The Ventilator

Incorporating The Ranger's Blog

Litter and waste

Bereaved parents hope environmental pundit chokes to death

Matthew Chatfield
Latest posts by Matthew Chatfield (see all)

Oh, it’s been a while since I wrote about this, but the issue of balloon releases seems to have raised its head in a particularly bizarre and upsetting way recently. Readers who’ve read this blog for any length of time won’t have missed my thoughts about this issue – but if you did, have a quick refresher by reading Balloons – how they kill wildlife, and what to do about it. Or smirk at the slightly more tongue in cheek Smoking for Turtles on the same subject.

Smug corporate balloon release

The bottom line is that I’m worried about the damage balloons cause to the environment, and I wish people wouldn’t release them or encourage others to do so. Yes, even when it’s for a really good cause. And that’s the difficult bit, because some dreadfully worthy causes seem to adopt balloon releases as their chosen method of fund-raising or commemoration or whatever. Then it becomes quite hard to criticise the medium without being seen to be criticising the message itself.

The latest person to face up to this particular Gordian knot is well-known Midland bird-watcher and seasoned internet debater Andy Mabbett, who’s one of the few people in the UK licensed to wear a Father-of-the-Internet beard without irony. Andy Mabbett has been approaching various bodies that are undertaking balloon releases and asking them not to do so. I won’t go into the debate for or against balloons – I’ve covered it exhaustively elsewhere. But I do want to examine an aspect of this that’s caused me some concern. Recently Mabbett approached Life After Loss, a Northern Ireland-based organisation for bereaved parents. The results were unexpected.

Facebook screencap - Mandy Hefferon


Twitter screencap - Shauna Browne


Facebook screencap - Louise Hughes


Facebook screencap - Danny Gilmore

Anyone who uses the internet for a while will soon become wearily familiar with the way that online arguing tends to go. There’s a tendency to descend into belligerence and rudeness that doesn’t always reflect how face-to-face arguments would go. One of the better-known analyses of this was Paul Graham’s famous 2008 post ‘How to Disagree’. But despite this predictable degradation of manners few I think would have expected that a group of grieving parents would have unleashed their vitriol in this way.

Facebook screencap - Sam Savage

Look carefully at that last one above – yes, eighteen people reading the Life After Loss Facebook page are willing to go on record endorsing the hope that Andy Mabbett chokes. You can read their names on the post, if you’re interested. Once one has got through the concern which that kind of abuse naturally arouses, it’s hardly necessary to point out the irony in such a situation. It seems beyond credibility to suppose that there really are no fewer than eighteen bereaved parents in Northern Ireland who are willing to wish death on an unknown man rather than even consider not releasing one balloon. And yet they say so.

So can one even open a dialogue with people who are so extremely defensive about their position? I’m struggling to see what else Andy Mabbett could have done which was consistent with making his point heard. Indeed, even the more courteous participants in the debate (and there were several) have really managed only to respond at best that he should go away and leave them alone. Whilst Mabbett has persisted in his interaction with Life After Loss, it’s clear that less thick-skinned correspondents might have not have been so tenacious and unequivocal, giving up long ago. I can have considerable sympathy with the confusion which this robust approach has caused amongst the Life After Loss people. Do they so fundamentally fail to understand the nature of this approach because they’ve never had anyone criticise them before? If so this might explain how they proved so singularly unable to respond appropriately. It might also be a reflection on how we, as a society, interact – or don’t – with those experiencing death and loss.

Where this one will now go is anyone’s guess. In the short term nowhere probably, because the annual Life After Loss balloon release is over and beyond that I suspect, and indeed hope, most bereaved parents really don’t want to put their names to this shameful sort of behaviour: regardless of the merits of balloon releases. Life After Loss is an organisation which is involved with plenty of non-balloon-related activities, and maybe gradually they’ll come to realise for themselves where their priorities should lie.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

17 thoughts on “Bereaved parents hope environmental pundit chokes to death

  • Tracey Runciman

    2018 now. I wrote a carefully-worded request that they look for ways to commemorate their lost children that did not cause harm to the environment and waste a scarce resource. I received no reply but my post was deleted. Perhaps they have learned from criticism – who knows. Maybe they are reconsidering their position. Perhaps the recent balloon release (yes, they are still happening) was the last.

