On Thursday last week our friend Julian Usborne was buried on his farm near our home in Chalford, Gloucestershire. I took this photo as the funeral procession wound its way up the hill, a short walk from the Usborne family home where Julian had died a few days earlier.
Julian was a remarkable man and we were proud to call him a friend though in truth we had really only got to know him and his wife Hege in the years following Josh’s death. Hege is Julian’s third wife and her son Tom was (is) a good friend of Josh and it is through this connection that Julian gave us permission to plant a tree in memory of Josh on the hill overlooking the farm. Followers of our story might be able to work out that Josh’s tree is about 50 yards to the right of where this picture was taken.
We had visited Julian and Hege a couple of weekends before Julian died and it was on one of the visits that while they were both discussing his funeral arrangements that Julian had quietly proffered a request. ‘Do you think there’s room’, he asked casually, ‘and would you mind if I go up there on the hill next to your tree?’ Well I’m not going to forget that moment in a hurry. Number one, it was Julians generosity in the first place that has allowed us to have such a memorable spot to remember and keep Josh in our lives – so how come it’s him asking us if it’s OK? But the idea that Josh’s special place would soon be joined by another was exceptionally heart stopping and exceptionally heart warming.
But to back track a little – Julian had know for some months that he was soon to die. Having been diagnosed with cancer over a year ago, his and his family’s story has been one of a gradual if grudging acceptance of the inevitable. That his death should come slightly earlier than initially predicted was a painful if a somewhat minor detail to a journey that we were all invited to join. In conversation Julian would often remark “Well I’m dying you know … or “If this is dying, it’s OK by me” Hege had started a Facebook page “Julian’s journey” on which they and others could share thoughts and ideas (but mostly loving stuff!) as his cancer progressed – an early entry reads
“Probably had cancer now for a year. I have had not the slightest pain in all that time except for the after-math of surgery. Chemo was a doddle; it did make me tired and thirsty. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I suffer a bit more like others do? I guess its the gin and tonic (thought to have cancer relieving properties?)”
As I said we didn’t know Julian that well before Josh died. Both he and Hege had attended monthly get togethers of a group of concerned parents who would share worries about the behaviours of their teenage sons (Josh and Tom included) – activities we had all engaged in ourselves and were now in a slightly awkward position of having to monitor with our ‘wayward’ children. I say Julian attended but most often had fallen asleep before the first bottle of wine had been emptied. This was probably a totally appropriate response to our anxiety driven conversations but at the time I thought of Julian as a rather aloof, not to say grumpy old man. Luckily we discovered this to be far from the truth – as the many testimonies to the man aired at this funeral would reveal – Julian was a true non conformist whose mission in life was to make mischief wherever he could but with a concern for the environment in which he lived and was always happy to share with whoever. And this of course (or perhaps not) extended to his dying wishes.
Julian shared his death as he did his life – with humour and gratitude as well as a desire to shock. Whether or not this last was part of his and Hege’s deliberations for the funeral arrangements, I know not. At this stage in his journey I suspect most who knew him were passed being shocked. What transpired on the day of his funeral was extraordinary only in its very ordinariness. It was quite ordinary for Julian to want to be buried on his own land. It was and is quite ordinary for Hege to want to wake in the morning, look out her window and see her husbands grave nodding back to her from the not so distant hillside. It was quite ordinary for the Usborne women to gather and sew his ‘rainbow’ jumpers together to make his shroud. It was quite ordinary for the rain to fall as the Usborne men carried him to his grave. And it was more than ordinary (in fact quite common place) for the Westley Farm kitchen to be over flowing with bring and share dishes, muddy boots and impromptu musical offerings.
In the years since Josh died, we have had death in our lives in ways we could not have predicted. Death is part of us, not that it isn’t present for everyone, just that perhaps we notice it more. We need to – as a way to trying to understand what still remains incomprehensible – but the result has been the discovery that to be open to, and to be open about death, mortality and what that means for those left behind is good for the soul. There are to be true certain occasions that I still find disconcerting, the death café movement for example, or an overemphasis on things spiritual, but in general I now find to talk of death is to make friends with death and that conservation can be as private or as public as I like.
In the end it was Josh who gave me the first lesson. As I wrote at the time of his death “have you taught me how to die?”. Organising his funeral and that of my mothers just a short while ago showed us how important it is to take charge of our ‘final farewells’. Without these moments I’m not sure I would have been so comfortable sitting in Julian’s front room chatting so freely about his death, I don’t think I would have been so unafraid of any misgivings he and Hege might have, nor would I now be so secure in my own mortality.
Last Thursday Julian was laid to his rest just as he wanted. For me, that his funeral was a tad unconventional is not the issue. His final journey accurately reflected the man and honoured the memories for all those who took part. Would that we could all say goodbye in such fashion. Yes funerals are for the living but there was no better way of ensuring Julian’s presence both on the day and our recollections of the day. Later in the evening after short debate, a fire was lit on the mound that was Julian’s grave – warmth for the cold, cold ground. It was still smouldering when we went to visit him and Josh the next morning.
This summer Jane and I visited Jura, that enigmatic Hebridean island just to the west of the Mull of Kintyre. Jura is perhaps best known for its ‘paps’, three breast shaped mountains that dominate its skyline, and from whose summits you can experience some of the most spectacular views of Scotland’s highlands and islands.
Possibly lesser known is the fact that, in the years after the 2nd World War, George Orwell found refuge on Jura and it was here that he wrote 1984. (Orwell changed his original title for the book ‘Last man in Europe’ simply by reversing the last two numbers of the year he finished the book 1948) I guess its debatable which of Jura’s illustrious visitors, Orwell or St Colomba who passed by on his way from Ireland in 563 or thereabouts, to spread the Christianic message, had the greater impact on modern life. At school I read 1984 from cover to cover – can’t say the same of the bible.
You could say that both are now outdated. There are just two churches left on Jura and one of those has been converted to a holiday home, which is where Jane and I stayed while we were there, along with our good friends Alison and Aggie.
