On Tuesday 5th August 2014 the Harris clan gathered for the funeral of Josh’s grandmother Pat Harris. This was the third family funeral in as many years and we were quite apprehensive about yet another cremation and the possible return of previous painful memories. As she bore her mother’s coffin into the crematorium Jane was conscious of her now ‘orphan’ status and what this might mean both as a daughter and a mother. In a sense we have been caught in the middle of different generational deaths – while we have a good enough word – ‘orphan’ – for a child without parents, we are yet to discover what we should call a parent whose child has died. And while the feelings and the sadness and the pain are so very different we both felt it important we should somehow equate them and make Josh too part of this ceremony for his grandmother. We have a lovely photo of Josh (aged 3) on holiday with Pat and Gerry – sadly one of only a few of the three of them – which we included on the order of service and Josh was mentioned a number of times throughout the day. To be honest this is not easy, we do not want to ‘dilute’ that sense of honour and respect we have for Pat, but at the same time her death and her funeral (as did Gerry’s) wouldn’t seem nearly as significant without Josh being there too. After all he was their grandson and theirs to mourn as we mourn them.
In the end this blending of memories seem to work even though many of Pat’s friends had never met Josh. Compared to the way we said ‘goodbye’ to Josh, both Pat’s and Gerry’s funerals were more mute affairs though we carried forward the idea of inviting people to write messages on ribbons which could be tied to a flower and laid on the coffin as a central ‘doing’ act to the ritual. Although there are strong Jewish roots to the family, our funerals are non religious and perhaps a bit ‘modern’ provoking one elderly relative afterwards to remark “what kind of funeral was that?” Our wonderful celebrant Ian Stirling was quick to respond – “that was a Pat Harris kind of funeral.”
Funerals are of course for the living – and for what we take away from them as much as the memories we bring. We were all very moved by the poem that Jane read at the service and reproduced below. We know now that grief is hard work, maybe not so much for the death of a parent or a grandparent as it is for your child; but work nevertheless. And in that work, and in that experience of grief, inevitably we learn new things, new ways of looking at life. That is the gift our loved ones leave us.
“Comes The Dawn” by Veronica A. Shoffstall
After a while you learn the subtle difference
Between holding a hand and chaining a soul,
And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
And company doesn’t mean security,
And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
And presents aren’t promises,
And you begin to accept your defeats
With your head up and your eyes open
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,
And you learn to build all your roads on today,
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans,
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.
After a while you learn
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.
So you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure…
That you really are strong,
And you really do have worth.
And you learn and learn…
With every goodbye you learn.
This is one of the last photos we took of Pat, just two months before she died. We had recently collected Gerry’s ashes from the undertakers (this was over a year since he died – why it took so long is anybody’s guess) and Pat had asked that they be scattered around a particular tree in the old family home near the golf courses in Troon. The tree had been given to them as a wedding present in 1951 and was one of many that Gerry planted subsequently in the many years they lived there. But the house now has new owners and we needed to get their permission. We had planned to do this on our next visit but life and death intervened.
It was the day following Pat’s funeral then, that we met again for another special ritual. Jane had asked the present occupiers of the house who kindly obliged – and with considerable grace as their afternoon was about to be disturbed by eight adults and two children, none of whom were dressed in the manner customarily required for the dignified disposal of a family patriarch. Neither of us can remember being so involved in the funerals of our grandparents. In fact we were positively discouraged from even attending. In those days it wasn’t seen at all appropriate that young children should be present on such occasions – something to do with protecting their innocence, shielding them from sadness, from raw feelings. Yet here we were half a century later, on a bright summer’s day wandering around somebody else’s garden, carrying a box of human remains and with kids in tow!
‘With every goodbye you learn …’ And that learning can and maybe should start at any age, best done in the act of doing, of actual participation in ritual. For Pat and Gerry’s great grandchildren, Naomi and Louis, even while they may not recognise the full meaning of this day, hopefully they will remember the weight and the feel of their forebears ashes as no less fearful than the bark on the tree and the dirt in the ground.
Thank you for reading
Jane and Jimmy
For an evocative set of photographs from the day of Granny Pat’s funeral please take a look at this gallery
We’ve done it. We’ve been to Vu Quang where you died in the middle of the road. It feels nearly as hard to say that as when we first heard the news of your death. But it is real, just as your death is real so we really have been to see the place where you died and to meet some of the people who were there at the time. In a sense these are the facts, what we make of them, how we remember them, what stories we tell around them and where we put them in the timescale of our own lives is another matter.
Our day began on the morning after the night train from Hoi An to Vinh. Actually this final part of our ‘pilgrimage’ to see where you took your last breath really started as we boarded the train with that sense that here we are at last; after more than two years we will soon be connecting with you in a way that we never wished we’d have to.