  • rowan farmer

    There are many very worthy causes using balloon and sky lantern releases these days and every single one I’ve come across have turned against anyone telling them of the harm they could be causing in the most vicious way, many wishing harm to to that person too.
    Can’t they see that it’s not just their release we have to worry about, hundreds of these mass releases every year are causing huge amounts of damage to the environment.
    I’d hate my lost baby to be remembered by the death of any wildlife. it would be so much better to plant a tree or something else that won’t result in damage or death in the name of a loved one or charity ๐Ÿ™

  • This is all so sad, clearly a very emotive issue when you see that this post was published some time ago but is still attracting comments. I was alerted to the issue by Andy via Twitter and I recognise how passionately he wants to prevent any further BRs.

    Most if not all of them seem to be associated with charities and criticism of the event may be percieved as criticism of the organisation involved. I feel that once funds have been committed to a BR there is no point trying to stop it, all you can do is ask that an effort is made to pick up balloons and dispose of them carefully. Ask once if they will reconsider it, then back off. The problem is that charities and fundraisers are finding it harder to raise money at the moment and there are very few new ways of doing it. There is also increasing resentment towards the limitations imposed on pretty much everything these days, consequently it doesn’t really surprise me that some have been reacted in such an aggressive way to this. I’m not justifying what has been said, I’m just not terribly surprised at it.

    If charity industry organisations such as the Charities Commission could be persuaded to raise the matter and discourage BRs as fundraisers it would certainly stop some future BRs. The National Farmers’ Union have brought problems caused by Chinese lanterns to public attention through BBC Radio 4’s “The Archers”, perhaps BRs could be mentioned on air in the same way. A coordinated push to bring the matter of BRs to public attention by a coalition of interested parties will be far more effective than a piecemeal approach.

    Unfortunately I have no answer to those in the balloon industry who defend BRs because they represent jobs.

  • Mohammed

    The comments were viitiolrc, I agree. I have lost a baby through stillbirth myself, and appreciate why parents want to remember their lost babies. But why balloons? I suspect that most people just don’t think about balloons being harmful, and taking ages to biodegrade. They assume that if they leave off the strings, the danger to wildlife is removed. Perhaps this will raise public awareness. I hope so. A really interesting post, thanks.

  • Nat Bocking

    We could have potentially a similar situation with the tragedy of the Philpott children in Derby. A balloon release is planned for their memorial, organised by a local charity. I have written to the charity via their facebook page but I haven’t had a reply. I am now going direct to the organiser with this message.

    In 2001 I held balloon release memorial after a tragic death which was also widely reported in the news and we the family had to endure an inquest and the media doorstepping us and so on. Later on I saw the harm that releasing balloons can cause. So I wish OSCAR would think again before its too late. Nobody wants to deny anyone’s right to grieve and remember those children but a balloon release will harm livestock and wildlife and it is also littering. The justification that balloons are biodegradable is a red herring. That degradation takes years, meantime they are dangerous litter. Not all of them will burst “harmlessly” as the balloon industry claims. They end up in hay and wash up on beaches and are eaten by birds, turtles and other animals causing them a slow death. The RSPCA, MCA, RSPB, NFU and Soil Association are asking people not to release balloons. Why not fly a thousand kites in Derby or plant trees to be enjoyed for years to come? Would you remember someone by littering the country with 600 “biodegradable” shopping bags? So please, may I ask again with all due consideration and respect, that the organisers of the balloon release think again before its too late.

  • caroline george


    love the website and your passion. I have been commenced a nature experiment to try and encourage nature into my garden. I live in a town and have a smallish garden but decided to embark on this mission after hearing about the government planned changes which I am sure you are all aware of. I am trying to keep it light and funny but also try and do things on a budget (due to the economic cllimate). I think its important that we all try and do our bit. I would be great if you could take a look and if there any suggestions that you may have with regard to nature enticement then i would love to hear them.

  • Andy Neale

    I never said that ‘Life After Loss’ were hiding behind the “I am a bereaved parent so anything I say or do is justified.” comment. That statement was made about those posting the abuse, many of whom wanted Andy to ‘Choke’ or felt they had a given right to ‘do as they pleased’ as acts of remembrance. I am sure Life after Loss do much valuable work and I honestly believe those that posted comments were not representing the Charity’s views at all. If some good can come out of this then hopefully the Charity will organise an equally worthy act of remembrance for future events, but one which is also less damaging to the planet.

  • Andy Mabbett

    David, Thank you for speaking out; it can’t have been easy.

    I’m sorry for your loss.

    I for one would never tar all bereaved parents with the same brush; I know too many.

  • David Jones

    As the father of a cot death baby, I was dismayed to read the comments, hatred and anger on the facebook pages. This is wrong, in so many ways.

