Tuesday 31 March 2015

Bereavement and Grief (1) | To Talk or Not to Talk

In the late 1980s, as a final year sociology undergraduate, I conducted my first piece of solo research on women’s experience of miscarriage. The title of my final dissertation thesis reflects something that was said to many of my respondents following their miscarriage: Never Mind, Better Luck Next Time. Since then I have researched and written about various aspects of loss (some of which I have previously referred to in this Blog). Whilst undertaking these projects I have met others, who like myself, have shuddered at the crassness of the well-meaning platitude (a platitude is defined as a remark or statement that is used too often to be interesting or thoughtful). Never mind, better luck . . . along with it’s for the best; at least he/she had a good innings; you can always remarry and so on and so on negates the experience of loss, of bereavement, and implies that the person(s) who experienced the loss should get over it quickly. Many people do not want; are not able do this. It is especially ironic, I think, that one of the most common platitudes is that grieving the death of a loved one ‘takes time’ and yet people are often impatient for the bereaved to ‘get over it’ and ‘move on’.

Loss and grief positions the bereaved as outsider, as stranger to ‘normal’ everyday life. Others see you as different and you feel different and it is different. The use of platitudes arise because many people are embarrassed, not least because they are unsure of what to say. It is accepted now that it is good, useful, helpful, to talk about death, prior to and after the event, but some sections of society, some people, are still playing catch up. A Dying Matters Coalition report published in December 2014 shows that almost half of us in Britain feel uncomfortable talking to the recently bereaved. Tony Walter, Director of the Centre for Death and Society at Bath University also suggests that changing, and sometimes conflicting norms around stoicism (the stiff upper lip legacy) and expressiveness (stimulated not least by the growing culture of personal revelation and confession) can lead to uncertainly over what to say to, how to behave around the bereaved. logs.bath.ac.uk/opinion/2014/12/10/talking-about-death/

On the whole though it’s better to say something rather than nothing. Bereaved people talk of their distress when others physically and metaphorically ‘cross the road’ to avoid speaking to them about their loss. A good thing to do is express sympathy and say that you’re sorry; or to indicate that you are happy to listen to, talk with, the bereaved person about the person who had died if they would like you to.

If there is one thing I have learned is that it is DIFFERENT for everyone, for all of us. There are similarities and patterns but each bereaved person is unique and the bereaved need to be treated uniquely and with patience.

Sunday 29 March 2015

Auto/Biographical Reflections on Grief and Bereavement | Bathwater, Babies and Other Losses

This week I had an article published in a journal entitled Mortality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying

My piece is entitled:  Bathwater, babies and other losses: a personal and academic story.

This is the abstract:

In this article, I provide a sociologically informed auto/biographical account of my experience of grief and griefwork following the death of my husband William John Shiels (1948–2010) and my parents Ronald (Ron) Thornton (1923–1979) and Dorothy Thornton (1931–2012). Additionally, I discuss my personal, and academic, experience with reference to ‘infertility’ and ‘involuntary childlessness’. I reflect on the significance of my sociological imagination for the griefwork I do myself and with others and I consider how my experience of reproductive loss led me to sociology and how in turn sociology has influenced my experience of loss. In this piece, as in others I have written, I make epistemological connections between my academic work and my personal experience. I also reflect on the use of creative methodologies and different ways to tell academic stories and contribute to this approach.

As this suggests my piece includes some reflection on personal experiences, some research stories and some examples of short fiction that I have written. If you would like to read the article please follow this link.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Presentation of Self (2) | Tree of Life Ceremony Folder

The concept of the Tree of Life is used in various religions, in mythology, the physical sciences and philosophy. There are innumerable variations, including the one I use as part of the Arwenack Celebrants logo. Here are a few more.

The Tree of Life has been argued to represent: 

  • the interconnection of all life on the planet;
  • a sacred tree connecting heaven to the underworld;     
  • a cosmic tree;
  •  the tree of knowledge.
Charles Darwin drew a Tree of Life to demonstrate his theory that all species on Earth are related and evolved from a common ancestor. He said:   

From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off, and these fallen branches of various sizes many represent those whole orders, families and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only in fossil state.
See the Natural History Museum website for more on this http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/evolution/tree-of-life/darwin-tree/

More recently sociologists have written about the importance of tree planting both for community participation and to aid sustainable, economic growth in developing countries. Trees are common in literature and poetry too; sometimes representing goodness, sometimes malevolence, sometimes both. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird an oak tree is a symbol, at different times, both for friendship and for closed-mindedness. Making a regular appearance in popular culture the Tree of Life is a centrepiece in Disney's Animal Kingdom and an increasingly  common tattoo choice.

The Tree of Life then crosses all cultures and is adopted by sub-cultural groups within many societies. Trees are symbolic of growth, change and uniqueness and provide both shelter and food to human and non-human animals. We use the tree metaphor to explore our ‘roots’ and the ‘branches’ of our family; we carve our name along with our sweetheart’s on a tree trunk and plant a sapling in memory of a loved one who has died or to celebrate a new life.

