Colin Murray Parkes – The David Attenborough of bereavement

Colin Murray Parkes, who died on 13 January 2024 at the age of 95, spent the majority of his life putting himself where others suffered traumatic losses. After the colliery collapse in Aberfan, Wales (1966), the Bradford City Stadium fire (1987), the terrorist attack on Pam Am flight 103 over Locherbie, Scotland (1988), the Rwandan genocide (1994) the New York Twin Tower terrorist attacks (2001), and the South East Asia Tsunami (2004), he travelled to assess the psychological needs of those bereaved by unimaginable horror. He wept with those who wept and helped communities organise support after they were disintegrated following disaster.

As a young psychiatrist, he noticed that text books hardly mentioned grief. He devoted his life to researching and writing books about what happens when we are bereaved. He wrote about how challenging it is for us to make a devastating event real. How we frequently need to circle around our losses multiple times. How, when we are bereaved, we can feel like we are lost in a maze, often trying many paths before hopefully finding one that helps us emerge into life again. He wrote about how a challenge of bereavement is that the world goes on as if nothing has happened but if we have suffered a devastating loss, the world is forever changed.

Working with Dame Cicely Saunders, who he called ‘the mother of palliative care,’ Parkes was deeply involved in the development of the Hospice movement in the 1960s and was also involved in the development and management of the UK charity Cruse which offers bereavement support. He raised awareness of the psychological impact on those who help and support the bereaved. Famously saying that ‘life is too short for retirement’, I am moved by the impact that Colin Murray Parkes has had on my profession in raising awareness, campaigning and being endlessly sensitive to the needs of others. He is an inspiration.