    I know the feeling of this loss. I understand it. It hurts, is a hole inside of me, and never goes away. And if you haven’t lost a child, your own child, then you will never understand it.

    But that does not give me the right, or excuse, or justification to swear, be abusive, threaten violence, or hope that someone “chokes”. None of those things bring back or baby. None make us feel better. None are the example we would have hoped to have shown him, had he grown. You lose a child, but then hope that someone else chokes to death? And 18 people “Liked” that comment – you “Like” someone else dying, after going through the hell – and it is hell – of the death of your own child?

    Think about it.

    On the balloons. I hadn’t thought about the balloon issue until my attention was drawn to this debate. It doesn’t take much research to see that, with animals and birds being killed by balloon remnants, it isn’t a sensible or appropriate method of commemoration. Celebrating a life by possibly killing a gull, razorbill, cow or sheep is not right.

    We remember Simon in our own way. We raise funds for the children’s unit in the hospital who cared for him. It’s positive. It’s not selfish. It gives the nurses who get little pay, and even less credit for their work and hours, acknowledgement. And it helps future children, and parents of children. It therefore seems, to us, the right and appropriate thing to do.

    This will probably be the first and last time I write of this. I would hope that people who have read this awful debate would realise that not all bereaved parents would think, or write, the same vitriolic, inexcusable – and there is no excuse – comments that have been written in the last day. Some of us want this to be a better, more positive, less selfish world; if not, sadly, for our own children, then for other peoples children.

    Thank you for reading this.

  • Ali Peppard

    Hmm, while I whole-heartedly agree with your view on the release of balloons, I can kind of see how this errupted. Really don’t think it was the most diplomatic approach to take in such a public way. A private discussion with the organisers that allowed them to handle the publicity around changing the method of the remembrance event would probably have had a far better outcome. I realise controversy creates publicity better, but there are occasions when tact wins out. The charity is involved in such an emotionally charged subject, it does seem like pouring petrol on a fire.

  • Ryan Stewart

    Life After Loss are not hiding behind “I am a bereaved parent so anything I say or do is justified.” That is a completely unfounded statement. I might add that I do not condone the language that was used towards Andy and Paul, however sometimes language that is clean can be just as harmful i.e. “silly charities” and “can i presume you would not pour oil into the sea as an act of remembrance.” Tone of a comment is much more harmful than the words said.

    I know for a fact that the members have spend countless hours getting LIfe After Loss to where they are now. The balloon release was meant to be the finale of “Baby Loss Awareness Week”. The finale of many week long events are generally the most emotion provoking and poignant to most members. The balloon release was meant to symbolise parents/relatives giving their lost children/brothers and sisters the recognition that their life was not wasted and worthless just because it was short loved with the gift of a simple balloon.

    I am not completely aware of the risks balloons present to wildlife, but I am sure everyone in this world will know the risks of provoking people whose emotions are already running high and that is what occurred in the past few days. It was this lack of courtesy that has caused members of the Life After Loss to become upset and consequently angry towards Andy and Paul.

  • The comments were vitriolic, I agree.
    I have lost a baby through stillbirth myself, and appreciate why parents want to remember their lost babies. But why balloons? I suspect that most people just don’t think about balloons being harmful, and taking ages to biodegrade. They assume that if they leave off the strings, the danger to wildlife is removed.
    Perhaps this will raise public awareness. I hope so.
    A really interesting post, thanks.

  • Andy Neale

    A good summary of what went on. I have met Andy personally on a few occasions and also converse with him regularly.. I don’t believe he had any intention of upsetting anyone, but his valid and well put argument was misinterpreted as a personal attack on the charity and it’s supporters. I was actually shocked at the abuse he, and anyone who seemed to support his stance, received on Facebook & Twitter. Hiding behind the ‘I’ve suffered a bereavement, therefore everything I do or say is justified’ excuse, these people should be thoroughly ashamed of their responses and actions.

  • Benjamin Dyer

    Matt, nothing more really to say here apart from what a great post.

  • Ryan Stewart

    Can i just comment on how misleading the title of this blog post is as I can not see the phrase “I hope you choke to death” in any of the comments towards Andy

  • Paul Coxon

    Fair play to you for writing this, it’s a good (not to mention laugh out loud funny in parts)assessment of the issue. From a PR point of view, I was amazed just how terrible the Life After Loss spokesperson was at staying out of what was ultimately just a tirade of hate from their members against Andy. He’s a hero in my view for not shying away from an issue he believes in…and you’ve also just gained yourself a new subscriber. ๐Ÿ™‚


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