Sunday, 29 May 2016

Famous Lives, Ordinary Lives | Reflections on Grief and Memoriam

The best funeral services give us a real insight into the character and experience of the person who has died and give the bereaved an opportunity, not only to grieve but also, to celebrate the life of the person they feel the loss of. 

Recently I wrote and published a piece on focusing on some aspects of grief and memoriam. Here is an extract from it: 

Dead Famous, Famous Dead

. . . .

Because stories (of all kinds), music and other creative outputs affect us emotionally as well as cerebrally it’s not surprisingly that when an actor, singer, comedian, writer dies there is a certain amount (related of course to the fame and popularity (or opposite) of the deceased) of public as well as private grief. In recent months there has been a plethora of celebrity deaths with the baby-boomer generation, the rise of ‘celebrity’, and the easier access both to 24/7 news and public mourning, via the internet and social media, all being cited as possible reasons for both the rise of and responses to these events.

In reflecting on my own reactions to recent losses I I acknowledge that Ihave a good deal of sympathy for Ronnie Corbett’s family, agree with others that Prince was taken too soon, feel sadness at the loss of Terry Wogan’s wit and David Bowie’s music and experience significant grief following the deaths of Alan Rickman and Victoria Wood.  Having re-watched the Barchester Chronicles and Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (saving Truly Madly Deeply for when I feel stronger) and gobbled up the television tributes to Ms Wood plus various YouTube versions of sketches she wrote and/or starred in I feel sadder still that there will be no further creations from either of them. Just as sometimes it feels impossible, despite my acceptance of the opposite, that I’ll never, see, touch or talk to my deceased loved ones again, it feels incongruous that Wood won’t write another funny, insightful song or Rickman won’t sneer or smile in that sexy way that no other actor can get close to. And whilst I don’t believe I’m the victim of what some might call pathological fandom I do feel that these individuals, although I never met them, where significant to me. They made me laugh and cry, they entertained me and gave me pause for thought, I respected and took pleasure from their achievements and felt some connection to their humour and politics.

When my husband John died I received a number of letters from people (some of whom I had never met) that, in his job as a lecturer he had supported, influenced, inspired. Similarly following my mum’s death several friends, including several I had not heard from for more than 30 years, spoke or wrote to me about the kindness and humour of my parents, highlighting their positive presence in the lives of young people other than me. Further evidence I guess that of the importance of those of us who live ordinary lives in terms of legacy and impact on the feelings, identities and life choices of others. 

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Civil Celebrancy and Me 4 | Online Presence and Identity(ies)

Following my Civil Celebrant training, I, with the encouragement of my UKSOC tutor, began to engage much more than I previously had in and with social media. Having previously only dabbled in a lacklustre way with my twitter account, I now have an additional twitter account, a Facebook account and I forward these Blog entries to both of these. Here, in addition to writing about issues linked to Civil Celebrancy – e.g. clothing traditions and choices at weddings and funerals; cultural norms and superstitions; the important of place and space – more often than not with a sociological slant I’ve also written of loss and bereavement and the practices and processes of griefwork as identified by Deborah Davidson (2008) as the work we do with others. Recently I started to write on a sister blog Arwenack Cerebrals: writing, reading, thinking  on which I write about (amongst other things) my fiction and memoir writing. 

Obviously I am not the only one who finds Blog writing interesting, helpful, engaging. There are many examples of wellknown Blogs/Bloggers. For example:

Deliciously Ella

Also and increasingly there are also calls for academics to share their research findings in this format and/or via tweets for a more wide-reaching and immediate ‘impact’ on the world beyond the academy. 

My own social world engagement has made me think specifically about virtual world auto/ biographical practices. Within my dedicated Civil Celebrants twitter account I follow other celebrants and other people and groups with an interest in namings, various types of relationship commitment ceremonies and funerals. My dying and death online friends and ‘acquaintances’ (Morgan 2009) are particularly relevant here as Death CafĂ©, Final Fling, Kicking the Bucket, Funeral Funnies, Rated Wedding, WeddingHour etc., clearly report on auto/biographic practices. Many of those I follow and befriend are concerned with the things that Sociologists are – ritual and representation, presentation of self, identity, family practices, stigma and so on. And the social world itself is of interest to Sociologists and to Civil Celebrants in terms of how identities are presented and maintained during and after life. Interesting things to think about here include online memorials and continuing social media presence (I read recently that there are 500 dead people on Facebook), wedding flashmobs on YouTube and drop box accounts charting a child's progress; from birth, to naming ceremony and beyond. 


Davidson, D. (2008). A Technology of care: Caregiver response to perinatal loss. Women’s Studies International Forum, 31(4), 278-284.