As always Joshua was with us. Here are some words and pictures that reflect our time on Jura.
Church You stand alone Above the track Between one house and another. From across the bay I can see only mist Swimming towards the dawn That will always change with the tide Of being.
Jura You float in the must of strange weeds Drifting upwards like strings of Semen Broken, dispersed and afraid of Belonging To the swarm that begins and ends with Every dying Breathe
Bell It must have been an age Since last you Spoke to those who cared To hear the news of distant wars Perhaps sixty years or more When Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty four
Ungetatable He said when he found Barnhill At the end of the path Past deserted forests of a thousand Crucifixes hung with children Blindfolded and redacted Forbidden from Crying out Pain to pain
Corrievreckan Baptismal whirlpool When Colomba came with the child On the way to Iona Was it already mute Never to be mine Never to be yours Never really to make it Through the night
Beinn an Oir Barren, broken breast With your crusts of scree Mecca for many and I Who would break an ankle For just one peek Behind Your veiled Horizons
Watch me boy, Watch me dive below Dark brown blackish Waters of Jura’s lochans Stain glass shards slipping through my fingers Naked now Pulling me closer to that Cloistered void Called death
Josh’s death has inevitably resurrected memories of past losses, of other tragedies, of other deaths. As part of remembering and honouring Josh I also want to remember them. Over the past few days I have been giving quite a lot of thought to two friends in particular. Gillian Burnett was a girlfriend of mine who died in 1971, and Bob Trattles, a very good friend from my London days, who was killed in an airplane crash in 1983. I was still very young at the time of these deaths and I have begun to realize that given the circumstances of the time, I was not able to mourn them in ways that enabled me to fully accept my loss. In many ways I don’t think I was emotionally equipped to handle the pain, neither did I have the support network to help me recognize some very confused and conflicting feelings that grief inevitably provokes. So what did I do? I hid the pain, repressed my feelings, tried to be strong, and focused on getting on with the rest of my life. But both Gillian and Bob have always stayed with me, although nearly all of our friends from that time have not. I can’t really remember how it came about that I should lose contact with most of the families and friends who also knew them, but I’m pretty sure that the difficult emotions we would all have been experiencing must have played their part.
This image of Gillian is a reworking of a photograph I took on a trip to the highlands of Scotland. She was a darkroom assistant for two well known photographers and we shared an interest in the dark art. I loved the calm way she engaged with her photography – it seemed to come so naturally. Her talent had not fully developed but her ability to capture a scene unselfconsciously was already apparent. And in one of her employers she had an excellent tutor, Philip Jones Griffiths. At the time Philip was working in South East Asia and one of Gillian’s duties was to prepare his photos for publication. I remember visiting the house in West London, with its darkroom on the top floor, where she was responsible for duplicating his original negatives. At the time I had no idea how much skill went into finding the right colour balance, the most effective shading for a photograph’s emotional impact, when to crop when not to. For Gillian this was becoming second nature, for me these were my first lessons in the power of photographs to tell stories. And what lessons they were. The images Gillian was working on would become Philips seminal book – Vietnam Inc. which, with its graphic black and white depictions of the effect of war on the civilian population were first to clearly show the mismatch of American soldiers in a place they didn’t belong. Vietnam Inc. is now credited for having a major influence on how Americans viewed their war in SE Asia.
What I remember of those days though, were feelings of intense envy as Gillian left each morning to go to work, knowing that she was somehow closer to things that really mattered. We were both curious about the ways of the world and started planning a journey to circumnavigate the shores of the Mediteranean Sea. This would be our first big adventure together and like Josh the prospect of a million discoveries overtook any anxieties we might have had. We had traveled as far as Mostar (now in Bosnia, then in the former Yugoslavia) when the accident happened. The car we had hitched a ride in was hit by another, ran off then road and fell into a deep and fast flowing river. Gillian could not swim. She died. I survived. The year was 1971, we were both 21, a year younger than Josh when he met his death. We had begun our trip in Norway where we had been working on stone age archeological sites. Our friend, Bob was also there, in fact he had found us the jobs. When I returned to London after the accident, I found it difficult to fit back into our friendship group. At that age things move on quickly, new friends are formed, old ones easily lost, but in any case talk of death and bereavement is not high on people’s chat list. Bob was slightly older than the rest of us and understood things better and so within weeks I had flown back to Norway to rejoin him on the digs. We began planning another ‘world tour’, working and saving hard to buy the Land Rover that would take us round the globe – and barely a year after Gillian had died I was off again – first stop North Africa.
Bob became my closest and best friend – he had known Gillian well and understood better than anyone else I knew what it meant to lose someone close, but I wonder now how much of our desire to travel was a need to journey away from pain. But the extraordinary daily and hourly revelations that overland travel can bring, especially on a continent that was more foreign than foreign, soon rendered memories of my life with Gillian, and the horrors of her death, to a more obscure and more forgetable part of my soul. The world trip didn’t quite come off and for reasons I don’t need to go into, we returned to London, I to start work as a bus driver, Bob as a town planner. We both ‘settled down’, found partners had children, Joe was born, we both discovered we weren’t in the right relationships, found new loves – continued to holiday together – and then in November 1983 Bob was on a flight to South America with his Chilean girlfriend Martha, when the plane crashed on its stopover in Madrid. Of the 200 people on board only 11survived. Martha and her young son Diego were lucky, Bob was not.
How to remember these two friends now. Their deaths were so long ago and I have few around me now who knew them well enough to keep their memory alive. Gillian, quiet and unassuming, was my first real love and perhaps unfortunately for her, is forever trapped in that romantic dream of a relationship that could only develop and blossom as we explored the world together. But who knows how long we would actually have stayed together.
Bob was a kind of older brother to me. A Yorkshire man from a small village near Redcar where his Dad worked in the steel mills, he was the first of his generation to attend university. Bob introduced me to working class politics – I admired his empathy with the socially deprived and his commitment to fighting injustice. Together we joined the Revolutionary Marxist Leninist League, one of the many far left fringe groups active in the mid seventies. Our cause was the overthrow of imperialism, our God was Chairman Mao who had led the Chinese in a utopian vision of a liberated mankind. Our moment was to show solidarity with the Vietnamese whose struggle had been so eloquently revealed in the book Gillian helped to produce. Had she lived, would she have joined us? I’m not sure she was the one to take sides, but I like to think that the world is poorer now for not having her photographs or her commentary on our political activism.
