In 2002 my youngest daughter, Rebecca, died of a rare appendix cancer at the age of 23. For a whole year afterwards I couldn’t say her name and the word ‘died’ in the same breath. Though I am a writer, I lost not only the capacity to articulate my feelings, but also the capacity to write. I stopped dreaming. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to be inside my skin. The silence of my own home, the beauty of my garden, the breath of my animals, the quiet paddocks and the river walks provided no refuge. They were all empty spaces that reverberated with Rebecca’s absence. This new territory was so bleached of colour, so arid and alien, so lacking in anything recognisable that I had no language to negotiate my way through it. And I could form no response to comments such as “Gosh, you’re coping so well.”
One day I came home to find a severe snowstorm had wreaked havoc in our garden. One of the major casualties was a big old plum tree. On summer evenings Rebecca and I used to like lying in a hammock strung between the branches of this tree and a cherry tree, listening to the birds singing. We would reach up through glossy green leaves for huge purple plums and eat them while talking about the ordinary events of our day. During the storm the snow, sleet and rain had saturated the tree and bent it to the ground. One of the branches was broken off, leaving a wound that scoured out half the trunk. The roots were torn from the earth, and barely anchored the tree. As my family and I looked on in dismay, no language was necessary to give clarity to such a metaphor.
Coming face-to-face with a human version of the ravaged tree is devastating. Thus, while some friends drew closer, others vanished, adding to the sense of loss. Many people in contemporary Western societies find language fails them when speaking to bereaved parents. This failure of language is exacerbated by drawing on older models of grief by psychiatrists such as Freud, Bowlby and Kubler-Ross which assumed that grief had a beginning, a middle and an end. This leads many people to believe that one day the bereaved parent will return to ‘normal’. Grieving then becomes an isolated and isolating process.
I turned to books on grieving so see if the words of others could help me identify this alien landscape, but much of the literature on parental grieving has been written from a medical, sociological, psychological or anthropological perspective. Whilst contributing to scholarly discourse, the models of grief in these texts are described in language that is not easily accessible to bereaved parents. In the personal experience stories, which I found the most helpful of all, there was little on the topic of grieving the death of a young adult child from cancer. The idea began to form that if I wrote my own book I could create a map through grief for myself and perhaps also help other bereaved parents construct their own map. But I was still far from taking such a step.
At the end of that first year of grieving my husband and I decided to live for a while in an environment that held no memories of the life we’d known. In 2003 we found jobs in the Arabian Gulf. The experience was so stimulating and challenging that the urge to write about it overcame my block and I filled a journal with my observations. Back in New Zealand a year later I started a Master’s degree in Creative Writing. After completing this I felt more confident about writing about parental bereavement and began a PhD on the topic of grieving the death of a young adult child from cancer. The exegetical part of my thesis examines theories of grief, spiritual perspectives, and the role narrative, language and storytelling can play in healing grief. The creative part of my thesis is a creative non-fiction memoir of my own experience of bereavement and was published as a book in 2011 by Canterbury University Press under the title Sing No Sad Songs.
Long before I began writing Sing No Sad Songs I was accompanied by other writers whose stories informed my own grief, whose words gave me signposts along the way, and helped give shape to my sorrow when I had no words of my own, whose sometimes powerful metaphoric language drew me into the space of the narrative. Within that space I was able to create a synthesis between internal and external realities that made it possible for me, not to ‘recover’ from my grief, but to learn how to navigate my way through it.
Dr Sandra Arnold lives in North Canterbury. She is the author of three books and has a MLitt and PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia. Her short stories have been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally and she is the recipient of several awards including the 2014 Seresin Landfall University of Otago Press Writers Residency and the 2015 New Zealand Heritage Week Short Story Competition. She was shortlisted for the 2016 Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship. Her flash fiction won second place in the July 2016 The Short Story Flash500 Competition and the September 2016 Zero Flash Competition. She was long-listed in the 2016 Flash Frontier Competition, Highly Commended in the 2016 North & South Competition and was a Notable Contender in the 2016 Bristol Prize. Her flash fiction has been published in print and online journals. She has been nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2017 international anthology. She is currently working on a new novel and a collection of short stories and flash fiction. Read more …
Sing No Sad Songs can be ordered from Nationwide Book Distributors.