Welcome to Week 3: Bereavement

This week, we’ll be thinking and talking about literature and bereavement.

Like heartbreak, bereavement is something that almost all of us will experience. Many writers have written about their own intense sorrow at the loss of a loved one, and about the difficulty of coming to terms with or accepting this loss. Later in the week, we’ll be looking at some poems by Wordsworth and Hardy which explore this difficulty, and we’ll also be talking to some people who have found literature an immense source of comfort during their own experiences of bereavement.

Grief can affect us in unpredictable and unexpected ways. In 1969, the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed a model for the experience of grief, outlining five emotional stages through which the bereaved person was thought to transition. We take this model as a starting point this week, but while the emotional responses Kübler-Ross mentions - such as anger and denial - might be common to many people who experience loss, we want to emphasise that everyone responds to bereavement differently, and that there is no prescriptive pattern that everyone will follow.

During this video, we listen to Jonathan’s poem ‘Processing’:


It doesn’t really matter what you’ve lost:
Whether it’s the flatline on the bedside monitor
The single hair upon the empty pillow
Or the absence of an incoming text,
You will have to learn that the book of memory
Can still be read but there is nothing more to write.

Whatever it is you’ve lost
It will always be the same:

Perhaps I’ll wake and find it all a dream
We’ll meet again in heaven
He’s still in love with me.

Life is so unfair
God does not care
Why me?
I hate her for leaving me so soon
I hate myself because it must have been my fault.

O God, if I am good, can I have him back?
Dear love, I will do anything
If you give me one more chance.

Nothing matters any more.
Today I will not rise from bed.
In my heart I howl.

She is not coming back.
The sun comes up tomorrow.
The book of memory is filled with joy.
It is not a betrayal
To live
To laugh
To love again.

And in getting there
It helps to look around.
To see the light in a tree of autumn gold
And know that there is beauty when something dies.
To watch the mist lift from the lake at dawn
And know that beneath every shroud
There is a child called hope.

Jonathan Bate

Throughout the course we will be addressing some sensitive and potentially upsetting topics. We encourage all of you to exercise your own judgement, and to skip any material that you think may be distressing rather than helpful for you. Please also remember to be considerate of your fellow learners in the discussion areas, both when commenting and when responding to comments made by others.

If you are experiencing any of the conditions that we discuss during the course, or if you feel that you are in need of help, you should speak to a medical practitioner or counsellor, who will be able to offer professional support. You can also seek help from charities and care organisations such as the Samaritans. We’ve included a link to their website at the bottom of the page.

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This video is from the free online course:

Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

The University of Warwick

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