Archives for category: Grief

‘A true tale of love, death and DNA’

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I saw this affecting work last night at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, North London. The Penny Dreadful production is currently on a UK National tour. The play is a profoundly thought-provoking piece, which directly challenges us to consider issues around mortality, immortality, and the ultimate question of what happens to us when we die.

Do we cease to be at that point?

The Henrietta Lack story encourages a consideration of this question. Lacks died as a result of cervical cancer in 1951, at the age of 31. However, the cells from her aggressive cancer, known as HeLa and which contain all the DNA that constituted Lack’s genetic make-up, continue to survive and to replicate in laboratory conditions, producing the first ever ‘immortal cell line’. Despite the dubious ethical issues that surround the original procurement of Lack’s cells (her children were never told, and Lack’s cells were public property until 2013), research based on HeLa has been directly responsible for the development of treatments for conditions such as AIDs, cancer, cystic fibrosis and vaccines, and many more. HeLa cells have also provided the foundation for mapping the human genome.

How To Be Immortal interweaves three true stories: Henrietta Lack’s own story and that of Dr Gey and his wife who ‘discovered’ HeLa in 1951, the story that Lack’s daughter Deborah (1996) was born into (she was a baby when her mother died) but only discovered later in life, and the contemporary narrative of Rosa and Mick. Mick, similar Lack, also has a rare and aggressive type of cancer, from which he dies. The issue of research, using cells from his tumour – this time with consent – is presented to the distraught Rosa. She agrees, and the outcome leads to a healing of sorts. Deborah also seems to experience a coming-to-terms with her mother’s death, and with its aftermath

I applaud the blend of science and of the essence of humanness, particularly its essential vulnerability, that How To Be Immortal successfully balances to create a living performance that raises questions it does not necessarily set out to answer. It is our job, the audience, to consider what has been presented to us:

Who and what are we, and does our ‘make-up’ extend beyond our DNA?

When we die, what do we leave behind? A contribution to some genetic pool, or memories, that may only remain until the death of the last remembering person?

Unanswerable questions, perhaps, but worthy of reflection…

While walking to work on Monday, I heard an interview with the rapper Professor Green on the morning news. The singer’s father committed suicide six years ago, an event that he is still trying to come to terms with. Professor Green hosts a BBC Radio 1 documentary programme on suicide survivors, which commenced this week (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03q0xdx).

In the BBC news interview, Professor Green spoke of the impact his father’s suicide has had on him, and the range of emotions he has experienced in its aftermath. Initially angry with his father, he now realises the complexity of the issues surrounding suicide and suicide attempts, and concludes that:

‘I don’t want to get too wrapped up in trying to understand why Dad did what he did. To hold on to that would be detrimental to me.’

Suicide is indeed complex – and individual – on every level, and its aftermath can be devastating for those affected. I have known people who have committed suicide, work colleagues who I was friendly with although not close to, and I found each event deeply distressing. I have no moral contentions with suicide. As with most decisions humans have the right to make, suicide is for me is an exclusively personal decision, and one that is the prerogative of the sufferer. Although the aftermath of the event will inevitably ripple and devastate far, this consequence is rarely something that those contemplating suicide can actually register within their own overwhelming distress.

A few months ago I was in the front carriage of a tube that came to a sudden stop just outside a station. Someone had jumped in front of the train. Shortly afterwards, we were ushered off the train through the driver’s carriage, acutely aware that a body lay just beneath us. I have no idea who that person was or why he/she decided to commit suicide. Nonetheless, I walked away from that train station distressed and profoundly sad, and also burdened by the disturbing realisation that we must have known about the death of someone unknown to us before relatives had been informed.

I have been reading Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note and this week came across Virginia Woolf’s letter to her husband Leonard written on the day she committed suicide.

Woolf’s final act appears to have been a very deliberate and thought-through one. She had already attempted suicide just a few days before she succeeded. The letter that she left for her husband feels considered, almost rational in its conclusion that death was the only conceivable option:

‘I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel certain that we can’t go through another of those terrible times.’

‘So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.’

The letter also attempts to unburden Leonard of any consequent guilt:

‘What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you.’

‘I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.’

