27 Aug 10
Now in its second year, Families' Activity Breaks (FAB) are helping Service families as they cope with bereavement following the death of a loved one. Report by Tristan Kelly.
On the face of it the happy shouts of children and the clinking of wine glasses as parents socialise may give the impression that this is a normal summer holiday as enjoyed by millions in the UK.
However, on closer inspection it becomes clear that this is rather different; there are very few men and every one in the group has something in common - the loss of a family member serving in the Armed Forces.
The holiday in picturesque Whitby, North Yorkshire, is run by Families' Activity Breaks, an MOD-backed charity that aims to offer holidays to Service families with children up to the age of 19 who have lost a loved one either on active duty or in any other situation.
The scheme is the brainchild of Major Belinda Forsyth, a Royal Military Police Officer, who was asked to create a holiday scheme for bereaved Service families by the Army Widows' Association while working at the Directorate of Personal Services (Army).
The idea of an activity break was put forward and the project was given enthusiastic support by the Youth Hostel Association, which provides the accommodation.
The project has now grown to offer four holiday locations - as well as Whitby, familes can choose from the Cairngorms in the Scottish Highlands, Coverack in Cornwall, and Conwy in Wales.
As the name suggests, the holidays are focused on outdoor activities - not on counselling. Major Forsyth explained: "We were really concerned right from the beginning about creating what we called 'sad camps' where we would get people together and try to do some kind of counselling - that we deliberately made people dwell on the issues. We thought absolutely that is the wrong thing to do.
"There are charities that do family bereavement counselling and we didn't want to do that. What we wanted to do was give the families some fun and to give them something to do that they probably wouldn't have done before - or if they have done it, it probably would have been dad suggesting it.
"We didn't want to run a bereavement holiday but what we have done through the volunteer scheme is make the volunteers bereavement-aware. So all the volunteers have come through bereavement support training.
"So we are very comfortable with the issue of bereavement on a very low level basis but what we don't do is specialise in bereavement counselling. This is not a counselling holiday - this is a fun holiday."
With that in mind activities on the breaks come thick and fast - from canoeing to mountain biking and from horse riding to abseiling, there is rarely a dull moment during the week. And this focus on activities is not only great fun for all involved but it also helps build confidence in the children who have found life hard since the loss of a parent or carer.
It is also credited with helping to build strong relationships between the various families - a feature which builds over the week and leads to firm friendships and the development of peer support with others that have experienced the same pain of bereavement:
"This is to get people to meet each other, this is to develop peer support, and this is to remind families that actually they are still part of the military community," Major Forsyth said. "They haven't been forgotten, they haven't been lost. Come to a FAB holiday and we will remind you that we still see you as part of the military family."
One of those to have benefited from the scheme is Caroline Spencer and her two children Mathew, aged eight, and Ellen, aged six.
Caroline's husband and the children's father, Petty Officer Andrew Spencer, was killed last year in a motorcycle accident while on his way to a birthday party for one of the children. Caroline, on her first FAB holiday, said:
"You just share something that nobody else has shared because you have lost people, particularly dads, and young children are going through the worst thing you can possibly imagine.
"[Mathew and Ellen] felt so far outside normality and when I introduced the idea of the holiday they asked, 'so there will be people in the same situation as us who have lost mums and dads?' They were really excited by the idea.
"It has just been so fantastic. We arrived on Saturday and the kids started playing football together straight away after dinner. Then there was canoeing the next day, with canoes tied together - so the teamwork element came out straight away.
"It is things you often wouldn't tackle on your own. It has done a lot for their confidence and for the little girls in particular who have missed the male influence, as there are a lot of male volunteers here and the little girls have clung onto them.
"I have found time to relax and share experiences with people. I have found out how long it takes to grieve and that you don't have to rush things. I know we all have a long way to go, but the shared experience is the biggie as not many people know what you have gone through. You are not 60 or 70 and losing a partner, you are 30, 40 or even in your 20s and losing somebody you had planned to spend the rest of your lives with. The whole place has been fantastic. The kids have already asked if they can come back next year."
Planning is already underway for next year's holidays and a further expansion of the format which has already seen a pilot holiday for injured Service personnel and their families: "Word is slowly getting out, but I think we have a lot of scope to expand the project and we will expand the project according to demand," Major Forsyth said.