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Channels for grief

Professor Mike Roper discusses grieving and the dynamics of gender and class.
LAURA JAMES: Much of your book deals with the relationship between mothers and their sons that they sent off to war. And of course, this theme comes across in “The 100 Stories,” as well. I’m thinking particularly of the story of Christie Campbell and her son Charlie, at war and the letters that were between them. But there are so many examples. How do you find that these stories of kinship, and also what Jay Winter has called fictive kinship, have come through your work?
PROFESSOR MIKE ROPER: Yeah. Well, I think that you could use the term fictive kin. But I was also thinking, in the book, about the ways in which real families still actually support fictive kin, if you like. To give you an example, there are all sorts of networks that come into play when a man dies. Quite often, his comrade will write a letter to the parents. And so there might be examples of where you might think of comradeship. Or you might think about situations where a man dies, and his comrade, on his next visit back home– which, of course, was possible for soldiers in Britain, but not Australia– that man will visit the dead man’s parents.
And you know, it’s part of the condolence process that goes on. So you could think about fictive kin, but you could also think about the ways in which kin still supports fictive kin. And there are these quite close relations between real kin and fictive kin. So I think that’s one response I”d give to that. My work was– and I think that I probably would want to say that I think that kin, real kin, is incredibly important. And I found it rather astonishing that actually, people hadn’t really thought about, well, who writes to whom? And who seems to be the person who’s being written to most of all? There seems to be a lot more say about kin, still.
And for me, it was a revelation to turn up at the Imperial War Museum and to sit down with collections, and realise, oh, my goodness. They keep writing to their mother. Now, that’s interesting. But it’s also interesting to ask, then, well, what does that mean about fathers? And there’s a lovely line in Wilfred Owen’s letters to his mother, which says something like, you know, nothing but one three times a week will do from you. Nothing less than once a week from Colin, his brother. And then he just says– and father? Question mark. And I still don’t know. What does that question mark mean?
Does it mean he wants his father to write, but there aren’t guidelines about how the connection between fathers and sons should be? Or what does that mean? Now, when it comes to grief, I think there are similar issues about what the role is for fathers. And in “The Hundred Stories,” there are a couple of fascinating examples of fathers who become very involved in the grieving process, like Justice Higgins, who are clearly absolutely heartbroken and very engaged in what on earth to do, and what should come out of this. And becomes interested in pacifism, out of what’s happened to his son.
But it’s also the case in Britain that there’s a sort of social script around the grief being the mother’s burden. So you’ll get husbands saying, I know that my grief can’t approach yours. So there’s a social expectation, if you like, that the primary victim is the mother. Which means that in some cases, I think it must be quite difficult to fathers to know how to associate with their own personal loss. But in a way, they were supposed to be supporting their wives in their loss, because the mother’s loss was seen as primary. If you look at what happens when the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is opened, you know, mothers are given prime place in the ceremony.
And they have a place there above widows. You know, socially, they’re given the seats that dignitaries would have had, once upon a time. So the mother’s grief is seen, is recognised socially, in all sorts of ways that perhaps the father’s– it was harder to find that place for fathers. You get very active fathers who are expressing a lot about their grief. But the social scripts don’t necessarily give them a clear place.
LAURA JAMES: That’s interesting, too. Because a lot of the times, it was the father who was listed as the next of kin, and the father who received the medals. And in service records, you often find a note from the father, saying, give the notes to the mother. So yeah, it’s very interesting.
PROFESSOR MIKE ROPER: Also, the fathers, where if the man, I think, is below 17, they have to sign off.
PROFESSOR MIKE ROPER: 21. That’s right. 21. Yeah, that’s right. They have to sign off their preparedness to let him go.
LAURA JAMES: Well, we find that with the case with the Carman brothers. And David Carman signs of permission form for two of his sons to go to war, and all three died. And he lived with that– I think a sense of responsibility, and also probably just a feeling of remorse that he’s allowed his sons to go to war. And we see on David Carman’s grave the three death pennies of his sons placed on his grave.
PROFESSOR MIKE ROPER: Mm. Well, thinking about to Vera Brittain’s diaries, when she– she’s initially very hard on her father. Because her father doesn’t want the brother to serve. Now, he would have had to sign. The mother is really gung-ho. She– she can’t wait for the son to join up, because she wants to be able to show that they’re doing their bit. And so the mother and son are in this sort of alliance against the father, who’s got grave misgivings about whether this is a good thing to do. So you know, individual patterns in families, they’re quite interesting, aren’t they?
REBECCA WHEATLEY: I think, also, with the mentioning of Henry Higgins, he’s probably the most drawn-on case we have in Australia of a father’s grief. And there’s a few other high-profile ones, but they’re all of a very particular class and education level. So where it’s really hard for us to access the story of, perhaps, working-class or middle-class men who lost their sons in the Great War.
PROFESSOR MIKE ROPER: Would it be the same, however, in general, for the mothers as well? And I think about the British case, where– and you probably have similar examples here. For the upper middle class, one of the things you did when you lost your son was, in effect, you were able to publish what we would now think of as a sort of scrapbook all the son’s life. So you’ll get volumes that run up to hundreds of pages, which are all about his letters from public school. They’re all about– you know, there are photographs. There are copies of the letters he wrote home while serving. They reconstruct the extant traces of that life until the death.
And you know, these were often privately published as memorial books. So the middle class has all these means at their disposal to mediate their grief and to bring it into a public sphere. The grief is less known to us, and there are less public channels for it, in the case of those less well-off.
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