Not surprisingly, guilt is something that is often expressed by those close to suicide victims. The poet Peter Porter refers to it in his collection The Cost of Seriousness, whose ‘controlling theme is a lament for my first wife, Jannice’, who killed herself in 1974:

‘Though you are five months dead, I see

You in guilt’s iconography’

‘The words and faces proper to

My misery are private’ (from An Exequy)

Words from those who are about to commit suicide, and those who suffer in its aftermath, speak to the complexity of the trauma and distress that surrounds the issue. Its very ‘unknowingness’ as well our inevitable resorting to ‘what if’ questions point to our need to understand, and of course to prevent, where possible, the act.

Perhaps Professor Green’s documentary on the subject will shed some light…

CQ

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Susan Hill’s novel, written in 1974, is a story about loss, relationships, and about how we mourn.

The acute loss central to the story results from the sudden death of Ruth’s young husband Ben. However, a more global pre-existing loss is also unmasked by the tragedy.

Ruth is devastated by Ben’s death, and inhabits a place of unremitting despair where she is untouchable by others. Reluctantly, she attends the funeral, where she resents the mourning of others:

‘She imagined the line of dark mourners mounting the stairs and peering into the coffin. As Ben. Ben. How could they? How could so many people have touched him and looked at him, unasked, since the moment of his death, when she herself had not?

But it was better. She thought, they don’t have Ben.’

‘They were forcing her to take part in some curious ritual of their own…’

My sister’s husband died a few years ago, and I can see her response to his death, and to fellow-mourners, in Ruth’s behaviour. At the time, I struggled with my sister’s reaction, as I tried to deal with both his loss from our lives and also her belief that only she was entitled to mourn this loss.

Ruth, with time, comes to realise the wide-reaching effects of Ben’s death:

‘The death of Ben Bryce had been like a stone cast into still water, and the water had become a whirlpool with Ruth sucked down into the terrible heart of it. But the waves spread out, through the countryside down to the village and beyond the village. People felt changed, as if by war or earthquake or fire, even those who lived closest to death and knew its face.’

She comes to acknowledge her behaviour at the time:

‘But she had been too wrapped up, first within the warm womb of her happiness with Ben, and then in the cold shell of grief. She had not thought of anyone.’

We read to find ourselves, and to witness experiences that resonate with our own. Thus, within In the Springtime of the Year, I found some consolation in its echoes of my sister’s reaction to her husband’s death:

‘…she had kept Ben’s death to herself, as a private thing, tried to possess it utterly and allow no one else the right to mourn…’

CQ

I had my first experience of a Death Cafe event last night. Conceived approximately three years ago, the cafes are spaces where people come to ‘drink tea, eat cake and discuss death’ (http://deathcafe.com/). The aim of the movement is to facilitate an openness and awareness of death, thereby enhancing the quality of our lived and finite lives.

Although it was more supper and wine on the menu last night than tea and cake, the event lived up to and exceeded any expectations I might have had. It may seem odd to those who rarely dwell on the inescapable and shared fact of our immortality, but being in an environment where people openly shared their thoughts and fears, and non-fears, on the ultimate taboo subject was enlightening and refreshing. And not in the least bit depressing…

Over the past few days, I have read some interesting and diverse pieces on death and dying.

Firstly, a systematic review by Lehto and Stein on death anxiety (http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/66464/?sequence=1). Death anxiety in this context is ‘a term used to conceptualize the apprehension generated by death awareness.’ An all-pervasive anxiety, I suspect, which seems to have been heightened by the technologically advanced and led world we currently live in, where anything is or should be possible, including immortality, or at the very least an indefinite postponement of death.

The aim of the study was to identify factors that contribute to or are significantly associated with death anxiety. Lack of robust data on the topic limited the power of the review to draw definitive conclusions, but, unsurprisingly, important antecendents of death anxiety appear to include ‘stressful environments and the experience of unpredictable circumstances’, as well as personal experience of a life-threatening illness/event, and with death and dying. At my table last night, we pretty much all reported such life experiences to some extent, although the apparent levels of anxiety appeared to vary within the group. A complex issue.

I also came across the writer Jenny Diski’s recent musings on death and dying (http://www.berfrois.com/2013/12/jenny-diski-on-night-and-more/). In an amusing piece titled ‘Dirty Dying’, Diski considers her personal relationship with thinking about death:

‘I’ve never understood about boredom…But how can anyone be bored when there’s always death to think about? Every day. Every hour. Don’t you? All the rest is just evading or glossing the real subject of our lives.’

