desperate sky that simply won’t mend.
But even though the light seems so far away,
we remember the boy who grew into a man.
That brilliant speech on Dan’s wedding day,
the way that you shined with such familial pride,
and while we are lost will never know why,
we’ll hold on to your smile, how you were so kind.
Everyone’s riding their own different race,
white, green, yellow or polka dot pink,
freewheeling mountains others can’t face.
And so, I reiterate to everyone here,
there is no shame in how James has passed,
keep your hearts strong and memories clear.
This was a boy who tried to find his own path,
when at a model village and told to hold hands
he caused a queue instead of letting anyone past.
This is a man whose desert island disc choices
Were eight different finishes from the tour de France.
If only society could celebrate such different voices.
If there can be a legacy let it be that we do not speak
if we are tempted to fault those who are not like us.
We all have our moments when we know not what we seek,
and a fragile stem holds up each and every flower.
There is a line in Corinthians fifteen
that might help some at this bleakest of hours –
if there is a natural body, there is a spiritual body.
I like to think that he’s up there now,
headbanging along to Bohemian Rhapsody,
or playing air guitar as if he’s Angus Young,
or spinning wheels down the Alpe D’Huez,
or just sitting with Dobby in the morning sun.
For James is at peace now, free from any pain,
and while we will treasure our own memories
we will also hold tight to all those who remain.
Though we can’t turn back the clock, can’t rewrite time,
we can walk together and share in the silence
and nurture his light wherever it shines.
6 thoughts on “Remembering James”
Wonderful , wonderful poem
Thank you Sue.
Your words reach beyond to those who didn’t know James, Richard. The poem, in particular, is impossible to read without it prompting tears. Beautifully written with a clear, important, and universal message.
Thank you Mandi. We all still have so much to learn. I am still learning, and still trying to forgive my own past failures. It’s down to us, I think, to change the world on an individual piece by piece basis.
Richard James would have loved your poem . We were so blessed you agreed to write it for our son who we miss so much . He lit up the world with his smile and was one of the kindest people I have ever had the privilege to know and love . I know he loved you and your family like family .
Vicky, it was the least I could possibly do. I have so many memories of him that I will treasure, as I know the rest of the family will. As of course will a much, much wider circuit of people who came into contact with James. You only have to read all the messages on Facebook and elsewhere. He truly did light up so many people’s lives. And still does.