Joshua of course, knew little of this. It was years before he was born and like many today, he saw the idea of protest and demonstration a little, shall we say, pointless. But the country he was travelling in when he died, is now a free country, independent of foreign influence with one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Our chants of ‘Ho Ho – Ho Chi Minh, We shall fight and We shall win’ are now a distant echo but my friends Gillian Burnett and Bob Trattles helped me discover how exhilarating it is to be part of progressive movements and I am still very jealous of Joshua that he got to go to Vietnam before I have.
Josh died on the Ho Chi Minh Highway; Bob died as he accompanied his partner on her way back to Chile; Gillian died before she had found her own direction. They all died too young but I remember them all now as three of the most significant influences in my own life and I am so proud to have known them as well as I did.
The drive to understand experience, and make sense of the world is as vital as the need to breathe – to eat. And so it is that trying to understand and give meaning to life’s final moment is equally significant. This may be a vain attempt to make sense of the inexplicable but for the moment the process of coming to terms with and accepting Josh’s death has inevitably raised the issue of our own mortality – the fear it holds, even the release it promises. A year and some months on from this tragedy I am beginning to feel accustomed to my grief. It’s not that life is any easier or that the pain of our loss is any less sharp. It’s just that I know that pain better and my grief is not such a hostile companion.
What I am also beginning to understand is that we are at the start of a new journey with and without Josh. And for this I am deeply grateful to our friend Fiona Rodman, a psychotherapist and very wise woman. The following is an attempt to synthesize some of her ideas as contained in her recent thesis – “Mourning and Transformation – Sifting for Gold.” (MA University of Middlesex)
Sifting for Gold
After I had read Fiona’s thesis for the first time, I had a real sense of a burden lessened; that the grief I had felt for Josh was less complicated and more natural than I had previously supposed it to be. Here was an account of the mourning process, told not just from a theoretical perspective, but illuminated with the real insight from her own personal experience. Fiona’s mother died at an early age, she endured the break up of a long marriage, and witnessed her father lose his own battle to dementia. Her journey – her different journeys of coming to terms with these deaths inform her conclusions of what it means to mourn.
To a certain extent I think I have been caught up with what I thought society had expected of me in dealing with Josh’s death… how to behave, what to say, what to feel. How could it be otherwise. Even in this modern age with its fast changing moral and ethical codes, we are so influenced by long standing attitudes to death and its aftermath, that it seems the only the right thing to do is to rely on the consensus and on traditional ideas when we are trying to find a way forward on the journey through grief. In her essay Fiona, explores the connections and the tensions between personal emotions and public expectations. What I’d like to do here is to try to extract from this necessarily lengthy and rigorously academic piece of work, some of her basic ideas that have helped me understand a little more some of the thoughts and feelings we have all been experiencing since Josh died.
“Sifting for Gold” is concerned with the transformative power of grief. Another’s death, particular someone who is close to us and some one we love, is always a life changing event. This might seem so obvious, it shouldn’t need saying, but until Josh died I hadn’t fully understood how difficult it is for many people to accept this change. Fear of our own mortality certainly kicks in; confronted with the fact of another’s death, or another person’s loss, our thoughts about the inevitability of our own death become so uncomfortable, they prevent us from truly seeing, or at least acknowledging another’s pain. As a family, we have all experienced having to skirt round the issue of Joshua’s death, for the sake of not embarrassing a friend or an acquaintance. Yes, its weird, but to hide one’s own feelings for the sake of another’s shame is, I have found, a common occurrence. All too often, we hear that people just don’t know what to say, but this becomes understandable when you realise that it’s not just that another’s death is such an ominous reminder, but that the bereaved have indeed undergone a fundamental change. How that change is managed (or not) is the subject of Fiona’s essay.
Her own mother passed away when Fiona was in her early twenties. But, it wasn’t until many years later that she discovered that she had not properly mourned her mother’s death. At the time she had felt dislocated and adrift and that there were deep constraints on sharing her feelings with her immediate family. “We were close”, she writes, “as if clinging on to a shipwreck together. We could not however, weep together, fall apart, sob and hold each other.” Her father although loving and loyal, belonged to a generation that had known many war deaths; they were the survivors who had been severely traumatized by the horrors of war but who had learnt to suppress open expression of grief. “Laugh” he would say “and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone”. Fiona is only now aware of how this view had shaped her own emotional responses, leaving her feeling alone in a world where “the role of tears as communication is completely denied.”
The standard model of grieving in 20th century Britain relies heavily on the stoic – our way of doing things has been to keep a lid on our emotions, to be strong and to weep only in private, and to avoid any public display of frailty or despair. And the advice is to put some kind of time frame on the business of processing loss and to find closure – after Josh died a close friend even counseled that to avoid becoming excessively morbid, we would eventually have to ‘forget’ Josh. The idea is that sooner or later we must ‘move on’ in order to regain the composure and the equilibrium necessary to continue with the rest of our lives. To do otherwise is to risk a pathological descent into melancholia and depression and the social exclusion that will inevitably follow.
Death of course is all around us – over 10,000 people die every day in the UK, yet for most of us contact with death is relatively rare and as individuals many us lack the experience as well as the social models to help us deal with grief and those that mourn. And when death happens unexpectedly many of us are understandably but sadly ill equipped to handle the emotions that ensue. “We don’t learn to mourn at our mother’s knee” observes Su Chard in our film ‘Beyond Goodbye’ (Su is the celebrant who conducted Josh’s funeral.) Conflicting feelings of sadness, despair, confusion, anger and guilt, which I’m sure all who knew Josh, will be familiar, need to find expression. But if the emotional climate of society is such that we show only those emotions deemed appropriate for the occasion then what will happen to the inner rage, the impulse to self-destruct, and high levels of anxiety, ambivalence or even the manic laughter that can overcome us from time to time. Not being able to mourn her mother Fiona writes of being exposed to terrible and “unlived emotional states.” Her experience of loss and separation were never really resolved but continued to provoke, “turbulent unintegrated long fingers of pain…that seemed to clamp my heart and block the flow of my being”.
