Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in Horsham, West Sussex, in 1855. The organisation now has a further three offices across the county in Billingshurst, Crawley, and Hurstpierpoint. Members of the team are always keen to expand their knowledge of how to support the bereaved. Community Co-Ordinator, Becky, reviews the recent BBC documentary, ‘Joey Essex: Grief and Me’ below…
Strange as it may seem, reality TV as we now know it is fairly young. Having emigrated from the US, and evolved via our own Big Brother, two shows took over our lives just over a decade ago. Made in Chelsea and The Only Way Is Essex (aka TOWIE) were mainstays for my friends and I when they first aired. They were escapism from our own lives, a window into two very different worlds at a time when social media was also only just beginning to find its current form. Many would argue that the latter has now superseded the former – with the instantaneous response and faster turnaround, plus bitesize delivery, it’s a more immediate fix, and a way to avoid plots being spoiled. For that is what these shows actually are – they’re a more specific genre known as ‘scripted reality’.
One of the very early characters in the TOWIE cast was Joey Essex, a young man who fit the prototypical Essex boy image in his own way, and who has spawned many imitations. Despite watching the show during this era, I didn’t know anything about Joey’s background, and I was shocked when I learned recently that he’d made a documentary about his Mum’s suicide and his bereavement. I don’t think the issue has been a particular secret – especially given that Joey’s older sister, Frankie, and their cousin, Chloe, were also people I’d watched on TOWIE – but it certainly hasn’t been discussed in depth either.
Unpleasant as it may sound, my attention is always caught when suicide is discussed so publicly, particularly by someone as young as Joey, who is 30. It’s still a significant taboo element, even with death being considered one itself, and bereavements by suicide are rarely discussed, which means it’s challenging to support people who are in this position. Unfortunately, this is something that my colleagues and I are called upon to do – in my time at Freeman Brothers, I can recall several deaths by suicide. I’ve also had a friend who is bereaved of her Mum by suicide, plus someone in my sister’s circle of friends. It’s closer than many of us think, and these are merely the stories I know.
Joey’s documentary – deservedly – received a good amount of publicity prior to airing. He promoted it via BBC One’s The One Show among other things, and his own reach via social media proved powerful with sharing the news with his fans and beyond. Momentum had built, and when it was released, I watched with interest.
My expectation from this kind of piece is that the Deceased person’s circumstances will be covered fairly extensively, so I was slightly surprised that the show took a different angle, and focused very heavily instead on Joey’s bereavement, plus that of his sister, Dad, Nan, and cousin. The documentary opens with Joey celebrating his 30th birthday in July 2020. Something else that I found poignant during the exposition was the inclusion of some early TOWIE clips as part of a montage, one of which showed Joey alongside Kirk Norcross, who was also in the show at the very beginning. Sadly, Kirk’s Dad, Mick, who had also featured in the show as he owned the nightclub frequented by the cast, died by suicide in January 2021, meaning that Joey isn’t the only TOWIE alumnus in this position.
Joey is shown enjoying his birthday celebrations, but also describes clearly that he’s suffered long-term impacts of his bereavement. He states that he’s struggled with panic attacks, anxiety, and challenges within relationships due to being frightened of forming close bonds with people, particularly women. He’s come to realise that, in order to move forward with his life, he will have to deal with these issues, and that it’s time to seek professional help.
We’re also introduced to other important people in Joey’s life: his Nan (his maternal grandmother), his Dad, his sister Frankie, and their cousin Chloe, both of whom were TOWIE cast members. Chloe was also close to Joey’s Mum, as her own mother had left the family when Chloe was very young, and she states that she considered Joey’s Mum to be a substitute for her own mother, and that she was highly impacted by the death of Joey’s Mum.
Frankie shares that she handled her bereavement differently: she is older than Joey, and is honest about the fact that she wanted to discuss their Mum, so made use of her friends in order to share memories throughout her teens. Unlike her brother, she also displays lots of photos of their Mum in her home. Joey, at the start of the documentary, is open about finding this too hard, and cannot bring himself to look at photos or videos of Mum. I found it great that the documentary highlighted these differences. The documentary also states that 41,000 young people per year are bereaved of a parent in the UK (information on the source of this data is not supplied), and I think it’s worth bearing in mind that each of these young people will have a different experience.
One moment I found particularly poignant was Joey’s detailed description of how he found out that his Mum had died, and that the memory is still crystal clear for him. He experiences it regularly on a visceral level, and with 20 years having passed since that event took place, it’s again a piece of knowledge worth having for anyone who is in the position of caring for a bereaved young person.
Another element of his life that Joey recalls finding very difficult was school. As many children do, his peers went through a phase of exploring a certain type of humour, ending ‘jokes’ by saying, ‘your Mum’, and he shares that he found this highly offensive and hurtful. It’s another piece of information I found important: one would hope that pastoral care in schools has come some distance since Joey experienced it and, undoubtedly, his situation would have been exacerbated by the fact that, shortly after his bereavement, he transferred from Primary to Secondary school. But it’s useful to consider that, supporting a child and their peers has relevance, as does a continuity of care should the young person change schools for any reason in the years following their bereavement.
The documentary closes with Joey sharing that therapy has helped him, and that he has arrived at a point where he’s ready to watch the home videos of his Mum. He chooses to do this with his Nan and sister for support, and afterwards they all share that they enjoyed the experience. Joey’s key piece of learning from therapy is that he can begin to move forward, and that he can choose to keep the positive memories of his Mum, that he can experience them separately from the pain of his bereavement.