The train is cramped, crowded and noisy and we get very little sleep but as the morning light comes up, we now know that we are in Ha Tinh province, up until now only a name on a map, a name in a police report. We are glued to the window as the countryside lumbers past, spellbound by the sheer number of lotus flowers and paddy fields all with peasants in conical hats working the land. Our first opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of rural Vietnam.
Next door to us is a family of 10 happily cramped in to their tiny compartment. Their two youngest boys have spent much of the journey (irritatingly and charmingly) tapping on our window and pressing their noses against the glass and then running off down the corridor chasing a tennis ball. Squeezing past them is the steward and his trolley offering up rice and soup for breakfast which we decline politely. The last timewe were on such a sleeper we were on our way to Italy. You were eight and Rosa was three. We were going to spend a week with Sam and Doone and their Mum Adrienne. Remember the dead snake they were so keen to show us as soon as we arrived. To feel you so close yet to know you couldn’t be further away is so hard. and we wish with all our heart we could hug you one last time.
We are met at Vinh railway station by Uoc, the Vietnamese secondary school teacher who helped your friends after the accident. He is one of very few fluent English speakers in this remote part of Vietnam. Josh, we want you know this about Uoc; he is a complete LEG-END. One of the kindest, most thoughtful people we have ever met. Before our trip, and when first we contacted the British Embassy in Hanoi we asked how we could find the man who was called out from his class to translate and help with the police reports. We received an email almost by return from Uoc himself – it was as if he’d been waiting for us to find him. Now as we step of the train (which is running nearly and hour late) he is there to greet us. He has spotted us immediately (mind you, we are pretty easy to identify as the only white people on the platform) and guides us to a food stall under some trees near the taxi rank. Uoc has the look of a young boy, with wide eyes that are hungry for knowledge and as we sit drinking sweet cold sugar cane juice, he begins to tell us what happened when he arrived at the scene of your accident. But it is all too much too soon. We have only just stepped off the train and we need to adjust a little more to being in the presence of the man who would’ve seen your body lying in the road. The enormity of what lies ahead for us, is, we realize, only now beginning to sink in.
We arrive at Uoc’s home town Huong Son after a two hour dusty car ride through countryside that we imagine you too would have been familiar with. Not that many cars on the road but so many motorbikes, so many trucks and buses, all with horns blaring, weaving through potholes, overtaking, undertaking, this side, which side of the road, all avoiding each other and all surviving, all somehow staying alive to do the same tomorrow. It is midday and Uoc takes us for lunch. Huong Son is not the sort of place for restaurant so you get and you eat what you’re given. Soup, noodles, pigs foot, some spring rolls (as you will know you get spring rolls of varying quality everywhere in Vietnam) and some strange pickled berry things that are common fare for the indigenous peoples from the hills not far from here – (not that nice!)
Huong Son buzzes with life but it is far from the tourist trail and the rooms in the hotel Uoc has booked for us are dark and decrepid; a Turkish jail would have more charm. Very basic really, particularly after the luxury of the house in Hoi An but again the sort of place you would’ve taken it in your stride – (note to selves – must look up that footage you took of deciding who should get the beds by playing paper/rock/scissors – you lost we think). But Uoc has planned everything for us with real sensitivity and he wants us to be fully rested before he takes us to Vu Quang. Jimmy and Joe doze, Jane stays awake. It is late afternoon when Uoc comes back to collect us.
Vu Quang and the moment on Ho Chi Minh highway where you swerved to avoid an old man walking his bike up the hill, is a short half hour journey away. In the car with us are Uoc, his sister and his two year old baby daughter Sami who bounces around between front and back seat. There is something normalising about them being there. For them just another ordinary day out. Rosa points out Vietnam is so spiritual there is room for both life and death here.
We are now traveling down the same road you and your friends were on two years ago and we can all sense the exhilaration and the real fun you would be having on your motorbikes as the countryside, this beautiful countryside sped past. The road rises and falls over a gently undulating landscape of forest and farmland both meeting the roadside as abruptly as past meeting the present. The driver narrowly misses a water buffalo which has decided to resist its owners attempts to prevent it taking a shit in the middle of the highway.
A mile or so later we begin to recognize the landscape from the photos of the area we have seen on Google Maps. The road divides into a dual carriage way and the line of lampposts on the central island stretch into the distance. The driver slows and pulls over to the side as we approach what looks like a roadside police check and our first thought is we have been booked for speeding. But Uoc has arranged for us to meet the cop who attended the scene of your accident. This is amazing. Uoc really has thought of everything to make this journey of ours as meaningful as possible. The policeman looks at Joe and then at Rosa saying they must be your brother and sister as they look so much like you. He then follows on his bike and a couple of miles later we again pull over to the side.