I was faced with a similar ‘block’ when aged 21 (a year younger than Josh) I too was involved in a road accident. I was on holiday with my girlfriend in the former Yugoslavia, when the car we were traveling in was hit by another, ran off then road and fell into a deep and fast flowing river. My girlfriend, Gillian could not swim. She died. I survived. Totally unfamiliar with very unexpected feelings (particularly guilt and shame) and without the necessary understanding from friends or family, (and without professional help) I too now understand that I was unable to process my grief in a particularly healthy way. Much of this really was the isolation that I experienced. Returning to London, I felt shunned by many of my friends who had their own fears of how to behave, as well as my parents need to protect me from extremes of emotions. This left me in a place where I felt completely disconnected both from my girlfriend Gillian, as well as from my environment. At the time I would have seen this as distressing but acceptable, and my attempts to brave my way through it as honorable – the thing to do was to make the best out of a shit situation and to move on. I had the rest of my life to get on with and to allow a tragedy such as this to mark me felt like failure. But I had been marked and I had been changed. And without the adequate means both personally and socially to express my feelings and with no acknowledgement of the importance of the grieving journey, I think I became quite introspective, learning how to cope on my own, actively avoiding close emotional involvement. I lost contact with Gillian’s family and to a degree I lost my way in life.
But does surviving such untimely tragedies or even the anticipated death of a parent have to be such a lonely experience. In retrospect Fiona identified a sense of an “arrested capacity to mourn” in the years following her mother’s death. This led her to explore just what it is within the cultural and psychological life of our society that determines they way we grieve and how mourning has been understood by academics, writers as well as the bereaved themselves. And going all the way back to Freud she discovers that, after a death, it is the way that we understand our sense of self in the world that plays a crucial role in our ability to regain the necessary psychological balance and the stability to continue living as functional human beings. “Self” she posits, can be understood in two different ways – there is the idea of the ‘objective separate mind’ and the idea of the ‘subjective interconnected mind’. The first of these philosophical positions, the idea of the self as a separate finite entity underscores a very western view that we are each (at our core) unique and autonomous individuals existing alongside other individuals in a highly individualistic society. When it comes to processing trauma, of which grief and mourning come high on the list, our way of dealing with it is necessarily an internal and private journey of gradually loosening our attachment to our lost loved one until equilibrium is restored. It’s a finite (even measurable) process which if unbounded becomes pathological – basically you’re sick if you grieve too long.
Contrast this with more contemporary yet still relatively unfamiliar philosophical ideas which shift the emphasis away from the ‘isolated’ self and the separate mind to a more relationally embedded model of the self, in which mourning and recovery are seen as being facilitated or impeded more or less in response to and with the help of others. Searching out and recording the experiences of fellow travelers in grief, Fiona findings were confirmed in two ways. First, whilst previous wisdom was heavily influenced by the pressure to get over it and move on, these new ideas revealed mourning to be a two-fold process with a constant oscillation between deep sadness and attempts to reconstruct life. Now, as I write this, I believe I am in recovery mode. An hour ago I was experiencing one of those painfully raw moments of missing Josh. Later the hurt will return.
The second of Fiona’s findings was that processing trauma is not best achieved in isolation – Fiona writes, “we need others deeply alongside us in our mourning, we need to be known.” Rather than a private, closed, exclusively personal experience, mourning is here seen as an inter-relational process in which dependency on others is vital for us to heal our fractured life, reassert our sense of self and our ongoing being.
It might seem obvious that to share one’s loss and be supported by others can only be of value to the bereaved, but the actual process of mourning extends way beyond any public ritual in which an open (but limited) form of grieving is found acceptable. The funeral, that necessary rite of passage, has more often been seen as providing opportunity for a final farewell, part of a closure rather than the start of a journey through grief.
Many people found that our funeral for Josh was not only deeply moving, but it was also quite unique with its emphasis on creating a symbolic journey in which we carried his casket into the main room at the Matara Centre, on to the next and then out into the night. But if it was remarkable, maybe that’s only because in this country we seem to have lost the idea of a collectivised ritual and its ability to engage in or invent symbolic acts that give meaning to the loss the community is feeling and to the possibilities for healing.
In ‘Sifting for Gold”, Fiona describes her visit to the Musee Branly in Paris (“not like walking into a museum but a prayer”) in which displays of mourning rituals from all over the globe included ceremonial objects that marked death and its journey as being important as much for the mourners as for the deceased; like the carved wooden boat inlaid with mother of pearl, in which the bones of the deceased were finally sent out to sea after the long community ritual.
What is important here is the way a traditional community will come together and create elaborate rituals, in some cases lasting for years, in order not only to register the loss and its impact, but to help construct a voyage to a different relationship with the deceased. As we know in many traditional cultures, the dead remain as valuable spiritual guides for the living.
Our family was hugely supported by our local community in organizing Josh’s funeral and their creative involvement deepens the sense of a shared loss as well as providing the impetus for building a new relationship with Joshua. The viral candle lighting ceremony was highly symbolic of the way we had all been in some way influenced by Josh and could share that with others.
But creating this ritualized journey, (as old as time itself) and the possibilities that holds for a communal sense of loss is not so possible in a world where the individual, the lonely and the private self is the norm.
This brings us back to Fiona’s definition of self, of how we see ourselves, our “self”. Are we unique, separate identities or part of a continuum with the rest of humanity. In both cases of course we need to relate to others, but within the model that Fiona describes as the intrapsychic or separated self, we can survive without the other in the belief that nothing of our own self has been actually lost. Not only that, we can endure the loss knowing that our mourning will be a finite process with a final letting go signaling a healthy outcome to our grieving journey.
