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Week 3 reflections: bereavement

At the end of each week, we’ll invite you to take a few moments to reflect on the texts, topics and ideas that we’ve been exploring together in the week’s course steps. We’d love to hear any further comments or insights that you have about the course materials we’ve been looking at over the last few days, and we’ll also be sharing a few of our own final thoughts as we round up the week.

You can read our reflections on Week 3 below.

Five stages

Our starting point, this week, was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ theory of the five stages of bereavement, first outlined and explored in her seminal study On Death and Dying (1969). Together, we looked at the five emotional responses identified by Kübler-Ross – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – and reflected on the helpfulness of this as a model for grief. As Dr Andrew Schuman explained to us, there is no pressure or requirement to progress through these emotions in a stipulated order, or over a prescribed time period. Certain emotions may recur, while others may not be experienced at all, depending on the particular circumstances of the bereavement, and on the response of the bereaved individual.

Guilt and regret are two emotional responses which, though powerfully articulated in two of the poems we looked at together this week, seem not to feature in Kübler-Ross’ model. Hardy’s own sense of remorse – his yearning to right former wrongs – is palpable in his poem ‘The Voice’, particularly when the text is read in the light of its biographical context. Wordsworth’s ‘Surprised by Joy’ is similarly illuminated by an understanding of the circumstances of its composition. The writer had lost his three-year-old daughter, and the intense guilt that suddenly seizes him, following a fleeting moment of happiness, is no doubt familiar to many who have struggled with feelings of hope and joy in the aftermath of a loved one’s death.

Although Kübler-Ross does identify ‘denial’ as an early response to bereavement, a number of learners commented that shock should be separately acknowledged, reflecting upon their own experiences of numbness and detachment in the aftermath of an unexpected death. Many learners also remarked that fear was an emotion they associated with bereavement, which did not seem to feature among the five stages. Fear was identified as both an immediate and an ongoing response to loss; some learners talked about a fear of coping – or failing to cope – without a lost loved one, while others also described the fear of future losses that had remained with them following a bereavement.

As several of our contributors have observed this week, an individual’s response to loss will depend not only that individual’s personality, but also on their relationship with the person who has died, and on the particular circumstances of the loss: is the death a sudden shock, or has it been expected for some time? Kübler-Ross’ five stages are not like the observable symptoms of a virus, which present in a particular order over a specified time-period. Rather, these are – as Dr Andrew Schuman articulated – responses which many people will, at some point following a bereavement, experience, in no particular order and for no prescribed length of time. Several of our learners, in the first run of Literature and Mental Health, observed that the Kübler-Ross model is comforting precisely because it imposes a general, comprehensible structure on the otherwise unpredictable and overwhelming experience of grief. Perhaps not altogether unlike the patterns of formal poetry, the five stages provide a kind of containment or control of emotional intensity. Notably, doctors and bereavement counsellors often use visual metaphors to talk to their patients about loss. Grief is envisioned as a large black circle, or as a ball balanced on the tip of a pen. The circle will never shrink, and the ball will never get lighter; but new circles of life will grow around the grief, and over time, the pen will be exchanged for a bowl, making the ball easier to carry. Both of these images help us to conceptualise the pain of bereavement as something which doesn’t diminish, but which we become more able to live with over time. Like Kübler-Ross’ five stage theory, these visual models can help to give structure, containment and shape to the often bewildering experience of grief.

We’ve been focusing, for the most part, on the emotional aspects of the grief response this week, particularly in relation to Kübler-Ross’ model. Like stress and heartbreak, however, bereavement can also manifest itself in a variety of physical and psychological symptoms. Last week, we learned about ‘Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy’ or ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’, a condition mimicking a heart attack, which is triggered by extreme emotional stress, such as the loss of a loved one. As this article from the BBC website outlines, grief can also cause stomach pains and nausea leading to weight loss, and can weaken the immune system, making people increasingly susceptible to infection. Sleeping difficulties are common, as are distraction and forgetfulness. It is important to realise that these responses are entirely normal – that forgetting basic and important things is as much a part of the grief response as crying or feeling angry. Knowing other people have felt the same as you may be of little comfort in the aftermath of a bereavement, but it can help to make the experience of grief less frightening – less isolating – to understand that you’re not alone in your thoughts, emotions and behaviour.

Learning to mourn

Written by 20th century North American poet Robert Winner, ‘Learning to Mourn’ was one of the poems that we came across in our searches on the Poetry Foundation app and website this week. Its title struck us especially pertinent to a number of our conversations this week.

Lucy Clarke suggested that, in the West, we have become less and less comfortable with talking about death. Both as a researcher of grief culture, and as someone who has experienced bereavement, Lucy believes that the rituals and traditions of mourning have been gradually eroded. Grief is internalised, time-limited and glossed over, and an unhealthy pressure is often put on a bereaved person, to ‘move on’ from the death of a loved one.