We are here. The heat blasts us as we step out of the car. (All new cars in Vietnam have air-con – but we guess you know that!) It’s like walking into a wall of solid hot air but we also have a very real sense that we are stepping through a curtain of time, to a place where time itself no longer has the power to order our lives. The early evening sun throws long shadows as we clamber out onto the tarmac. We are a now family of five again, together in spirit and bound by love and our completeness spreads out across the hard gritty surface with an unexpected and soothing calm. Here at the place of your death we can feel the chains of mourning beginning to loosen just a little. At first there is nothing to say. Then our wondering becomes wandering and silently we begin to explore the scene, each our own archeologist superimposing previous imaginings onto this very real, this very actual roadside . When did we-five become we-four? How did five become four? Why, oh why did we lose you? In some ways we already know the answers to these questions so what we learn here is confirmation not of the facts of your death but a sort of joining together of our own stories – stories that were ‘then’ becoming much more stories that are ‘now’, and stories we can now perhaps stitch together into the fabric of what has to be – our lives continuing on while yours does not.
A constant stream of dumper trucks labours up the hill from the nearby quarry. Past them and on either side flow motorbikes with a variety of loads, hay bales, water canisters, mattresses. Did you see them like we see them now? A farmer harnesses an ox to his cart and leads it across the road oblivious of the traffic. Did you notice him? Somewhere behind a gateway a dog barks. Did you hear it? And did you see, did you sense, were you aware of the people rushing to the roadside as you fell? Because Josh, just as two years ago when they came to witness something out of the ordinary on this unremarkable stretch of the Ho Chi Minh Highway, so now they are gathering to watch and observe us, a party of Europeans with their cameras and their sunburn and their somber looks. There seems to be something vaguely amusing in this spectacle until Uoc explains our presence. He thinks he has discovered someone who actually saw your accident: someone who then explains at length the events of that day. The crowd assembles while we wait for the translation, but it turns out he is only a friend of the person who saw it. As would happen anywhere, everybody wants a piece of the action, a claim on the tale to be told; especially when death is one of the players. This is of no consequence. It is clear that all the stories of that terrible day do tally and we are content just hear the sound of voices and be in the presence of strangers that have also been marked by your death.
And Josh, they have been marked and they do remember. On 16th January each year since, a small shrine appears by this roadside. Wherever we have gone in Vietnam, people remember their dead by bringing offerings, (you will like this Josh) of sweets, beer, chocolates, fruit and cake! – and of course incense. Uoc says he too comes here on that day bringing as he does today a box of cakes. We begin to prepare our own shrine for you. We have brought a few momentos; some photos, one of your business cards, a Ministry of Sound CD, a card from the Gales, a string of shells that Hollie and Charlie have made. One of the villagers runs over with an old yogurt pot filled with sand. This is to place our incense sticks and at first he wants to put it in the middle of the road, on the actual spot where you lost your life. Others are walking out into the highway to debate the point. Is it here, no more likely it is there, perhaps it was here; we can see them becoming quite troubled in their need to get it right. Would you know, would you care?
In the end we call them back to the verge and the yogurt pot finds what feels like its rightful place under the safety barrier. Uoc leads our little ritual and lights the incense sticks which we take turns to set in the sand. This is our biggest moment and it is not without tears – and a long, long group hug. In the purest and simplest way possible we are honouring you and we are remembering you with a small ceremony that is and will remain as important to us as your funeral. But this time we are borrowing from another culture and another set of beliefs where people are expected to live on, to be reincarnated, where karma is of utmost importance to life and death, and where the spirit of ones ancestors have a sacred place at the heart of every home to be looked after and revered for all time. 80% of Vietnamese are Buddhists and practicing or not there isn’t a house in this country where the first thing you see as you enter is a shrine to the departed.
Uoc, his sister, and 2 year old and the policeman are squatting by the roadside. They are watching Joe as he ties some Tibetan prayer flags onto a lamppost (another gift from the Gales). Below it he scratches your name. Rosa scratches a kiss. Uoc promises that he will continue to come here every year on January 16th – and we believe him – absolutely. ‘This is’ he says ‘your day of the dead’. We are not Buddhists and we don’t believe in life after death, but what we did last Monday was deeply affecting. We will carry this moment and make it part of our goodbye to you… our forever.
With so much love
Mum and Dad
Ps – later that evening Uoc invited us around to his house for dinner. Afterwards some of his students came round eager to practice their English. Joe was more than happy to oblige with an impromptu evening class.
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:firstname.lastname@example.org
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
Here’s a link to an interview we did with Patrick McNally of THE DAILY UNDERTAKER Patrick asked some very interesting questions about how we organised Josh’s funeral, why we chose to “do it ourselves”, what it meant for us to create our own funeral rite for Josh.
“I was so driven by the wish not to be afraid that Josh was dead but had no idea how to do that but by the end of the celebration of his life I somehow felt a lot less afraid than I had done.” Jane
“Two young police officers had brought us the news of Joshua’s death and for his body to be committed by more unknowns felt just too much – you can’t hug a policeman, neither did I feel like hugging an undertaker – it felt like the only way to properly deal with this was to gather family and friends around and share our grief, and not just for half an hour at the “crem”. Jimmy