How Sheffield hospice’s ‘bereavement suite’ gave family of South Yorkshire teen the chance to say a proper goodbye
It had been a milestone week for Joe Dale, as the 16-year-old sat his final GCSE exam, and walked out of Penistone Grammar School’s gates for the summer holidays.
That evening, Joe had dinner with his family, and went shopping for a new suit to wear to his school leavers' prom the following week.
The next day was a gloriously hot Saturday and, with the rest of the summer laid out before him, Joe headed out to meet a friend at the local playing fields.
He had no idea that the pollen count that day was sky-high, or the effect it would have on him.
Hours later, Joe collapsed after suffering an asthma attack at his friend’s house. Paramedics and his parents, Helena and Jon, rushed to the scene, and the air ambulance was called to take Joe to hospital, where he was admitted into intensive care.
Joe died six days later, surrounded by his family, and on the day of the school prom he had been so looking forward to.
His death was a massive shock to his family, who were suddenly faced with the agonising prospect of leaving the hospital to go home without their ‘kind and thoughtful’ boy.
"That's when one of the nurses asked if we'd like to go with Joe to Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice,” recalls his mum, Helena.
“We didn’t understand what she was saying. It was too late for the hospice to care for him; we had already lost him. But she explained the hospice had two special suites where families can stay with their children after death.”
The nurse was referring to the North Aston hospice’s ‘Forget Me Not’ and ‘Primrose’ suites – where families who’ve lost a young person can stay and spend time with them immediately following their death.
Helena adds: “We went to Bluebell Wood, and stayed with Joe for a week. We had no idea this facility existed. It was marvellous. It gave us precious time to come to terms with Joe’s death and to say our goodbyes slowly, and under our own terms.”
Joe’s mum and dad and younger brother Matt, then aged 12, stayed at the hospice and his sister, Abbie, aged 23, was free to visit as often as she wanted around her job and family life.
Susan Wood, Bluebell Wood’s director of care, explains: “The concept of the bereavement suites is to provide a home-from-home environment where a family can all be together after they’ve lost their loved one.
“The suites feature a living area with a full kitchen, a bedroom for the family to stay in, and another controlled-temperature bedroom for their loved one, where the family can spend as much time with them as they'd like. These rooms are available to families for anything up to around seven days.
“It’s a place for families to begin their grieving process, to have precious time to say goodbye, and during that time we look after the family, provide their meals, a listening ear, support, a safe space for quiet reflection - whatever they need.
“We support with funeral arrangements, and are here with them when other family and friends come to visit them. Ongoing bereavement counselling is available during this time, and for as long as the family needs it.
“We also offer the opportunity for lots of memory work for the family – handprints, hand and foot moulds, locks of hair.”
These suites, though a lesser-known facet of Bluebell Wood’s services, have been available to families ever since the hospice opened its doors over a decade ago. In the past year alone, 18 families have made use of these facilities, which cost Bluebell Wood £1,800 for care within the first 24 hours, and £1,150 every 24 hour period after that. Bluebell Wood continues to offer this service to bereaved families completely free of charge.
“The team at Bluebell Wood took such good care of us,” says Helena.
“They helped us to come to terms with Joe’s death. I had lost my father less than 12 months earlier. He died in hospital and I remember walking out of the hospital doors and thinking: ‘That’s it. He is gone.’
“Having Joe with us during this time made such a difference.”
When the UK’s GCSE results were released towards the end of summer 2017, Joe’s family discovered that the Barnsley teen had achieved good marks in all his subjects. He was due to go into Penistone Grammar’s sixth form a few weeks later.
Importantly, Joe continues to live on through his family and the charity work they take on in his name. Last August, Joe would have been travelling to Mozambique to carry out three weeks of charity work with the World Challenge Organisation, organised through his school. His younger brother Matt, now aged 14, is now going next year in his memory.
The Dale family have also become loyal fundraisers for Bluebell Wood, with sister Abbie completing a Bluebell Wood skydive on April 6 at Hibaldstow Airfield in North Lincolnshire, even though she’s scared of heights.
Susan adds: “We can never thank our fundraisers enough for everything they enable us to do; as a charity we’re wonderfully supported.
“One of the very first families to use one of the bereavement suites is still actively involved with the hospice and does lots of fundraising for us each year.
“Each year we host a Remembering Day, where everyone is invited to come back and visit the memory garden, to remember all the special young people who’ve been at Bluebell Wood.”