Particularly in more economically developed countries, people are increasingly alienated from natural cycles of growth and decay, and significant improvements in sanitation and healthcare mean that we confront death less and less regularly. It can be especially difficult to know how to introduce children to the concept of loss, and how best to support bereaved children. We heard from Sophie Ratcliffe this week about her own experience of being bereaved as a child, about the pressure she felt to behave like a ‘grown-up’, and about how reading helped her both to escape from and to cope with her father’s death. For Sophie, as a teenager, John Donne’s poem ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ was an incredible source of reassurance and hope, but for much younger children, there are many books designed to introduce and explore the theme of loss, a few of which we’ve looked at together this week. Some of you will already have been familiar with John Burningham’s Granpa and Julia Donaldson’s Paper Dolls, and may even have read them to your own children or grandchildren. Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley and Judith Kerr’s Goodbye Mog are books cherished by children and adults alike, which very gently address the issues of death, grief and remembrance for young readers. For teenage readers, meanwhile, Patrick Ness’ critically acclaimed novel A Monster Calls tells with painful honesty the story of a young boy losing his mother to terminal illness; the book has been particularly commended for its frank and eloquent handling of the range of emotions children in these situations often feel, including anger, guilt and, most notably, a longing for the inevitable to occur. Such stories are important for children, whether or not they have experienced bereavement early in life; but children’s stories, which offer safe, often straightforward explorations of loss and grief, can also be enormously helpful and reassuring for adults. Indeed, perhaps unsurprisingly, parents and grandparents often find these books more emotionally intense and more cathartic than the young children with whom they share them.

We hope that listening Lucy and Sophie talk about bereavement will have been a helpful and consoling experience for some of our learners. This course simply would not have been possible without the incredible generosity of our contributors, who gave up their time to talk to us so openly about some intensely personal subjects. We are immensely grateful to them, and also to all of you, for helping to create a space in which people feel that they can share their experiences safely and openly, with a supportive community of fellow learners.

It can be incredibly helpful to read or hear about another person’s experience of grief, but there are times when being exposed to the painful emotions of others can exacerbate our own in an unhelpful and potentially harmful way. For this reason, we’d like to remind everyone to pay attention to how the course materials and comment sections are making them feel, and to encourage you all to take breaks from the course if any of the content is causing you distress.

We’ve enjoyed exploring the Poetry Foundation app and website again this week, and we hope that some of you have also found it a rewarding experience. Of the many moving, uplifting and reflective poems that we read during our searches, we wanted to share three – ‘Alone’ by Jack Gilbert, ‘Consolation’ by Wisłava Szymborska and ‘Under the Lemon Tree’ by Marsha De La O – with our learners here. For those of you who like to have some poems to print off and take away, we’ve collated the week’s focus poems, along with a few (out of copyright) poems from the activity, into a PDF, which you can download by following the link at the bottom of the page.

Coming soon

As we approach the half-way point, we’d just like to say how grateful we are to all those of you who have decided to join us as we progress through this course. We look forward to continuing the conversation with you over the next three weeks.

In the first half of the course, we’ve been thinking about some of the mental and emotional challenges of the human experience that almost all of us will encounter. Over the next three weeks, we’ll be moving on to focus on some specific mental health conditions, beginning with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. We’ll be finding out about how the condition was first diagnosed in the military hospitals of the First World War, and we’ll also be trying to broaden and modernise our conception of PTSD, which is a misunderstood and commonly misdiagnosed condition even today. In order to do so, we’ll be speaking to a clinical psychologist who specialises in the treatment of PTSD, and we’ll also be hearing from two contemporary poets, whose writings address their own experiences of trauma.

The very serious conditions we will be exploring in the second half of the course — PTSD, depression, dementia — need to be approached with caution. Please feel free to skip individual steps, or even whole weeks, if you think material may be distressing rather than helpful to you. In particular, some learners may not wish to look at the video footage of First World War shellshock symptoms.

Final thought: books and boxes

Last week, we read and listened to an Emily Dickinson poem about bereavement, entitled ‘The bustle in a house’. Dickinson’s poem captures the impulse to tidy, to gather and order which many people experience in the aftermath of a loss, as well as evoking the strangely serious quality with which grief endows everyday tasks.

In the second stanza of her poem, Dickinson describes a process of ‘sweeping up the heart/ And putting love away’. The image, perhaps, rather poignantly suggests a loss that is too raw, too painful to be confronted; yet the closure described by the poem can seem peculiarly, even unhealthily abrupt.

Jonathan’s poem, ‘Processing’, which we looked at together at the beginning of the week, offers a gentler, more positive and more comforting perspective on closure after loss. ‘The book of memory’, according to this poem, ‘can still be read but there is nothing more to write’. It is an image that balances the acceptance of loss with the cherishing of a person’s memory; it offers both containment and reflection. People who have experienced bereavement are sometimes encouraged to make memory boxes, containing photographs, notes and mementos reminding them of the happy times they have shared with a lost loved one. Like the metaphorical ‘book of memory’ in Jonathan’s poem, the memories contained within these boxes can be revisited at any time, but they can also be temporarily put away when remembering becomes too painful. Memories are kept safe and bounded in a particular place.

We observed, in the introduction to week 3, that there seems to exist an innate human impulse to turn to verse at times of grief, and perhaps it is the case that a commemorative poem, in particular, can serve as a kind of textual memory box. Poems can preserve and protect memories, honour and celebrate them, while the process of writing may itself be immensely cathartic, transforming painful recollections and emotions into external expression. We’d like to end this summary by thanking any learners who have chosen to share their own poems – this week or elsewhere in the course – and any readers who have reflected on and responded sensitively to their fellow learners’ poems.

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Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

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