While currently re-reading Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated By My Illness, I encountered this thought-provoking reflection from a 30 year old man dying from leukemia:

‘I don’t think people are afraid of death. What they are afraid of is the incompleteness of their lives.’

Which brings me to what I most enjoyed, and which both reassured and liberated me, during and subsequent to  last night’s Death Cafe event: there was no evasion, no avoidance, but instead, for those moments there existed the real possibility of talking about death in a welcoming and open environment, where people chatted, shared and laughed about lives that include death as a (mostly) welcome and also essential component of how we live. That is not to say that everyone present was accepting and comfortable about the prospect of their own death and dying and that of their loved ones. At times, there was an almost palpable sadness and grief. But that was ok, and it was also ok to talk about such feelings. Accepting death does not preclude grief and the profound sense of loss that one experiences for those who are no longer physically present in one’s life.

I end with Pablo Neruda and his succinct conclusion on the topic in the poem A Dog Has Died:

‘There are no good-byes for my dog who has died,

and we don’t now and never did lie to each other.

So now he’s gone and I buried him.

and that’s all there is to it.’

CQ

I saw the film Philomena at the weekend. I had initially been reluctant to see it, finding the stories that have unfolded following The Magdalene Sisters deeply disturbing and tragic. Yet, the stories need to be told, and their telling needs to be witnessed.

Philomena shares one such story, from an Ireland of the 1950s, where to be pregnant and single was profoundly sinful, with the sinner duly brutally punished in the eyes of Catholic Church by God’s most loyal and complicit servants, the nuns.

The story that unfolds in Philomena is gripping and revelatory, not for the obvious reasons, but because, at least for me, the film made me consider issues around forgiveness – how truly admirable a virtue it can be, and how difficult it can be to achieve.

I thought of Philomena again today, when a poem I came across reminded me of the hidden away graves in the convent where the mothers-to-be were incarcerated.

The poem, Stillborn by Derry O’Sullivan, appears in 3Quarks Daily (http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2013/11/tuesday.html) and an excerpt follows:

‘You were born dead

and your blue limbs were folded

on the living bier of your mother…

…The priest said it was too late

for the blessed baptismal water

that arose from Lough Bofinne

and cleansed the elect of Bantry…

…You were buried there

without cross or prayer

your grave a shallow hole;

one of a thousand without names

with only the hungry dogs for visitors…

…Limbo is the place your mother never left…

where she strains to hear the names of nameless children

in the barking of dogs, each and every afternoon.’

CQ

Ahead of tomorrow’s announcement, I am finally getting round to a post I have been planning for some time.
I initially set out to read all the Booker Prize longlist, but had only managed six before the shortlist was announced. Of these six, only one made it to the shortlist, which was Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.

I had not been tempted to read this particular book from Toibin before, despite the fact that I have read many of his earlier works, and loved them. Perhaps my strong atheistic leaning put me off. I mentioned the book and its underlying theme to my teenage daughter. Her immediate reaction was ‘what a clever idea’.

A slim book, the page length of The Testament of Mary is deceptive. This is not a quick read. There is much to consider in every paragraph, in every sentence of the single chapter story. Mary’s voice and thoughts guide us through the narrative, which is predominantly one of loss and suffering as she mourns the life and death of her son.

“…I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need for smiling. Just as I have no further need for tears.”

Very much the story of a mother’s loss and unrelenting grief, which is the book is indeed a clever and surprising take on the ‘traditional’ story of Mary, of her son, and of his death on the cross. I have no idea whether Toibin intended the book to have religious undertones or not.

For this atheist, I found it deeply moving as a lingering and insightful narrative about the humanness of suffering.

“It was a strange period during which I tried not to think, or imagine, or dream, or even remember, when the thoughts that came arrived unbidden and were to do with time – time that turns a baby who is so defenceless into a small boy, with a boy’s fears, insecurities and petty cruelties, and then creates a young man, someone with his own mind and thoughts and secret feelings.”

CQ

This phrase is taken from Christopher Reid’s poem Exasperated Piety from his collection A Scattering, which was created as a tribute to his wife, who died as a result of cancer in 2005.

It is no coincidence that this came to mind today. This day a year ago, my sister was diagnosed with cancer, from which she died less than five months later. When I first saw her a few days after the diagnosis, we were both overwhelmed by our sadness and distress. I was also acutely aware that my sister had now entered a world that was instantly unshareable, and which progressively alienated her over the next months from those of us who remained in a world she had hitherto inhabited.