As noted in my last Blog entry my choice of UKSOC celebrant folder includes the image of The Tree of Life. I decided on this illustration because I, like many others, find sense and comfort in tree metaphors and see beauty in blossom, and bark and the changing colour of leaves. When officiating at a wedding, commitment or renewal of vows ceremony; at a naming, a funeral or a memorial ceremony what better than a Tree of Life to represent the relationships and interconnections between all those concerned. 
My UKSOC Celebrant Folder

Saturday 14 March 2015

Presentation of Self (1) | Audiences, Roles and Props

Amongst other things the sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) was interested in the way that individuals present themselves during social interaction; that is how we behave with/in front of others. Goffman called this ‘presentation of self’. He argued that people behave differently in different situations with different people, not least in order to avoid embarrassment on both sides. So the way we present ourselves at home in front of our family and friends is different than the way we might behave at work in front of colleagues, at the gym in front of acquaintances, with our friends on a night out and so on. Goffman compared social interactions to theatrical performances and suggested that in each meeting we have with another we are at one time both actor and audience. So we ‘perform’ for our audience and at the same time we are the audience to their ‘performance’.

Everyone has a part to play, a role, in a ceremony marking a lifecourse transition: a rite-of-passage. So everyone performs – not just the celebrant, funeral director, musicians or photographer – but also the couple whose marriage, commitment or renewal of vows is being celebrated; the bereaved at a funeral; the parents and mentors at a naming ceremony and of course all of those assembled. Luckily, as I have written previously, many of the sometimes constraining established traditions and expectations have been successfully challenged and there is much opportunity for creativity and a personal approach at all such events. A civil celebrant can help you to plan the event that YOU want. 

Our public ‘performances’ are enhanced by the costumes (clothes, jewellery, make up) that we wear for particular events and occasions and props are also significant. Clothes are something else I have written about previously (see for example 1st November 2014). So what of props? A few days ago I had a delivery from the UK Society of Civil Celebrants (UKSOC) shop http://www.uksoc.co.uk/ and amongst other things my parcel contained a hand wrapping kit and a set of coloured sand and bottles for a unity sand ceremony.

Hand Wrapping or Hand Fasting: this Celtic tradition owes its legacy to, and is still today referred to as, ‘tying the knot’. During a wedding, commitment or renewal of vows ceremony the hands and lower arms are tied together with ribbons or cloth in the shape of the infinity symbol to symbolise the bringing together of two hearts in a partnership of strength and unity.


Unity Sand: suitable for weddings, commitment and naming ceremonies. This ceremony symbolised the joining of a couple and/or two families. The pouring of the sand can be performed by family members, including children. 

(Please look at Arwenack Celebrants Elements Page for detail on other special, extra options.)

My UKSOC order also included my Celebrant Ceremony Folder. I chose a green leather folder decorated with a Tree of Life image. I intend to write more about this next time.

Goffman, Erving (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Garden City, New York. Doubleday Anchor Books and Doubleday and Company

Friday 6 March 2015

Themed Ceremonies | Stories, Superstitions, Animals

I’m starting with TV, films and fiction again in this blog entry. Revisiting some of my favourites for my last piece got me thinking about how well loved stories might be used within a ceremony. Not just in terms of readings and music as previously noted but in terms of a ‘themed event’. For a wedding or commitment ceremony a couple might follow a costume drama type wedding and a naming ceremony could adopt a fairy tale theme with all those attending on each occasion appropriately dressed. Others go for a bit of a twist. Some of our favourite stories have been reworked in various ways. Little Vampire Women and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and, my personal favourite, Jane Slayre (for Jane Erye) are all re-writings of well-known classics. The fairy tale genre hasn’t escaped such written, or cinematic, interpretation. The Cinderella story is told in Ever After (with the central character played by Drew Barrymore), in Ella Enchanted (Anne Hathaway) and Into the Woods (Anna Kendrick). If these are not to your taste there are other retellings of this tale and of many other folk stories. The latter example is in fact an amalgamation of a number of different tales with a myriad of characters, many of which (and more) appear in the Shrek series. So then rather than a theme, perhaps a variation on a theme. 

Two of the main characters in the Shrek movies are animals - Donkey and Puss - and it’s not that unusual for animals to play a central role in a ceremony either. Hearses are sometimes drawn by horses rather than horsepower and beloved pets attend funerals; dogs accompany grooms, brides and others at weddings; and naming ceremonies and parties often have jungle or farmyard animals as a focus. 

Good luck? Cute anyways
Superstitions, based as they are on legend and stories with no basis in 'science', are thought to have a limiting effect on societal development (Fazaei 2005) and whilst this can be true there are times, including times of celebration, when we draw on superstition (even if we do not believe in it) to demonstrate our feelings. Roses, for example, are a symbol of love almost everywhere and thus a part of many ceremonies, as well as annual and individual special days. Many brides keep their wedding day attire a secret from their partner until the big day and still add something blue and something borrowed to their costume, that later will likely be covered in confetti. And representation of horseshoes, wishbones and four leaf clovers are given as gifts to babies, children and adults (including newly married ones). Animals are significant again here. For example doves (variously thought to be a sign of purity and/or peace) might be released at a ceremony and, although feared by some, symbols of the ‘lucky’ spider are likely at a Halloween, vampire or superhero themed ceremony. Cats play their part too, especially black ones. Black cats are considered lucky by many and are represented on cards, charms, brooches, key rings (and more) and complete with bow versions are sometimes presented to happy couples in velvet lined boxes. 

Fazaei, Y. (2005) Sociology Illusions and Superstitions Tehran: Chesta 6(7):482-483.