Morgan, D. (2009) Acquaintances: The Space Between Intimates and Strangers Buckingham: Open University 

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Civil Celebrancy and Me 3 | Making Connections

It’s been a while since my last blog entry – apologies.

I’ll carry on where I left off. . .  

I feel privileged that my career as an academic and my engagement with sociology has taken place during a time when more space has opened up for auto/biographical reflection. Since the first British Sociological Association (BSA) Auto/Biography Study Group Conference which took place on my birthday in 1991 I have felt that my work, and that of similar others, has been valued and validated. Being part of a group that encourages creativity and experimentation and shares so much laughter and so many tears is fortune indeed.

With reference to more recent learning experiences a significant and lasting legacy of my UK SOC training is how the experience of becoming a Civil Celebrant helped me to make connections with and draw on and further develop skills acquired within my sociological undertakings and also my work as a nursery nurse (my first career). All of these occupations are people focused, are creative and require imagination. Civil Celebrancy as an auto/biographical practice involves learning about and from the people whose lives are central to the ceremonies concerned. I’m too much of a sociologist to think of this opportunity, this life course development as natural and inevitable but I feel fortunate, yet again, that my life experiences and life chances have come together in this way.

Over the last 25 years my academic research interests have been varied (to include not least experiences of human reproduction, non/parenthood, travel and transport and working and learning in higher education). Throughout I’ve been interested in loss, grief and bereavement; originally with specific reference to perinatal loss, and more recently loss across the lifecourse and the associated concern with continuing bonds and lasting legacies and influences.

Three weeks ago I was lucky to attend (and present) at another BSA study group event – the Social Aspects of Death, Dying and Bereavement Study Group (DDB) annual symposium – where the focus was on Methodology: Researching Death, Dying and Bereavement. Following a stimulating day I decided to join The Association for the Study of Death and Society.  I’m anticipating that my education will continue. If you are interested in any of the organisations/groups mentioned here, maybe in terms of your own education:
Association for the Study of Death in Society LOGO 

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Civil Celebrancy and Me (2) | Writing, Reading and . . .

As I suggested in my most recent Blog entry writing (of various sorts) has helped me to make connections between my own life and that of others. Laurel Richardson turned to life writing following a car accident. She wrote:

Although I could not bring into speech what was happening in my head, I found that I could write about it. If I could not find the word I wanted, I could write its first letter or leave a blank space. In writing, the pace and the issues were my own . . . Writing allowed me to record little thoughts, to revisit them and fill in the blanks, to piece them together, thought-by-thought. Writing gave me a feeling of control over time and space, and a faith that I would recover. Writing was the method through which I constituted the world and reconstituted myself. Writing became my principle tool through which I learned about myself and the world. I wrote so I would have a life. Writing was and is how I come to know. (Richardson 2001: 33 original emphasis)

When I discovered sociology in the late 1980s I was aware of the auto/biographical power of the discipline although was unable to articulate this then as I am now, not least to agree with Irene Karpiak (2010: 47) who argues that auto/biographical writing is one way in which ‘adults can come to enlarge their perspective on themselves and others, and even to heal’. As such it represents, as Paul Eakin (2008: 148) suggests ‘the art of the future’: a prospect of what might still be ahead as possible and worthwhile.

In recent years my writing has moved beyond the academic. Here is a piece of auto/biographically informed ‘fiction’ (which I write in single quotation marks to highlight the fact that fiction draws on fact, just as fact often/always contains an element of fiction) that I wrote following my husband John’s death in 2010.

Thank You For The Days

The birth was hard, mirroring the effort to conceive. Reporters waited outside to take snaps of babies born on the first day of the year. They went away disgruntled. He was born 20 minutes after midnight on the 2nd. It was a Monday.

Although raised in the Jewish faith the boy’s parents were practicing atheists. Yet, they wanted to mark the birth of their longed for child, to share their joy. The baby naming took place on the second Tuesday in May.

The child grew happy and strong and weathered all of the usual childhood ailments and adventures. School and university a challenge he embraced. On a gap year, before full-time responsibilities began, his marriage took place on an Australian beach. Some called it a shotgun event but the bride and groom were blissfully happy. They exchanged rings at midday on a Wednesday in December. 

Years passed, the man worked hard, the next generation grew up and the usual ups and downs of a life-course took place. He was happy but sometimes tired. After a long day at work or an exhausting family outing he’d pour himself a beer or a whisky. They’d drink wine with their meal, followed by a nightcap. He never kicked the 20-a-day habit he picked up on his travels. First he noticed a change in his gum at the back of his mouth. Soon it became uncomfortable to chew. He told the dentist at a Thursday appointment. 