However if our view of who we are is based on the idea of our “selves” being part of a commonality of all human experience, (a sense that we all more alike than different) and that we exist as relational beings, then when someone close to us dies, we feel that death as a loss of part of our own ‘self’. I suspect that all those who knew Josh, all those who had any kind of relationship with him, will accept that when he died something inside of them died as well.
CONTINUING THE BOND
Fiona describes the traditional approach to mourning as “a cutting off and a moving on”. But this need to detach oneself from the deceasedhas obscured another aspect of the work of mourning – to repair the disruption to the relationship we had (have) with the deceased.
Fiona describes the anxiety and the rawness at the loss of her mother, remembering in detail her illness and her death as if it were yesterday. “At the same time I could not remember at all. Such was the pain of bringing her into mind that I could not draw on a sense of continuing relationship with her inside me.” Twenty years on and in the light of subsequent losses, Fiona identifies this “continuing relationship” with the deceased as key to regaining the confidence and the stability we need to carry on living, to carry on living with another’s death. She draws on the ideas of psychoanalyst, Darian Leader, that “we need to separate out the loss of the other from the loss of what we mean to them, the person that we were in their eyes”.
That last phrase “the person that we were in their eyes”. Eyes that no longer see; the person that we were and are no more. We lost Josh and what he meant to us, but we also lost that part of us that was Josh and what we meant to him. Fiona desperately misses being a daughter to her mother, “of mattering to her” and I have not only lost a son I have lost my role as a father to that son. No longer can I advise and argue with him, no longer can I protect and admire him, no more long phone calls to gather up his news, no more am I his last port of call.
With Joshua’s death we are changed and as much as we need to come to terms with his, or any death we need to acknowledge our changed selves, something I was not aware of when my girlfriend died all those years ago.
Fiona cites the work of The Compassionate Friends, a self help group that supports parents who have lost their children. By meeting regularly, mourners are encouraged to name and speak of their child and to hold rituals on important dates. Memories of the child and the parent’s grief are in this way validated and held in mutual recognition. “Through this shared space” Fiona writes, “a transformation is facilitated in which the child comes to occupy a different, still living, inside space. The pain that the child is dead and will never again be present in the way that it was, is given room to be, but through a shared space and over time this other internal journey can take place.”
As I read these lines I wondered how this could be possible. With only memories and history to sustain us, with no actual Josh, how could a new living relationship grow inside of me? Then I was reminded of the various creative acts we have done in order to continue our bond with Joshua – the tree planted on a farm where Josh and his friends would often gather, has now become a Mecca for those same friends and family alike, the photographs I have made since he died, the film we produced as a celebration of his life, this website, all are sustenance for our new relationship with him. And they are all necessarily shared and communicative experiences – on Josh’s still active Facebook page we talk to him (Josh we talk to YOU) and in speaking of Josh in these varied ways we acknowledge that new relationship not only with him but with each other.
In not relinquishing, in not cutting off from Josh we are in Fiona’s words “reshaping and continuing the bond in a different way, a way that is not a denial that the relationship has changed forever, but a way that honours the place and the significance of the deceased in ongoing life.”
That our ongoing lives have been transformed by Josh death is beyond dispute. Fiona’s conclusion is that it will be the deep inner work of reframing our “self” in relation to others that will make them worthwhile once more.
The title of Fiona’s essay comes from a line she found in one of Alice Walker’s poems – ‘now I understand that grief, emotional speaking, is the same as gold…’ Yes, there are special treasures to be found in our mourning and grief can be good.
I miss you Josh
Your Dad, Jimmy (July 2012)
Fiona Rodman is a psychotherapist and lives near Stroud in Gloucestershire. She is currently working on her next book – a further exploration of contemporary practices in mourning and grief. To read “Mourning and Transformation – Sifting for Gold” in full please contact Fiona directly –mailto:email@example.com
I am particularly interested to find out how any of Fiona’s ideas might resonate with your own experiences – please leave any comments in the box below
When I heard about Rosa’s work I immediately wanted to see it. In my reading and research on mourning one of the things that had surfaced was the importance of art and creativity as a way of representing and registering loss and communicating its feelings. For myself following the early death of my mother I had not had this channel and I wanted to see , given Rosa’s family background of creative expression how she would do this.
The first thing that struck me was the atmosphere of her exhibition space, a small internal room which despite being full of people had a hushed and sacred feel to it. A long slim picture stretched from wall to wall in which each of Josh’s possessions which came back from Vietnam was photographed individually in line. I found this piece powerful and poignant. These were the everyday objects of a life- Josh’s wallet , passport, contact lenses, bike lock, matches watch. These were mundane objects and yet now they seemed to have acquired a brutal significance. The last objects Josh chose and touched. His last things that had returned where he had not. For me there was something about these ordinary things and the intimacy of them that felt deeply moving.
The title of Rosa’s exhibition was Absence. An audio loop played a recording of the voices of his family and friends narrating the dreams they had had about Josh since his death. On the wall in front were three photos depicting one of Jimmy’s dreams. For me these voices ebbing and flowing and fading in and out of each other had a penetrating and haunting quality. Again I was struck by the intimacy of it. Here was a window into the dream worlds of Josh’s loved ones.. Here were their individual voices at times shot through with emotion weaving in and out of each other. Listening I was flooded with the impact of the loss of this so loved young man.
The third series of photos were of Josh’s family each holding one of his things which had been cut out leaving a silhouette and a blank empty white space in its place. Rosa’s title was Absence yet what struck me forcefully was Josh’s ongoing presence in the hearts and minds of his loved ones. The room was full of his family and his and Rosa’s friends. There to support her and share in her creative communication. She was also awarded the photography prize for her year, an acknowledgment I felt of the power and depth of her work and how it clearly moved those who saw it .
My own mourning was inhibited by what I now see as a damaging emphasis in our culture on mourning as primarily an isolated, individual and finite process, ending in the cutting of the bond and “moving on”. For me what Rosa achieved in her brave expression of her loss and how supported she was in it bore out my own experience and findings. These are that in mourning we ongoingly need others. We need to communicate , not be shut away in an isolated process. Far from cutting our bond we need to nurture and transform it. This is not a denial that the relationship with our dead loved one will never be the same again but that we need to build this relationship in a new way and that we fundamentally need others in order to be able to do this.
