Please could you tell me a bit about Will?
Will was our first baby, born on the 3rd July 2003. Following an ultrasound whilst I was pregnant, we were advised that Will would be born with a cleft lip and palate. As first time parents we were of course very anxious about how our baby, and we as parents would cope. The second he was born all our anxieties disappeared as we immediately fell in love with this gorgeous little boy with a full head of hair and beautiful big eyes. Whilst of course we faced some challenges, he took everything in his stride; feeding, hospital appointments, operations, speech therapy, dental treatment, he really did just get on with it. By the time he was 9 years old, Will wanted to give something back to the cleft community and joined CLAPA’s (Cleft Lip and Palate Association) Young People’s Council. He spent nine years on the council and made some great friends whilst raising awareness of cleft. In fact CLAPA have published a beautiful tribute to Will on their website, which you can read here: https://www.clapa.com/about-us/meet-the-team/will-helstrip-in-memory/.
Will’s big passion in life was computers, it became apparent at a very early age that he was clearly talented in this field. It started with Club Penguin (when he hacked his best mate Monty’s account to turn his igloo pink!), moved into Minecraft and then progressed to building websites and earning good money from doing so in his early teenage years. By the age of 18 he had a full time job as a web developer for an online music platform and had moved into his first home 10 minutes down the road from us. Will’s teenage years were not without their significant struggles and for him to have achieved all this shows the strength of his character, his resilience and his determination. Sadly, just as life was turning a corner for Will and he was finding some happiness, it was tragically cut short. Our world was truly shattered.
How did you find out about Hand in Hand?
I had seen a post on Facebook about Hand in Hand only a few weeks prior to losing Will. I started to follow Kerry’s page as I really liked what she was trying to do, to educate those who are willing to listen and explore other options, that funerals do not need to follow the formula that we have all largely become accustomed to, that you can have exactly what you want and tailor a service to reflect the life of the individual, that a funeral can in fact be beautiful.
Why did you choose Hand in Hand?
After exploring Kerry’s facebook page and website, prior to even losing Will, I just loved her ethos and what she was trying to do. I couldn’t actually bring myself to make the initial phone call to Kerry, to say the words that I still find difficult to say, so my good friend Claire offered to do this for us. Following the initial phone call between Claire and Kerry, I received a call from Claire and her exact words to me were ‘you have absolutely chosen the right person to look after Will’.
What choices did you make to personalise Will’s Ceremony?
Will’s farewell was beautiful, we tore up the rule book and did everything exactly as we wanted to do it. The ceremony was held at Camblesforth Hall just outside Selby, a beautiful Grade 1 listed Manor House with a ceremonial barn which is owned by my nephew Byron and his wife Naomi. During the last few years, Will had not had enough light in his life and I felt strongly that we needed to light up his ceremony with as much light as possible. The ceremonial barn was just perfect for this since it has a huge wall of fairy lights which bathed Will in light for his onward journey. At the end of each row of chairs we also positioned hurricane lanterns with tea lights inside and vases of roses picked from the gardens at Camblesforth.
Will’s ceremony was led by one of our very best friends and Will’s Godfather; Kev. To say that he did an amazing job is an understatement. He brought such a sense of warmth, honesty, support and humour to Will’s farewell and Will would have loved it. We had a number of speakers, including myself (yes, it was hard but something I really needed to do) and Will’s Dad Steve, as well as Will’s close friends Oliver, Hayley, Tinca and Gon and also the CEO of CLAPA; Claire Cunniffe, to talk about his work on the Young People’s Council. We also had friends in the US and New Zealand who couldn’t be there with us in person, so we discreetly live streamed the ceremony to them and some words which one of my closest friends Jess had written (who now lives in NZ) were read out by one of my other closest friends Mel. We chose music which Will loved to open and close the ceremony and listened to a piece of music written by Steve as a moment of reflection halfway through. I think overall, Will’s ceremony, which was full of music, laughter, tears, applause and stories lasted 1.5 hours, but flew by in a flash. We then all made our way into the courtyard area and function barn to spend time together remembering Will. Will remained in the ceremony barn, bathed in light, so family and friends could go and spend time with him privately.
