The Whitworth, part of the University of Manchester, is the city’s ‘gallery in a park’. Together with local partners, artists and communities, the gallery uses art for positive social change, aiming to transform the way that art is experienced and used, by using art as a tool to open up conversation, generate empathy and actively address what matters most in people’s lives - here and now. The gallery’s dynamic Civic Engagement Education team have generated new approaches to working with non-traditional arts audiences from our diverse local communities.
Still Parents is the Whitworth’s award-winning programme to support families who have experienced the loss of a baby. The project was launched in October 2019 in partnership with Sands (Stillbirth and Neo Natal Death Charity) and provides workshops that allow participants to explore and share their experiences of baby loss through art, with the help and guidance of an artist, alongside support from Manchester Sands.
Still Parents was founded by Lucy Turner, Early Years Producer at the Whitworth, as a direct response to her personal experience of baby loss.
“I experienced a stillbirth in 2016 and lost my daughter Jenny. I never accessed any support groups as I just didn’t feel like they were for me. I wanted to create something that I would have wanted in the hope it might be what others needed too”.
Lucy Turner, Early Years Producer, The Whitworth
Lucy’s personal experience reflects a much wider societal need, with 1 in 4 pregnancies ending in loss in the UK and a notable absence in creative support for bereaved families.
It was clear from project launch that Still Parents had identified a real ‘need’ within the community and resonated with its target audience. Within a few days of the initial launch the workshops were fully booked with forty enquiries for fifteen spaces, resulting in the decision to double the sessions in order to meet the high demand.
The workshops are promoted through partners Manchester Sands and NHS bereavement midwives and counsellors who signpost newly bereaved families to the programme.
“The feedback that I have had to date and the actual art work that I have seen is poignantly beautiful and moves me more than words can say, they take my breath away and I can see the power of art in action”.
Bereavement Midwife, Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust
Still Parents provides a uniquely different method of support to the usual Sands talk-based support group meetings. The art and act of making is at the heart of the sessions. Participants are introduced to new mediums and learn new skills while surrounded by people with shared experience of baby loss. There’s no pressure to talk, no pressure to share, yet the sessions create a safe space where bereaved families can feel supported by a community that you know ‘understand’.
“The sessions are so valuable to me, just knowing I can spend time with people that have experienced baby loss without the expectation that I have to speak is just so comforting. I find being creative and involving J in that is just so special. It’s dedicated time to spend thinking about him which is so precious to me”.
Still Parents participant
Alongside practical creative workshops with carefully selected artists, participants have also been introduced to the Whitworth’s collection. With visits to the stores and support from the Whitworth’s Curatorial team, participants have had the opportunity to access the Whitworth’s internationally significant collections to identify works that resonate with their individual stories.
The last face-to-face workshop was in March 2020, as the UK announced its Covid-19 lockdown on 23rd March 2020.
During those early weeks of lockdown it was clear that there was now an even greater need to provide support mechanisms for those that had suffered bereavements or were grieving; whether for a recent baby loss or for one in the past. Newly bereaved parents were particularly hard hit, unable to be comforted and supported by their family and friends or, sometimes, by the normal health professional services.
Using Zoom, these important sessions moved online and into the safety of the home environment. Before each session, creative care kits are sent out to each participant allowing them access to all the tools and materials they need to participate in the practical sessions. These have included lino printing, watercolour and embroidery kits.
“All the resources were delivered to my home, beautiful art resources that made me feel like I was being invested in. This support, particularly during lockdown when people feel even more isolated when suffering from baby loss has been a life line.”
Still Parents participant
During a year of Covid-19 restrictions, the project has not only been maintained, but has flourished online. There have been numerous new participants join and newly bereaved families are now regularly referred to us by bereavement midwives and counsellors from Manchester’s NHS Foundation Trust.
“We lost our baby a few weeks ago and I have been feeling depressed so asked my midwife if there were any services available for bereaved couples. She referred us to Still Parents and here we are”.
Still Parents participant
Moving online there were concerns about losing those incidental, unplanned and intimate conversations that happen when sat around a table making in the gallery. But there have been some unexpected benefits; opening up access geographically as well as affording a new dynamic – an intimate space where everyone shares at their own pace and in their own space.
Still Parents won the ‘Going the Extra Mile’ award in the Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museums from Home awards in October 2020.
“I am so pleased that we were able to give your incredible project the public acknowledgement it so richly deserves. It’s an extremely brave and important project and it touched everyone who read about it among our judges, staff, trustees and volunteers.”
Executive Director, Kids in Museums
The receipt of a ‘Kids in Museums’ award not only provided a platform to share the difficult, often ‘unspoken’ taboo issues that can impact family life but also begins to unpick the definition of ‘family’.
So far Still Parents has engaged over 70 bereaved families with numbers continuing to grow. The workshops continue to run monthly and a Still Parents ‘constituent led’ exhibition will open at the Whitworth in September 2021. Following this pioneering exhibition, we aim to extend links to other external partners, with the aim to diversify the participants we reach to include more bereaved dads/ partners and BAME communities.
“I am very proud of the caring community that has emerged through Still Parents and the impact that the sessions have had on our combined grief. We have created a safe space to talk about our babies and use their names without fear of upset. This openness, at a time when closing down is often the easy option, have provided a level of freedom to explore our emotions through art; with truly moving results.
If you have an idea that has personal resonance and through your own experience you identify ‘a need’, speak to your organisations/partners and use your passion and insight to make something happen”
Lucy Turner, Founder of Still Parents
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