Fiona Rodman is a psychotherapist and the author of “Sifting for Gold” – Mourning and Transformation. (MA University of Middlesex Nov 2011) She is currently working on her next book – a further exploration of contemporary practices in mourning and grief.
You can see all of the photos from Rosa’s exhibition by clicking here
To see Jimmy’s review of Rosa’s show please click here
Rosa’s show “In Absentia” has been a major success. In fact the whole Foundation Art show at Oxford Brookes was extraordinary for the variety and depth of talent on display. But I’m not sure who was most surprised when following the opening speeches for the private view last Friday, Rosa was awarded a special prize for the best exhibition in the photography/animation department, Rosa or her many friends that had turned up for the evening. In any case, we all made straight for the room on the first floor to see what she had done. To me, Rosa’s work confirmed the power that the photographic image can have. Ten images strategically placed in a bare room with subdued lighting, told the story of her loss (of our loss) with such economy, with such potency, they brought an almost visceral silence to the space that reduced many to tears.
On the far wall was a three and half metres long photograph of all of Joshua’s belongings as they had been returned to us from Vietnam. Isolated in space in a long line were his wallet, his passport, his glasses, toothbrush, his watch (set to Vietnamese time), his phone, remnants of an unfinished journey set out in forensic detail.
On the opposite wall six photographs of friends and family holding, I should say, cradling some of these ‘belongings’, or what we took to be these items because they had been cut out of the image leaving a crude gaping hole. We know from captions who is holding what, but these are close ups of hands and torso only, producing a kind of semi-anonymity that releases the viewer from a personal engagement with us, Joshua’s family, leaving him/her free to imagine the pain of his absence in a more universal way.
This combination a tender emptiness and the objective reality, evokes such a sense of absence and such a real sense of Joshua’s not being here, one viewer described it as “a knife through the heart”.
On a third wall are three surreal images accompanied by sets of headphones with audio recordings. These are representations of dreams that Rosa has collected again from family and friends since Josh died. From her introduction we read that while Joshua’s belongings are a sad reminder of the empty space now left in our lives, ‘this space is partially filled by our dreams – the only place where his presence is beyond doubt”. Photography is of course (as is film) an excellent purveyor of the subconscious, though one would not usually associate this with an absence of doubt. Rosa has looked beyond that ‘knife through the heart’ reality to a darker world of our imaginings. On the one hand the photographs depict strange and unsettling reality, unmediated by judgement or opinion, cold in their clarity, obscure in their meaning. But listening to the tape recordings, with voices gently fading in and out and over each other, is more sympathetic as well as a more intimate experience – one gets the sense that when we dream of Joshua, we experience him alive and well but with the full knowledge that he has died. He always appears in our dreams as his very real self, but both alive and dead at the same time, and perhaps this is what Rosa is hinting at when she describes his presence as beyond doubt. It is however clear that many of these dreams act as a consoling medium – what ever the substance, our encounter with Josh is often the same – “take it easy” he seems to be saying, “I’m Ok, there’s no need to worry”. Death for Joshua holds no fear and we can take comfort from his words.
Though Josh is very much present in the dreams in the audio recordings, Rosa returns to her theme of absence with the photographs themselves. She has chosen to illustrate this section with an interpretation of my own dream in which I have woken to discover my new tattoos peeling off my arms. In contrast to the more reassuring dreams on the tape, this dream and these images have anxiety and insecurity written right through them. Constructed in the style of stills from a bad horror movie, they are again notable for an absence of Joshua. That horror movie is of course our daily reality – the unreality of of our dreamworld, paradoxically, sometimes feels like the safest place to be.
So what is Rosa saying here? It strikes me that she is in the process of forming a new relationship with her brother. Taken as a whole these photographs are a reflection on all of our journeys through grief. The show might have started out as a piece about absence and loss but in the end we discover that however painful and desperate and frightening our feelings are, they belong to the vast range of emotions that make us human. Through tragedy we learn more about ourselves and our relations with others both on a conscious and subconscious level. (Jimmy)
You can see all of the photos from Rosa’s exhibition by clicking here
To see Fiona Rodman’s review of Rosa’s show please click here
Joshua’s younger sister, Rosa is currently studying on a Foundation Art course at Oxford Brookes University. We are reproducing here an essay she has written as part of her course which explores the themes of photography and death and the way we use the medium as a way of creating memorials to people’s lives. In this essay Rosa posits some very challenging questions – how far, she asks, is the act of taking someone’s photograph a subconscious attempt “to protect ourselves for when that person dies?” To answer this she examines the work of three very different artists – the American photographer Nan Goldin who captured some of the most intimate and moving images from New York’s gay scene of the 1970’s and 80’s – London based photographer Briony Campbell’s whose “The Dad Project” was a way of saying goodbye with her camera to her father as he lay dying from cancer – and the work I have produced since Josh’s death, in particular my book “Released”.
I am seriously moved by Rosa’s ability and her desire to use her university projects as a way of understanding what her own work now means in the light of Joshua’s death and for being prepared to share those thoughts with us. (Jimmy)
Making it Real – Death and Photography
In my essay I will be exploring how we take photographs of loved ones with the possibly subconscious aim to memorialise that person after they have died and look at the ways in which we can turn found photos of a lost loved one into prominent memorials of their life.
How far is taking a photograph of someone a response to our fear of death? Is their fear their fear or is it ours? What power does the photograph hold? Does it comfort us in our grief and why? When images of death are all around us, why do we shy away from post-mortem images of people we have known and loved?
I will be structuring the essay around the three stages of taking images as a memorial that I have concluded from some of my research:
– Taking images before someone has died, when they are certainly alive and healthy yet, with the subconscious idea that the photograph will almost certainly outlive them.
