Many New Zealanders have first-hand experience of earthquakes and through television have seen the devastation caused by hurricanes, floods, typhoons and tsunamis. The stories that come out of these disasters are similar to the stories I read during my research into parental bereavement for my PhD thesis. First, in terms of reaction, there’s the initial paralysing shock and fear of the future, then there’s struggling to survive, and finally, for most people, there’s rebuilding. In grieving any kind of major disaster it can take a long time to determine how to make life work again in a world that has irrevocably changed.
For many people who experienced the earthquakes in Christchurch in 2010 and 2011, and the thousands of aftershocks, part of that determining involved talking about what happened. Others felt it was too raw to talk about. Some who didn’t experience the quakes wanted to hear all the details. Others wished people would change the subject. Some tried to educate themselves on the causes and effects of earthquakes. Words outside our normal vocabulary peppered the stories we told each other.
The vocabulary of natural disasters is often used by bereaved parents to describe the devastation they feel on the death of their child: a tidal wave; a tsunami of the soul; waves of unimaginable misery; freezing to death; buried in a deep dark hole. In modern Western society, thanks to advances in medical knowledge and good parenting practice, we’re no longer so familiar with this kind of disaster. We assume our children will outlive us. When they don’t, we lack the coping mechanisms and support networks that sustained previous generations for whom child death was a common occurrence.
My ‘tsunami of the soul’ happened in 2002 when my youngest daughter, Rebecca, died of cancer at the age of 23. I turned, as always, to books and read everything I could find on cancer, death, grief and the way it is handled in Western societies. This literature became an important part of what Arthur Frank refers to in The Wounded Storyteller (The University of Chicago Press, 1995) as the process of “reconstructing one’s map”. When I read about or listened to the experiences of others who had lost a child I gained some insight into my own grief. These stories became signposts while I was negotiating foreign territory. Though I found information on grieving the death of babies, children, teenage suicide and violent death in young adults, there was almost nothing on grieving the death of a young adult child from cancer. One of the reasons for this is that cancer in the 18 to 25 year old group is very rare.
A gap existed in the literature, so I decided to write my PhD thesis on the topic. A PhD in Creative Writing has a creative component and an exegesis, the theoretical, analytical component. In this way I thought I might find answers to my questions. In the creative component I wrote my own story of bereavement and called it Sing No Sad Songs. The title was inspired by a poem by Christina Rossetti that begins: When I am dead my dearest, sing no sad songs for me… A song can be both sad and celebratory, so it seemed an apt title for a book that describes the sadness of losing a beautiful, talented daughter, but which is also a celebration of her life and all I learned from her.
Analytical studies contribute to scholarly understanding of grief, but the clinical language renders them inaccessible to many bereaved parents. However, through the telling and receiving of stories we can give structure to our experience. Dan McAdams, in The Stories we Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (Guildford Press, 1997), draws on research in developmental, social and clinical psychology to show how humans create stories throughout their lifetimes. He attributes this story-making impulse to the human urge to make sense of and find meaning in crises by assimilating them into personal myths. He says the stories we tell about ourselves evolve as a way of maintaining identity and accommodating our changing view of the world.
Doris Lessing put it more simply when she said, after learning she had won the Nobel Prize for literature:
Narrative is hard-wired into our consciousness.”
The exegesis became the place to store everything I learned about psychological and sociological theories of grief, the language of grief, and the way narrative can be used as a tool to help the bereaved. As I read and wrote I began to understand the multi-faceted nature of grief and the commonality of my experience as well as its uniqueness. I learned that the old models of grief – derived from the work of psychiatrists such as Freud, Bowlby and Kubler-Ross – assumed that grief had a beginning, middle and an end. This explained why many people in Western societies believe that one day grieving will end and the bereaved will return to ‘normal’ or, to use that media cliché, ‘achieve closure’. Newer models of grief present the process as far more fluid. In other words, there is no ‘closure,’ no returning to a life without loss.
Memoir is close to fiction in its narrative form and I used techniques commonly used in fiction, such as the personal voice, scene setting, dialogue, layering, tense shifts, flashbacks, metaphor and simile to construct my story. In ‘creative nonfiction’ these devices are used to illuminate fact, as distinct from using fiction to enhance fact or using fact to enhance fiction. With these techniques I wrote a creative nonfiction narrative that would allow readers an entry point from which to tell their own stories. Writing a creative nonfiction memoir as opposed to fiction gave me freedom to write honestly. I agree with Thomas Larson who, in his book The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading & Writing Personal Narrative (Swallow Press, 2007), writes that trying to be honest about the difficulty in unearthing what’s painful may be the truest thing one can do.
Sandra Arnold is a novelist, short story writer and essayist. Her memoir Sing No Sad Songs was published by Canterbury University Press in 2011. Her work appears in numerous international journals and anthologies, most recently in Bonsai: Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press, NZ, 2018). In 2019 her third novel Ash will be published by Mākaro Press (NZ) and her first flash fiction collection Soul Etchings will be published by Retreat West Books (UK). She is on the advisory board and is a guest editor for Meniscus: The Australasian Association of Writing Programmes.