Week 3 summary: Bereavement

Each week, we’ll be reading through your comments and reflections to collate them into a summary, giving an overview of some of the conversations that have been taking place on the course. You can read the summary for week three below. We know that lots of you have taken part in Jonathan’s other University of Warwick FutureLearn course Shakespeare and His World, and we’re delighted that you’ve decided to join us again! If you’ve taken part in Shakespeare and His World, you’ll be used to watching video round-ups at the end of each week. These round-ups provide an excellent opportunity for us to reflect on the week’s content and comments, but they are time-consuming to produce, and we felt that, for this course, it was more important to spend that time getting involved in the conversations on the discussion feeds. For this reason, we’ll be writing text summaries, based on our collective experiences over the week.

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. Many of you could identify with some or all of these reactions to loss, although few learners had experienced a linear progression through the stages. 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, regret, and relief were three emotions that many of you felt had been overlooked by Kübler-Ross’ model. Several learners wrote with moving honesty about elderly friends and family members, whose deaths were welcomed as a release from earthly suffering. A number of you commented that Kübler-Ross’ ‘bargaining’ stage did not sufficiently address the sense of regret sometimes experienced for missed opportunities with lost loved ones, and many learners identified guilt as a common and associated response which, though absent from the five stage model, was powerfully articulated in two of the poems we looked at this week. Particularly in the light of the biographical details we discussed, several of you remarked that Hardy’s own remorse – his yearning to right former wrongs – is palpable in his poem ‘The Voice’. The conflicting emotions expressed in Wordsworth’s ‘Surprised by Joy’, meanwhile, were familiar to many, who commented that they, like Wordsworth, had felt guilty for experiencing happiness or hope in a world without a lost loved one.

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.

Generally, however, learners felt that Kübler-Ross’ five stage model was a source of comfort, even if it didn’t reflect their own experiences exactly. A number of you were reassured by the structure that the model imposes on the otherwise unpredictable and overwhelming experience of grief. Several even drew parallels between Kübler-Ross’ five stages and the patterns of formal poetry, suggesting that both provide a kind of containment or control of emotional intensity. As Andrew observed in our conversation, the Kübler-Ross model can also be helpful for reassuring people that their responses to bereavement are entirely normal, and that others have felt the same way; another similarity between the model and poetry seems to offer itself here, in that both can help us to realise that we are not alone.

Last week, we read and listened to an Emily Dickinson poem about bereavement, entitled ‘The Bustle in a House’. While not everyone could identify with the notion of ‘putting love away’, the impulse to tidy, to gather and order in the aftermath of bereavement – so poignantly captured in Dickinson’s poem – is one that was familiar to many of you. In imposing a structure on the experience of loss, Kübler-Ross’ model seems to speak to this impulse, and so, too, do the visual metaphors for grief used by doctors and bereavement counsellors, which a number of learners very kindly shared with us this week. 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.

Learning to mourn

Written by 20th century North American poet Robert Winner, ‘Learning to Mourn’ was one of the poems shared by learners in the Poetry Foundation discussion this week. Its title struck us especially pertinent to a number of the conversations that have been taking place on the course.

A significant number of you have reflected, this week, that modern society struggles to accept or acknowledge death. 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. In our conversation, Lucy Clarke suggested that the rituals and traditions of mourning have been gradually eroded. Grief is internalised, time-limited and glossed over; many of you were only too familiar with the painful and unhealthy pressure often put on a bereaved person, to ‘move on’ from the death of a loved one.

Many learners agreed with Lucy that, in the West, we have become less and less comfortable with talking about death. Given this observation, it is striking that so many of the books discussed among learners this week are children’s books, written to introduce the theme of loss. A number of you were familiar with the two books that Andrew talked about in our conversation, having read John Burningham’s Granpa or Julia Donaldson’s Paper Dolls to your own children or grandchildren. Another children’s book that a several learners mentioned was Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley, a story about grief, but also about remembrance, introducing children to the notion that lost loved ones can live on through us, and in our memories of them. A number of learners reflected on their experiences of reading these books to children and grandchildren. For many of you, the process of sharing these stories was an intensely emotional and even cathartic one; indeed, perhaps not altogether surprisingly, the adult readers of these books were often far more moved by the stories of loss than their young listeners were.

Hearing Lucy and Sophie talk about bereavement has been a helpful and consoling experience for a number of learners. Several of you commented that you recognised elements of your own grief in Lucy’s and Sophie’s testimonies, while other learners remarked that they now felt more comfortable sharing their own experiences of loss, having listened to other people do the same. 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 been delighted, once again, by the response to the Poetry Foundation discussion this week, and we’d like to thank you for all of the moving, uplifting and reflective poems that have been shared so far in the comment section. Among the poems that featured most regularly were ‘Alone’ by Jack Gilbert, ‘Consolation’ by Wisłava Szymborska and ‘Under the Lemon Tree’ by Marsha De La O. 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: the book of memory

You will have to learn that the book of memory
Can still be read but there is nothing more to write.

These two lines are taken from Jonathan’s poem ‘Processing’, which was the first text we listened to together this week. Of all the poem’s metaphors for the grief experience, it was this image of the ‘book of memory’ that has elicited the most responses from learners. The notion that our treasured recollections can be collated, reread and revisited in a metaphorical book seemed, to many of you, an immensely comforting one; the suggestion that ‘there is nothing more to write’, meanwhile, prompted more discussion, with some learners describing how they still feel that they are adding to their memory book, as they carry the remembrance of their lost loved ones with them through life.

Whether writing new memories or revisiting old ones, it is certainly the case that a significant number of you have chosen to share original poems in the comment sections over the last few days. We observed, in the introduction to week 3, that there seems to be a kind of innate human impulse to turn to verse at times of grief, and this observation has been borne out in the discussions this week. Indeed, a number of you remarked that writing about your own grief offered a form of solace that reading about other people’s did not. Poems allow us, figuratively and literally, to compose our responses to grief: to commemorate and honour a loved one who has passed away; to shape and explore the experience of loss.

It takes considerable courage to share an original poem with others, and particularly one which refers to personal, perhaps painful emotions. We’ve been touched and very humbled by your poems this week, and we’d like to thank all of the writers among you, as well as all the readers who have reflected on and responded so sensitively to their fellow learners’ poems.

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Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

The University of Warwick

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