– Taking images of someone as they physically die, a concept that is almost unheard of in our culture. I ask could this be a way of helping us prepare for their death?
– Finally, taking and using images of the person after they have died.
NAN GOLDIN – keeping the memory alive
For a long time the work of New York photographer, Nan Goldin has inspired and influenced my own work. She takes very personal and intimate images of her close friends. She photographs them relaxing at their houses, their drug use and abuse and during sex. Nan Goldin’s body of work is often very shocking to the greater public and has frequently acted as an expose of life during the AIDS epidemic. She recorded some of the most intimate moments of herself and of her friends’ lives.
Goldin grew up in Boston, “in the very middle” of a middle class neighbourhood. When Nan was 11 her older sister who was 18 committed suicide. In Goldin’s documentary film, ‘I’ll be your mirror’, she implies that her sister’s death was a catalyst not just for her photography in general but also for the intimate and personal style of her images.
After leaving college she moved to New York’s lower East Side where she began documenting the post ‘stonewall’ gay scene of the late seventies –“instead of dying at 18, I started to photograph.” Goldin now acknowledges that her sister’s untimely death really shaped her photography in a very subconscious way. She reflects on her photography in the documentary commenting that she “became obsessed with never losing the memory of anyone again”. The irony of course was that by the 1990’s many of her subjects were dead either from aids or from drug overdoses. Goldin’s photographs use an intimate snapshot aesthetic and read rather like a private diary made public. The images all show real moments and real people and let the viewer into her life.
Iniatially Goldin took photographs for her personal use. But do portraits taken as a commission or for more public viewing have the same ‘death instinct’? British photographer David Bailey believes they do: “Photography is all about death really… you look at [old] pictures-they’re always dead. You don’t look at a painting and think ‘she’s dead’ but you look at a photograph and think ‘she’s dead!’
Do we all take photographs of the people that we love to capture them in case of death or to protect ourselves for when that ‘subject’ dies? When you are taking an image of a loved one it transforms from just a photograph into a memory, a character and a relationship. This is the element for me, which makes the works of artists such as Goldin so significant and so beautiful.
Cookie Mueller – 1981
‘The Cookie Portfolio’ as Goldin names it, is a series of fifteen photographs taken over thirteen years of Cookie Mueller – “the starlet of the Lower East Side” and the “queen of the downtown social scene”. The images illustrate Cookie’s character and vitality yet also captures her deterioration and eventual death from AIDS in 1989.
“I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. I put together this series of pictures of Cookie from the 13 years I knew her in order to keep her with me. In fact they show me how much I’ve lost.”
“The Cookie Portfolio” is an excellent example of the way a photographic record of anyone can come to have such a power after they have died.
Goldin’s dilemma highlights a basic contradiction in all photographic portraits especially those of people who have then died; their photograph has an incredible likeness of being to the subject, it invites us to accept consolation from their living image yet, it can also a painful reminder that they are now gone.
The last image in Goldin’s Cookie Portfolio is of Cookie in her coffin. It is extraordinary that in a series of photographs intended to keep the memory of her friend alive that she would include a photograph of her corpse.
Extraordinary not just because of Goldin’s fear of losing her friends ‘living’ memory, but more because in her life and her art she is surrounded by the deaths of those close to her yet, this picture of Cookie in her coffin is one of only a very few she has published of a dead friend. Sex, drugs, deviance, yes – death, no.
However, rewind to the nineteenth century and images of dead people, especially babies, were very common, socially accepted and even valued. At this time, infant mortality was very high and a lot of the time there wouldn’t be enough time to make a photograph of the child before it had died. So the families would photograph the deceased openly and unfortunately this occurred often as in those days infant death was more commonplace.
While images of death as part of our daily news intake, such as the killing of Bin Laden, are quite acceptable, people who now want a post-mortem record can face social opprobrium if they were to take a picture or commission someone to do so. People on the television and in the newspapers remain characters and don’t seem to be real people but people don’t want to acknowledge the death of someone close to them by taking a photograph. Similarly, a lot of people live in the mindset that if we don’t acknowledge death by photographing it then maybe it hasn’t happened.
When my own brother Joshua died last year and I went to see his body in the funeral parlour I didn’t take a photograph. It was impossible for me to do so not only because I was using all of my emotional energy to process what was happening leaving no room for the camera, also it simply isn’t the done thing nowadays.
Perhaps for Goldin who lived through her camera and often shielded herself with it, taking the picture of Cookie’s corpse was a necessary confirmation of her death. For me, the support of my family meant that there was no need to record his lifeless form for posterity – above all it was just too painful.
From personal experience I’ve learnt that we tend to shy away from photographs that depict images of the dead especially when the deceased is a loved one. Yet, it is surprising that in popular contemporary culture, there are still few acceptable ways of recording the rituals surrounding death and mourning process. When families get together it is often around important moments such as births, marriages and funerals, the latter being the event least photographed. Unlike weddings, there is no industry for funeral photography or videos. This seems strange to me, as death is the only inevitable event in someone’s life. After my brothers death, we as a family collected all the pictures of Josh that we could – a hugely important part of our efforts to come to terms with our loss; these were of course all pictures of Josh alive. Overnight, they had all become memorial photographs – each snapshot acquiring more poignancy… and over time these ‘found’ images of Joshua have gained even more significance being used over and over again: at the funeral, parties, memorial days, and given to people as gifts. For example, the images below were both images which gained significance from their first use as his business card, now as a memento for people to put in their wallets and on their walls to remember Josh. Like Goldin we were using his photograph as a way of keeping Joshua alive.
Above – the photograph Josh used for his business card
This image was reproduced and given to mourners at Josh’s funeral
Images, like the ones of Josh, seem to become an icon of a person’s life. On the surface we take images to represent memories and relationships but, when a tragedy happens, I have realised that maybe we take images to prematurely memorialise that character and protect ones self from the inevitable. The images grant us with satisfaction by showing an exact visual replication of that person whilst still alive but at the same time the photos will now always be a reminder that they are now not alive.
