Most of us are fortunate enough to have never set foot in a children’s hospice. When a small group of us at Center Parcs Head Office were invited to Bluebell Wood, our local children’s hospice supported by Together for Short Lives, it would be the first time for all of us.
But every question we were quietly, anxiously asking ourselves before the trip – what would it be like? What is the proper way to act? How sad would it be? – was unnecessary.
Bluebell Wood is a place for children with life-limiting illnesses.
Often, it is a place for children nearing the end of their life.
One thing it is definitely not, is a sad place.
Bluebell Wood is in North Anston, Sheffield. The hospice is set in six-and-a-half acres of land; over 26,000 square metres of purpose-built grounds and buildings.
Inside, walls are covered with photos, children’s paintings and brightly coloured hand prints – the hospice’s motif. At the heart of the building is the lounge and dining area, filled with sofas and bean bags, rocking horses and play mats, board games and Lego bricks. A wall of full-height windows let the sunlight stream in. There are dining tables and a kitchen which serves up hot, home-cooked meals each day – it’s 11am when we arrive, there are homemade spring rolls in the oven and the whole place smells amazing.
There are no hushed tones here, no whispered conversations or grave faces. Bluebell Wood’s motto is “Living with love and laughter” which pervades the entire place and everyone who works here. The hospice is dedicated to offering as many experiences as possible to children with life-shortening conditions, and as many memories as possible to their families. There’s a music room, a computer room, a messy play area, a sensory room and a cinema.
The home from home
Bluebell Wood families can stay on the premises for a night, a week, or longer. They have their own en-suite rooms – children’s bedrooms are equipped with hoists and piped oxygen, sofa beds for a parent to stay by their side. But there’s also a private terrace outside each room, and the team tell us they’ll often fill a room with a child’s favourite things before they arrive – Thomas the Tank Engine toys or wrestling posters.
At the far end of the hospice are the two end-of-life suites, Primrose and Forget-Me-Not. After a child passes, the family are welcome to stay in the suite – which includes a special cooled room for the child – until the funeral. The team offer specialist support throughout, including counselling, helping with funeral arrangements and creating special keepsakes.
The last part of our tour is around the hospice gardens. There are play areas, a wheelchair-accessible trampoline, picnic benches, flower beds and a memorial garden.
It’s early spring when we visit, but the sun is shining and we’re shown tree saplings that are just starting to green after winter. One day, they’ll be a tiny forest of deciduous trees which will encourage a real bluebell wood to grow underfoot.
The gardens play a big part in the team’s events calendar. All year there are special occasions – some scheduled, some impromptu. They bring in a bouncy castle, do face-painting, throw barbecues or offer pony rides. Other times, they’ll bring forward school prom or Christmas – sourcing a Santa, shipping in artificial snow and dressing trees at a day’s notice – for a child that may not live to see it otherwise.
On our way out, we meet George the springer spaniel. He’s named after Georgia, a little girl who passed away at the hospice in 2011. Georgia had always wanted a dog, and when her family were unable to keep him, he joined the Bluebell Wood team.
He’s fantastic with children, and is often found enjoying a ride up and down the corridors on a wheelchair, or scampering around the grounds in the sunshine.
As our group gets ready to leave, George picks up his blanket and trots over to present it, waiting for the obligatory ear scratches he has come to expect in return. He rolls on his back, kicking his paws in the air. He is the perfect mascot for Bluebell Wood; a dog is the best reminder that life – even one that is shorter than we would wish – can, and should, be filled with love and joy.