As a family we have two dogs; Annie and Lola, and it was hugely important for us to have them with us on the day as Will absolutely adored them, he would never have forgiven us if they had not been there. In fact the flowers we chose, beautiful orange roses, were inspired by a rose bush (precious Amber) we planted in memory of our dog Amber who passed away in 2016. Initially we had intended to use Amber’s roses for the floral tributes but unfortunately they were not in bloom on time, so my friend Becky, who is a florist, managed to source an incredibly close match and made a stunning heart wreath and garlands for Will’s willow coffin. Each table for guests to sit at following the ceremony was also decorated with jam jars of Sweet Williams, which my brother Alan and his wife Andrea had very kindly thought of and organised.
Will has two younger sisters; Eva (15) and Chloe (13) and we felt it was important to allow them to be involved in the preparations and personalisation of Will’s ceremony, so they chose all the photographs from throughout Will’s life which were on display for everyone to see in the function barn, both as a wall display and we also had photographs placed on all the tables for people to view as they raised a drink to Will. Eva and Chloe also spent a number of hours personalising the name plate for Will’s coffin, which they coloured by hand to represent tiny computer pixels and labelled it with the words ‘Our Big Brother’.
One word which was synonymous with Will was pizza, it was his favourite food of all, so of course we absolutely had to have a pizza truck for after the ceremony. We hired The Pizza Guy and he worked tirelessly on what was a hot afternoon to make sure everyone was well fed and the pizza’s were absolutely amazing, Will really would have loved them.
Please could you say a little about the support Kerry provided during the process?
From the moment we met Kerry I felt as though an angel had been sent to guide and support us, we opened the front door and there was Kerry with a huge hug for both Steve and I. For this first meeting, Kerry was with us for a good couple of hours, we told her about Will, cried lots of tears and explored how we could make Will’s farewell an occasion which would be beautiful, memorable and would honour his life. In exploring our ideas, never once was a suggestion met with a negative response from Kerry, never once were we told what we had to do, and never once were we told what we had to have. Kerry allowed us the freedom to discuss and explore our options and guided us along with a gentle hand.
I felt very strongly that following the ceremony, Will should return home for a final night with his family. Kerry made this happen for me and I will be forever grateful that I was able to spend a final night with my boy at home. We were able to spend time with him privately, decorate the inside of his coffin with photographs and place personal items with him from ourselves, his sisters and his dogs, to take with him to his final resting place. It was also hugely important for Steve that he should be the one to drive Will on his very last journey, last Dad taxi duties so to speak. So, the following morning friends came to help us get Will into our car and then Steve took him on a journey past his first primary school, his first football club and our first home together as a family, all whilst blasting out Will’s favourite tunes from his Spotify playlist. We then met Kerry at Mowthorpe Garden of Rest in Terrington, where we chose to have Will buried, looking out over the Vale of York. Every single step of the way, Kerry was there to help fulfil our wishes, to make everything as easy as possible for us, nothing was ever too much trouble.
During our first meeting with Kerry, I had said that Will would be cremated because isn’t that what everyone does now? However, after visiting him for the first time at the funeral home, I had a very restless night’s sleep, worrying about this decision, it didn’t seem right, it didn’t seem fitting. I was so anxious about asking Kerry whether there was still time to explore options other than cremation, her response meant everything to me; ‘of course, we can explore other options, this isn’t something you need to worry about, it’s never too late to change your mind’.
Something which was also hugely important to me was how Will would be cared for. My mind was immediately put at ease during our first meeting when Kerry talked about when she would first meet Will, her choice of words meant the world to me, she was talking to us about Will as a person, an individual, our son, not as a deceased body. I absolutely loved Kerry’s transparency of asking us if we would like to be in the room at the same time as she washed and dressed Will, or even if we would like to help. Whilst I did not feel mentally strong enough to do this, simply being asked meant that I had complete confidence that Will was going to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect. In fact, when we visited Will at the funeral home (with the dogs as well!), Kerry said to me that she had chosen some music to play whilst she was caring for Will and that whilst she wasn’t sure what he was into, she had hoped he had liked it. Perfect.
What 3 words would you choose to describe your experience of Hand in Hand?
Wow, that’s a difficult one, three words is nowhere near enough at all. However, if I was pushed, I would go with: compassionate, thoughtful and responsive (Kerry received many a late night text from me and never failed to respond immediately!). Finally, I would like to say thank you to Kerry, for everything.
With heartfelt thanks x