JIMMY EDMONDS – RELEASED – the photographic illusion
A few weeks later after we received his ashes back from the crematorium, my father, Jimmy Edmonds, started on a photographic project that would be both a memorial to my brother and a record of the way our family was dealing with our loss.
This project was published with the title RELEASED. It can be seen in full here. He started by photographing Josh’s ashes; he captured them pouring through the air and the clouds of dust that they created.
He then experimented with laying the ashes on top of the photograph shown above of Joshua that had gained significance from being used at the funeral and over and over again. When put together, the ashes and the image formed conflicting ideas: on the one hand, we can see Josh alive, with him looking back to us, placing us in an illusion letting us believe that he is still alive, but the ashes tell us that he is most definitely dead.
The thing about a photograph is that even though it captures a moment in time it will almost always outlive its subject matter. My Dad wanted to find a way of making images that more accurately reflected the long process of mourning. Again using a photograph he’d taken of Josh, the one used as his business card, he hand printed them using a nineteenth century technique that used vegetable juice and sunlight – anthotypes. He then combined these bright red images with the ashes and physically stuck the two together. There is no way to fix an anthotype print – in time they will fade. Over time all that will remain will be the ashes of Josh. Nearly all photographs act as an aide-memoir and as such are deceptive. This series of images speaks more to our current reality of life without Josh.
My father was able to use the ashes as a creative material and make some beautiful images not only for the people that knew Josh but also for many people that did not know him. They felt privileged and touched that he had ‘let them in’ to such a tender and normally private part of our family life by witnessing Josh’s actual ashes as a piece of art.
“All that remains will be – all that remains.”
BRIONY CAMPBELL – saying goodbye with her camera
My father had time to think about his project – (when someone dies, it is after all forever!). When Briony Campbell’s father was diagnosed with cancer he was told that he had just nine months to live. Briony decided to document this with a series of photographs and an accompanying video called The Dad Project. Unlike Goldin’s work, this was a very much conscious process where both father and daughter collaborated. Each of them had to think carefully about what doing this project would mean for them both:
“I agonised for months over whether I should attempt to photograph our relationship at all”.
We learn from her video that for her father the project meant getting to know his daughter in new ways and spending the last of his days doing something worthwhile and productive. For Briony it was more of a way to say goodbye. She was able to use her camera as a medium to do this, but I suspect that at times it was also a way to distance herself from the reality of the situation.
“Each day that brought his imminent death into sharper focus, my project became more of a crutch, and more of a member of the family. When we had nothing to be positive about, the project gave us a way to be productive”
For my father the photographic process he undertook was more of a reflection on my brother’s death once he had already gone. Campbell’s project was of the moment and dealt with the emotions she had as her father was dying. She did not know what was going to happen next or when exactly he would die from his terminal illness:
“When you find out you’re going to lose someone you love you don’t know what the story is, so you really can’t plan how to tell it.”
When we think of images of a dying family member many people are likely to conjure up stereotypical images associated with death – morbid and painful images that could capture pain, suffering, fear or a variety of other negative emotions associated with death. Of course Campbell’s ‘The Dad Project’ series includes those images. But Campbell also creates a story about love. She does this by creating beautiful photographs in a hopeless situation. The video includes humorous chats with her father and I found myself smiling whilst watching it. Similarly, amongst the heartfelt, painful images are picturesque images of light and colour.
“If it were a painful moment, I tried to make the picture more aesthetically beautiful”.
“Today we knew he would die soon. I went outside and looked at the sky while we waited for the ambulance.”
The series contains both pictures of Campbell’s father as well as some self-portraits although, I would argue that the self-portraits are images of her father dying too. I think these are some of the most important images in the series as they show her bravery. To let people see you at your weakest and most vulnerable I find really incredible. In my opinion these self-portraits fuse the series together as they put the whole thing into context by showing not only the experience of the father’s illness but also the impact the illness has on his daughter. This has the result of humanising the whole process. Death here is not a news item, but an everyday occurence.
By taking the images of her father with the conscious aim to memorialise the pictures even before he died, to then take images of herself shows a great understanding and coming to terms with death in general. By photographing herself she is essentially preparing herself for when she dies and exploring this through the images – for me, she is memorialising herself in the images using the same idea of taking a photograph to be there when you are dead.
Most of memorial photography exists of images of smiling people aiming to remember the happy times of a person’s life. Campbell’s work is more of a realistic representation of death and includes photographs that are undoubtedly hard to look at, though the series does also include happy and amusing images. By creating a more rounded view of death and dying, Campbell has somehow reduced the fear that many people have of death. I was able to relate to this by thinking back to the funeral we held for Josh. On the day I felt a bit strange that I wasn’t sad all of the time and I felt quite at ease and cheerful at points through out the day – a lot of our friends said they enjoyed the day and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.
Part of life is that everyone has to die. It is inevitable. At the very least, The Dad Project, opens a door to people and lets them in to this delicate journey.
What becomes clear is that although all three photographers are responding to their encounter with death in very different ways, they are all using photography as a way of coming to terms with loss. For Goldin, photographing her friends is a kind of insurance policy, creating mementos for when they are no longer here. Campbell documents the journey into death in a truly collaborative way and my father is trying to produce new images from my brothers actual remains. And by confronting death and making it real they all go some way to dispelling our fears.
Rosa Harris Edmonds
Keep up to date with what I am doing at university and in my personal projects here and here.
Briony’s film, ‘Saying goodbye with my camera’ can be seen here.
Briony’s photographs of ‘The Dad Project’ can be seen here.
Tom was on the train to work when he read about Josh’s accident on Facebook and wonders whether social media with all their trivialities are the best place to be dealing with death and grief. But he also suggests that “for all the scare stories about social networks eroding cultural values, they equally offer a very traditional form of support during difficult times. And if they make speaking about – and therefore coping with – death a little easier for us collectively then that is surely only a benefit to society, however we end up redrawing the lines of etiquette and media behaviour.”
I find this a fascinating idea – if only because our friend Jessica Nathan (she of wonderful voice at Josh’s funeral) also commented – “people don’t really die on-line” – discuss!