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The True Story of a Bereavement Workshop

19/04/2013 15:06 BST | Updated 18/06/2013 10:12 BST
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Whether it was ever Lady Godiva or Elizabeth I who rode "a cock horse to Banbury Cross" we might never know but it's fairly safe to assume that the grand lady who wore "rings on her fingers and bells on her toes" might have, had she been around today, shopped at Harvey Nichols.

The origins of many rhymes and stories reflect events in history and now that great British institution, Harvey Nichols, may itself, simply through its generosity, have unwittingly found itself at the root of another tale.

Recently my illustrator Mandy Stanley and I were asked by Dan Bordoley, who counsels bereaved young people at St Gemma's Hospice in Leeds, to take part in a workshop. Our book, The Copper Tree, had been written to help children cope with death and grief. The story had originally been written for my children in memory of my sister in law, Caroline, a much loved teacher who had died at the age of 39, from cancer but it wasn't published until much later.

A few years before Caroline died, and in my capacity as a radio producer with the BBC, we had run a report about a copper tree at the hospice and the touching way in which it encouraged mourners to inscribe a leaf with the name of a loved one who had died. It was this that formed the inspiration for The Copper Tree although in our story the children inscribe leaves with a memory of their teacher.

What Mandy and I didn't know until the workshop was the origin of the original copper tree and we were all enlightened by an inspiring lady, Chaplain Sheila Miller.

Sheila described how, many years ago, she and Sister Brigid, who then ran the hospice, had been considering ways in which they might utilise some space just off the main ward.

Out shopping one day she stopped outside Harvey Nichols in Leeds to remove a stone from her shoe. Looking up she saw lots of copper wire which was forming part of the window display. Undeterred she went to see the manager to ask if she could have it. After some deliberation with London they agreed, and the London store also agreed she could have their copper wire as well.

Sheila, ever resourceful, arranged for the wire, a considerable quantity, to be transported to a foundry in Harrogate to be melted down and made in to a copper tree. When the tree was put up the smelters had made and placed a little copper bird on it.

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It was quite overwhelming to find the roots of our story were as the result of one incredible lady's inspiration and determination - and what a coincidence that Alfie Tate, one of the characters in the book had drawn a bird on his copper leaf, in memory of his teacher, because they had both "jumped for joy when they saw the first swallows of summer."

But none of this would have been possible without the generosity of Harvey Nichols who, without selling a single silver bell or ring but simply donating a bundle of copper wire, has provided a healing legacy for mourners.

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Illustrator Mandy Stanley (left) with Chaplain Sheila Miller (centre) and Author Hilary Robinson (right)

The Copper Tree has recently been listed as one of the top ten books to help children cope with grief and loss by USA website efunerals.