Radiotherapy lasted three months. He felt lucky he’d avoided an operation. There was only a 50/50 chance of survival to five years but he approached this as optimistically as he had the rest of his life. He dressed smartly for his first appointment and chatted and laughed with his wife on the way. She waited while he went for his treatment, glancing at, but not taking in, the news and gossip in Friday’s newspaper.

On his deathbed he reviewed his life. It had been a good one. He’d even got his five years following the cancer diagnosis but now it was his time. He squeezed his wife’s hand and smiled. Elsewhere in the ward a radio was playing, he could hear Big Ben chime in Saturday morning.  

The funeral celebrant was thorough. She captured the man and many tears were shed during the eulogy. An old friend and one of the man’s children retold anecdotes that made everyone laugh. Favourite songs were played. A cremation followed.  A smaller group – immediate family and close friends - assembled later to bury the ashes under the tree at the bottom of his beloved garden. A few words were said, a few more tears wiped away. His wife led the way back to the house for Sunday lunch.
63 Years Earlier: As the pregnancy is confirmed Rachel and Ethan Grundy wonder what their child’s life will be like. They’ve already chosen names. If it’s a girl Sarah and for a boy Solomon is a good, strong name. . . 

Reading, as well as writing, has helped me significantly in my own grief journey(s). In a novel I read shortly after my mum died I found a reference to a poem called The Summer Day by Mary Oliver, the last three lines of which are:

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
           Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one                          wild and precious life?

For me training to become a Civil Celebrant was one of the things I felt that I needed to do with my life.  More of this next time . . .


Eakin, P. J. (2008) Living autobiographically. How we create identity in narrative. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Karpiak, I. (2010) After life review: Autobiography as ‘art of the future’. Studies in Continuing Education, 32(1)

Oliver, M. (1990) ‘The Summer Day’ The House Light Beacon Press: Boston

Richardson, L. (2001) ‘Getting Personal: writing-stories’ International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 14(1)

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Civil Celebrancy and Me (1) | Identity, Disruption, Reorganisation, Retreats [For You]

I appreciate that this Blog has something of an identity crisis. On first sight it may appear to be an advertising/marketing tool for Arwenack Celebrants, on further reading some might view it as a (sociological) reflection on civil celebrancy, and yet others may read it as a grief memoir. It is of course all of these things because ultimately every text we produce is in some ways an auto/biographical endeavour involving not only intersections of the lives of those who write and those who are written about but also insights into the writer’s own history, interests and values.

My adult life has been peppered by experiences that following Michael Bury (1982) we might call ‘biographical disruption’. Bury’s analysis related to chronic ill-health which others have engaged with and extended to include bereavement, unemployment and other losses. Biographical disruption results in ‘the structures of everyday life and the forms of knowledge which underpin them’ being disrupted, if only for a time (Bury ibid). With reference specifically to death and bereavement:  my dad died when I was 20, I miscarried my only (to my knowledge) biological child in my mid-20s, my second husband died five years ago when I was in my very early 50s and three and a half years ago the person who was my main support and source of comfort throughout all of these (and other difficult) experiences, my mum, died. In addition, other extended family members and close friends have died over the years and as such I feel that I have had my fair share of loss and that I have become something of an expert in bereavement and grief, which includes, but is not limited to, what Robert Howell (2013) describes as the ‘significant reorganisation of one’s sense of self, for better or worse’ following the death of a significant other(s).

Unable to continue my job as a nursery nurse following my miscarriage I looked for something to fill my time with an A Level in Sociology helping to do this. I didn’t stop at an A Level and during my undergraduate degree, my doctorate, my 21 years of full time teaching and research and now my freelance sociological activities (undertaken alongside my work as a Civil Celebrant and my Blog and fiction writing) I have been conscious that not only did an experience of loss bring me to sociology but that sociology has been significant in the way that I ‘do’ grief and bereavement. So, my engagement with sociology has not only helped to shape my identity and influenced my experience of important life events and experiences but it’s also given me a language to articulate my feelings and reflections with reference to myself and others.
I am writing this – the first in a series of entries on my route to and particular engagement with civil celebrancy (and this Blog) – during my eighth or ninth stay (I’ve lost count) at Retreats For You Here is an extract from something I wrote following my second visit early in 2013:

My Retreats For You Desk
I am in Sheepwash, North Devon at Retreats For You . . .  I'm attempting to write a novel (a little revelation here) and like other writers of all sorts I find the welcome, warmth and supportive atmosphere here both stimulates and challenges me. . . . Deborah Dooley and Bob Cooper who run the retreat are looking after me, and providing me (in their effortless way) with good food, good company and lots of time to myself when I want it. It's late February and very cold. . . . [before going out for a walk I] look in the mirror and there she is, my mum  - my Dorothy - looking back at me. I am shocked but pleased and I take of my glasses (which I need for long but not short distance vision) to get a better look. It's the way the hat frames my face that highlights the features I've inherited from my mother. I'm usually compared to my father in looks. She's always with me, in my head and my heart. Now I see her in my face as well (Letherby 2015).

