Saturday 8 July 2017

Bereavement and Belonging(s), Losses and Legacies | PART THREE

Bereavement and Belonging(s), Losses and Legacies: personal, academic and political reflections on the relationship between loss and stuff (PART THREE)

In recent years I have found particularly comforting the cards and gifts I have received both immediately following bereavement and later on. After both John’s and my mum’s deaths I received scores of cards, flowers and other small gifts in sympathy for me and in remembrance of them. In both situations friends, acquaintances, and in John’s case, a few folk he had taught or worked with that I had never met, wrote about events of which I have no memory or no knowledge. This evidence of their impact on the lives of others is very important to me. In addition to the presents bought for me by John and my mum I now also have gifts from close friends with my loved ones in mind: 

A  present from my friend Deb,
with an image of mum. I wear it often.
Old postcards of Coverack:
a special place for mum, dad and I. A gift
from my friend Nessa. 

It is very possible of course to grieve for ‘distant others’; people we have never met (16). This is clear from the outpouring of love for the survivors and deceased following the Grenfell Tower tragedy. 

The Grenfell Tower tribute wall
Alongside the ‘traditional’ messages of condolence and the emotional, practical, financial and political (from some) support there are many examples of creative solidarity and agency. Here is just one example from rapper Potent Whisper (aka Georgie Stephanou)

For many, including me, the continuation of rituals following the death of loved ones is both solacing and a way of reaffirming positive memories.  As I have written elsewhere:

Unbirthdays and Odd Socks

On the first of her birthdays following my dad’s death my mum bought me a present. ‘Happy unbirthday’ she said. After that we celebrated unbirthdays twice a year; mine was in July on her birthday and hers in January on mine. My dear friend Vanessa (Nessa) and I have continued the practice [at her suggestion]….

When his children were in their early teens John was never able to find a complete pair of socks. These and other items of his clothing would disappear and appear on occasion in the boys’ bedrooms or schoolbags. Wearing odd socks started as a necessity but became a trademark, and my mum in particular enjoyed finding interesting ‘matches’ when putting the washing away. Now the anniversary of John’s birthday [and the anniversary of his death] has become ‘odd sock day’ for me and a small number of close friends; I particularly like wearing a striped and a spotty one together [although not in this picture which I took in February this year]. (17) 

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 (18) 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 (19) suggests ‘the art of the future’: a prospect of what might still be ahead as possible and worthwhile. 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. (20)

Absolutely. Me too.

Although I have always admired my dad’s memoir and fiction writing it wasn’t ever something I thought that I could do. How silly of me. We all have stories within in us, stories to reflect on on our own and collectively with others. Memoir and ‘fiction’ are just two ways to tell such stories. Others include poetry, music, drama, pictorial art (and more). Referring to his own poetic essays Ronald Pelias (20) notes:

They are fictions that never assert the truth but strive to be truthful. . . They are imaginative constructions whose truth lies not in the facticity but in their evocative potentiality’. . . .

William Tierney (21) adds to this suggesting that fictional accounts might portray a situation more clearly that standard forms of representation arguing that: ‘we rearrange facts, events and identities in order to draw the reader into the story in a way that enables a deeper understanding of individuals, organizations, or the events themselves’.

It was following John’s death that I first began to write a little differently and these various ways of expressing myself became even more appealing to me after my mum died. Since then I have including fictional pieces (sometimes based on my academic research, sometimes with reference to my own experience, sometimes prompted by issues that distress and/or anger me) and memoir in various academic pieces (e.g. 22). I have also published similar writings in non-academic outlets online and on paper (e.g. 23). More recently in a sister-blog to this one I have published political opinion pieces and political fiction

I wondered about attempting to write up this three part piece for an academic journal but decided on reflection that this mixture of memoir, fiction and academic material, supported as it is by images and internet links, was better suited to a blog piece. My hope is that others with similar and different experiences might find something of interest, even comfort, in it.

Before I conclude here are some examples of some of my auto/biographical fiction:  

This is a story written with my dad, and our relationship in mind. My mum’s in here too.

I wrote this soon after my mum died. Memories are woven in it explicitly and implicitly.

John’s life and experience was in my head (and heart) when I wrote Thank You For The Days. It’s quite short so I’m including it here: 

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. . . 


This writing represents an ongoing account for me. It’s where I am today, which might not necessarily be where I am tomorrow, next week, next month, next year... What I feel sure will not change, however else I tell my story(ies) is the lasting legacies of those I have written about here. As well as the belongings – both practical and decorous – that I have to remind me of them – there are also the many opportunities and experiences I have had and beliefs and values that I hold – that bear traces, and more, of the influence of my loved ones.

I accept that:

. . . story-telling is not an innocent activity. What is remembered is always selected: the reason a story is told relates specifically to the current context and the current audience (25).

And happily admit that my aim here has been to demonstrate how the ‘ordinary’ people in my life (both living and sadly not) are indeed ‘extraordinary’.

I am grateful to them all.

This piece is one small expression of my thanks. 

16.  Brennan M and Letherby G (2017) ‘Auto/Biographical Approaches to Researching Death and Bereavement: connections, continuums, contrasts’ for Morality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 22(2)
17.  Letherby, G. (2015) He, Himself and I: reflections on inter/connected lives  Durham: British Sociological Association
18.  Karpiak, I. (2010). After life review: Autobiography as ‘art of the future’. Studies in Continuing Education, 32(1), 47-60. pp47
19.  Eakin, P. J. (2008). Living autobiographically. How we create identity in narrative. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp148
20.   Richardson, L. (2001) ‘Getting Personal: writing-stories’ International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 14(1): 33-38. pp33
21.   Pelias, R, (1999) Writing Performance Carbondale Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. Ppxiv
22.  Tierney, William (1998) ‘Life History’s History’ Qualitative Inquiry 4(1): 49-70. pp313
23.  Letherby, G. (2015) ‘Bathwater, Babies and Other Losses: A Personal and Academic Story’ Mortality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 20:2
Davidson, D. and Letherby, G. (2015) ‘Embodied Storytelling: loss and bereavement, creative practices and support’ Illness, Crisis and Loss 23:4
Letherby, G. (forthcoming) ‘To Be or Not to Be (a mother): thinking about mothers and others through literature and social science’ in Browne, V. Giorgio, A. Jeremiah, E. Six, A. L. and Rye. G. (eds.) Motherhood in Literature and Culture: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Europe  London: Routledge
Letherby, G. (2015) ‘Temper and Tenacity’ Flash500
Letherby, G. (2015) ‘He Loves Me, Not’ in Parkinson-Hardman, L. (eds.) Hysteria 4 (Hysteria Anthologies) London: The Hysteria Association
Letherby, G. ‘Natural Selection’ in To Carry Her Home: Bath Flash Fiction, Volume One: a complication of very short fiction Bath: Bath Flash Fiction Award
25.  Smart, C. (2007) Personal Life: new directions in sociological thinking, Cambridge: Polity.

No comments:

Post a Comment