Earthworks Stained Glass window

How Earthworks helped me heal

Earthworks is our open access men’s bereavement group, based at Martlets allotment. It is free for any man who has lost a loved one in Brighton and Hove and the Havens. Rick, an Earthworks participant, explains how the group provided support after the death of his wife Penny. 

“My wife received end-of-life care from Martlets three years ago. After she died, I was offered some one-to-one bereavement counselling at Martlets. My counsellor suggested that I might benefit from meeting others in a similar situation, in a social setting. That’s how I got involved with Earthworks. 

Martlets’ counsellor Katie Dennis runs the group. When I first went along, it was so therapeutic to be around people in a similar position. Whether they had lost a wife, a mother or a grandparent, the others in the group had all lost someone close to them. There was half a dozen of us in each session and not all of us were experienced gardeners. I had actually been employing someone to come and tidy my garden at home! But it was great getting active and watching the fruit and veg grow. 

We could just do whatever we felt comfortable with. Either chatting to each other, or one-to-one with Katie, or just digging and clearing, and enjoying being outside. It was a relaxed environment, and you could do as much or as little as you wanted to – be that gardening or talking. I think some people found it easier to open up in that outdoor setting rather than in a formal counselling room.

I had a few discussions with Katie, and I think we all appreciated having that option there if we wanted it. There was a shed for us to gather in and Katie had a little stove. She would cook some bits and pieces on it for us to have with our tea and biscuits. Often, we would be working in pairs, and I got to know some lovely people. Sometimes we would talk about our loss, but we would also share recipes and stories – all sorts of things. 

A pause during the pandemic 

The group was put on hold during the COVID lockdowns, but Katie and a couple of volunteers helped keep the allotment going. Now the project has started up again. People usually get involved for a 12-week period, that was my initial experience. When I first lost Penny, it was so important to have Earthworks to go to as I needed a focus; something to do and people to talk to. Then eventually I was able to engage with life again and I’m lucky to have a big family and some good friends.  

However, I’ve agreed to continue to support Earthworks as a volunteer, to help Katie and the team. So, I’ll be going back to the allotment soon. Men can sometimes find it harder to express their emotions, particularly those of us who are a bit older. So, the relaxed environment at the allotment is an opportunity for men locally to get support in an informal way. It’s definitely worth getting involved. 

Remembering Penny 

My wife got me into doing stained-glass projects before she died. I went to workshop sessions and that has turned out to be a nice social group too. I’ve made a stained-glass window for Martlets that I just need to cement and then it’s ready. It features a Martlets bird with a heart in the centre, similar to the Martlets logo. The piece will be fitted in the shed window on the allotment. Penny would have liked to have seen it finished. 

She first fell ill in 2017. It was a terrible shock for us as she had a healthy lifestyle and was fit and happy. I was 15 years older than Penny so it was an unstated assumption that I would be first to go. It began with pains in her stomach, and we thought it was gallstones. But an MRI scan eventually revealed that she had an inoperable cancer. She was only 59 when she died. 

Penny’s Time at Martlets

For many months, Penny received wonderful care at home. Nurses came in several times a day to give her antibiotics (for an infection) and pain medication. But in September 2018, almost a year after she was diagnosed, she began to get a lot weaker. One of the visiting nurses suggested she come into Martlets’ inpatient unit for a couple of days of respite care. We agreed as it was important to make a full assessment of her condition given how weak she was. The doctors told us they were very sorry, but Penny didn’t have long to live; it was just a matter of offering pain relief and comfort. 

On our wedding anniversary, which was also my birthday, my granddaughter Rachel came into Martlets and made a special buffet for me and Penny. We ate it in the gardens outside Penny’s room. Four days later Penny died; she was unconscious for her last two days as she was on a syringe driver to control her pain. But she was never alone which was so important to us. Thanks to Martlets, Penny’s daughters were able to take turns visiting, and could stay over in Penny’s room on a spare bed. It meant that Penny had family there when she died. 

The daughter of one of our closest friends got married recently, and it was an absolutely beautiful wedding. It made me sad to think that Penny wasn’t there because she would have loved it. But at least she was able to make the most of her last year, thanks to the support of Martlets and the wonderful nurses.” 

Could Earthworks help you, or someone you know? 

“Less than a quarter of those using Martlets’ bereavement services are men,” says Katie Dennis, counsellor and Martlets Earthworks coordinator. “There are limited opportunities for bereaved men to get together in Brighton and Hove. So, we developed Earthworks as an alternative way to provide support.  

The allotment is looking abundant with vibrant colours. We are harvestings beans, squash and beautiful bunches of flowers. The new Earthworks group will start on 27 October and bereaved men from Brighton and Hove and surrounding areas are welcome to apply. 

Our Earthworks sessions are relaxed, and we don’t require any previous gardening experience. You can take on jobs that interest you and simply getting closer to nature can be therapeutic. I can’t wait to see Rick’s stained-glass window in place on the allotment. It’s a lovely way to honour Penny and celebrate what Martlets stands for at the heart of Brighton and Hove.” 

To find out more about Earthworks, or to sign-up, please contact Martlets’ Patient and Family Support Administrator on 01273 273400, or email

Read more about our Earthworks Project here.