To be continued . . . 

Bury, M. (1982) ‘Chronic Illness as Biographical Disruption’ Sociology of Health and Illness 13

Howell, R. (2013) ‘I’m Not the Man I was: reflections on becoming a widower’ Illness, Crisis and Loss 21(1)

Letherby, G. (2015) ‘Bathwater, Babies and Other Losses: A Personal and Academic Story’ MortalityPromoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 20(2)

Thursday, 30 July 2015

July Weddings | Themes and Elements

A few days ago I began early preparation for a wedding that I am officiating in July 2016. My clients are planning to do the legal bit the week before elsewhere in Europe, with a number of their nearest and dearest in tow, returning to England for a larger ceremony and celebration. 

The theme of the ceremony that I am preparing in consultation with the happy couple is vintage, village fete. The ceremony itself is taking place in a village hall and following this all guests will have the opportunity to indulge in some fete day games and activities in the grounds. All key players will be wearing a combination of red, white and blue and I'm already planning my outfit. 

At our first meeting we talked about possible extra elements and under consideration are Hand Wrapping, Wine Box/Love Letter and Rose Ceremony. There’s plenty of time of course and other options are possible (see Elements page for details).

It’s never too early to begin thinking about your wedding/renewal of vows/commitment ceremony so do get in touch to discuss themes and possible elements.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Grief as an Embodied Experience | Occupations and Relationships

This last week has been a busy one. On Tuesday the 14th July it would have been the 84th birthday of my mum Dorothy Thornton. I bought plants and flowers and some sparkly birthday table decorations and with my friend Vanessa travelled to Coverack for the day to visit the graveyard where my mum and my dad are buried. 

The day my mum died my life changed forever, not just because I’d lost the most significant person in my life but also because I’d lost another part of my identity. As I’ve written previously I am a widow and sadly have never achieved biological motherhood. Having no siblings I don’t know anyone else with a similarly ‘rootless’ identity. And yet, I feel lucky to have in my life a number of VERY significant others; close friends and extended family members. One term for unrelated family is ‘fictive kin’. But despite agreeing with others who suggest that the word ‘fiction’ no longer equals falsehood and the opposite of ‘truth’ I struggle with the suggestion that fictive kin are ‘unreal’. So  I prefer ‘family of choice’ and ‘friends as family'.

Some of my most significant others came with me/I met at the annual summer conference of the British Sociological Association Auto/Biography Study Group which took place in the beautiful Dartington Hall in Devon Thursday 16th-Saturday18th July. The theme of the conference this year was Formal and Informal education: lives, works and relationships and although we worked hard sharing our work and commenting on each other’s ideas there was time for discussion of more personal concerns and for the nurturing of good friendships and the making of new ones. My paper ‘‘Active Recovery’: reflections on embodied learning’ was the third in what I’ve come to think of as my grief trilogy. In July 2010 in my paper ‘Auto/Biographical Reflections on Personal and Other Legacies: much more than money’ (Letherby 2011, 2014) I focused on my relationship with my late father Ron Thornton (1923-1979) and husband John Shiels (1948-2010) highlighting the interconnections between us and supporting the continuing bonds approach to bereavement and loss. In ‘Myself and Other Human Animals (Or Babies and Bathwater)’ (Letherby 2015) presented at the 2013 summer conference I continued my analysis to include my experience of grieving for my mother Dorothy Thornton (1931-2012). This year I extended my argument further reflecting particularly on my experience over the past couple of years. In the paper I focus on various occupations, including  my changing writing style (this blog included) a new engagement with physical exercise and the experience of retraining to become a civil celebrant with the UK Society of Civil Celebrants (UKSOC). For me these experiences have been important emotionally, physically and intellectually and have led me to argue for an embodied, sociological understanding of grief. In addition to giving a paper my book He, Himself and I (which is a further development of my 2010 paper) was launched at the conference and I will be ever grateful to the Auto/ Biography Study Group for their support in the production of this project (and my other related work as highlighted here) and their positive responses to it/them.      

Letherby G (2011) ‘Auto/Biographical Reflections on Personal and Other Legacies: much more than money’ in Sparkes A (ed) Auto/Biography Yearbook Durham: BSA Auto/Biography Study Group

Letherby G (2014) He, Himself and I: reflections on inter/connected lives Durham: BSA Auto/Biography Study Group

Letherby G (2015) ‘Bathwater, Babies and Other Losses: A Personal and Academic Story’ MortalityPromoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 20(2)