Every now and then we meet or hear of someone working in the grief space, with an idea that is truly magical. James and Kristy Thomas’ Feel the Magic, is just such an organisation.
James and his wife Kristy started the charity about eight years ago. Its purpose is to support young people aged 7-17 dealing with the loss of a parent, sibling or legal guardian.
“For someone who hasn’t been through grief, I would simply explain that it doesn’t go away. Instead, it’s something you learn to live with,” said James.
James is motivated by his own personal experience of grief. Kristy too, has experience of it. She lost a brother to leukaemia when she was a child.
James shares his story: “I lost my Dad when I was 25. I’m an only child. Dad and Mum were newly settled in Toowoomba, Queensland when he was diagnosed with cancer. He died two years later.”
Hearing what happened next for James reminded me of my eldest nephew when my brother died.
James stepped up. As a dutiful son to his now widowed mother, he felt overwhelmed by a need to become the man of the family.
“I wanted to take care of my widowed mum, to create a path to financial security, to buy a house for her and my then girlfriend, now my wife, to live in.”
James started his own business in 2010, a sign-writing signage business. He worked long hours to fulfil his dream and was able to buy the home he had hoped for. Then on July 29, 2011, within hours of picking up the keys to their new home, his mother dropped dead from a brain aneurism.
‘And that was really the start of my grief journey. Dad’s death had given me purpose, and I got busy. I hadn’t grieved properly for Dad, I’d pushed it away to look after Mum. But now I found I was really grieving for the first time.”
“I thought once the funeral was over, it’d be done and dusted. I didn’t know that grief would wash over me in waves and that this would keep happening for two very painful years.”
“And when you’re in that much pain, no one wants to talk to you about it. They look the other way because they don’t know what to say or they think you’re already struggling, and they don’t want to make it worse for you.”
James now questioned everything about his life which had become about chasing material assets at the expense of emotional growth.
James explained that as a typical Australian man, he refused to acknowledge that he needed any psychological help: “I look back now and realise there were such feelings of isolation and I realise I needed to learn how to grieve.”
A moment of epiphany came in 2012 when he and Kristy were in Disneyland and he realised he wanted to shed his business and start a charity to help people going through grief, to help create connections for people with someone else who understands.
In 2012 he sold his business and started Feel the Magic. It’s based on the idea of giving families a happy place, fun memories and something to look forward to. Children also create long-term connections with others going through similar grief experiences to theirs.
“And we ask the question, when a family is experiencing the death of someone, who’s there for the siblings?”
Running the charity has been the hardest thing James has ever done. He explained that to be Chief Executive Officer of a charity such as this one, while it’s been rewarding has also had its challenges, not the least being not earning any personal income until 2016.
“If someone came to me today and said they wanted to start a charity like this one I’d tell them to think again, since it takes such a high level of commitment and passion. But I’m glad we’ve had the persistence to persevere. Kristy and I believe legacy is important and if this is our legacy, we know we’ve given something really good to society.”
(Although another legacy of James and Kristy is their own two young children.)
James could see that a typical way of dealing with grief is to send a child off to a series of sessions with a psychologist. This is expensive for many families but James also believes it isn’t as effective as being able to normalise what you’re experiencing by sharing stories with others who going through similar experiences.
Sharing the story with James of my brother’s son, who like him, wanted to step up and help his mother, involved pointing out that he was much younger than James when the same drive hit him. Being a 17-year-old, with no life experience, he experienced the trauma of wanting to be able to help but not being able to, which led to emotional collapse.
“I could introduce a 17-year-old going through that experience now to five or six others who are going through the same thing. They could form a bond which would help them to realise they are not alone.”
Empathy, Empowerment, Growth and Connection is the mantra.
“Children often struggle with the sense that everyone feels sorry for them. They need to be able to talk about what they are feeling and to know that someone understands. But it needs to be handled with insight. They don’t want to develop a victim mentality and we want to guide them through their experiences so they feel empowered, not a victim.”
For most of its life the charity has offered children’s camps, several times a year. Children meet other children who are experiencing grief. They make connections with others who they can share emotional bonds with for many years to come. Professional psychologists work with the children, running workshops, along with the fun, joyful experiences of camp.
Now that Covid has hit, the model has changed. The charity has launched its Online Healthy Grieving program and Grief Services hub, with its psycho-educational model run by mental health professionals, who offer age appropriate support. It has also developed a parent and guardian workshop.
“When someone’s experiencing grief they’re often feeling overwhelmed. We can offer a few quick points to help them get through the day,” said James.
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