Susan Sontag describes illness as ‘the night-side of life, a more onerous citzenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.’

Yet, although the gap between the kingdoms is narrow, those who are suddenly transported from the land of the well to that of the ill very quickly realise the meaning and the isolation that this entails. Christopher Hitchens described is as follows:

‘I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of the malady.’

I will never know what my sister’s experience was. She chose not to talk about it. I became increasingly aware, and guilty, of the gap between our worlds, one that seemed to widen every moment of every day of those few short months.

A Hospital Odyssey is an epic poetic and mythical journey through illness by Gwyneth Lewis, which focuses on Maris’s experience following her husband’s cancer diagnosis. Maris journeys alone to the Otherworld, separated from Hardy, and explores an imaginary and surreal illness landscape.

The voice throughout is that of Maris:

‘I want to capture what it is to care

for someone you love who’s very ill,

how quickly you age as you see them suffer,

you’d do anything to make them well,

but you can’t.’

‘What do you say when someone you love

is dying and there’s nothing you can do

to stop it happening, and you’re alive

and well, nowhere near through

adoring , and you can’t follow?’

CQ

I have some thoughts on what I would like to experience, and to hopefully share, over the forthcoming week:

The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen

This work of fiction focuses on Elizabeth Stone, an academic (primarily of Milton) who has been diagnosed and treated for advanced ovarian cancer (thematically reminiscent of the play W;t, previously discussed here https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/12/15/wt/). Unexpectedly given an ‘all clear’ following treatment, the protagonist re-explores her life, and her loneliness.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

This will be my 6th read from the Booker Longlist. Described as a book depicting ‘overwhelming grief’ and ‘suffering’, it promises to be suitably apt for this blog…

Love’s Work by Gillian Rose

I have just started re-reading this hugely impressive book by the philosopher and writer. It impressively covers many issues, including death, illness and Judaism, in such a short text. One sentence in the book:

‘It was the occasion of my initiation into the anti-supernatural character of Judaism: into how non-belief in God defines Judaism and how change in that compass registers the varieties of Jewish modernity.’

prompted the next item on my list:

The Story of the Jews by Simon Schama

This is a current BBC series that I have started to watch, in order to redress my ignorance of the history of Judaism.

Alexis Hunter and Jo Spence Art Exhibition

This exhibition, at the Richard Saltoun Gallery until September 27, focuses on the development of feminist art. I have previously discussed Jo Spence in the context of the art she created around her diagnosis of breast cancer, and her living with, and dying from, the condition (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/jo-spence-art-photography-illness-and-the-body/).

http://www.richardsaltoun.com/exhibitions/26/overview/

When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun

This film screens at the Lexi Cinema on Wednesday. Seven years in the making, it tells the story of the Tibetan movement, and struggle, to free Tibet.

http://thelexicinema.co.uk/2013/08/17/when-the-dragon-swallowed-the-sun/

Finally, a thought

Something I came across today, and am still considering, from Nietzsche:

“We possess art lest we perish from the truth”

CQ

Seamus Heaney has been a hero of mine for as long as I can remember.

I was due to see him read in London towards the end of January 2013. I did not make it, as my sister died that night. Over the years, the same sister gave me many of Heaney’s poetry collections, and more recently, the glorious gift of the audio collection, read by the poet himself.

So much that I can relate to in terms of the personal impact of Seamus Heaney, the man and his words, has been movingly and eloquently said and re-said over the past days.

I have little to add apart from a few brief thoughts…

The poem Mid-Term Break has always been a favourite of mine. Written many years after the tragic death of Heaney’s younger brother, the poem, as written by the adult, convincingly captures the voice and the imagination of the child Heaney, as he recounts the event as if he were contemporaneously experiencing it.

from Mid-Term Break

‘I sat all morning in the college sick bay

Counting bells knelling classes to a close.

At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying –

He had always taken funerals in his stride –

And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram

When I came in, and I was embarrassed

By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’.

Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,

Away at school, as my mother help my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.’

‘…I saw him

For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,

He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.

No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.’

I love Heaney’s prose, which I first encountered through the essay ‘Feeling into Words’. In it, the poet talks about Digging, the first poem where he felt his feelings had truly got into the text, ‘where I thought my feel had got into words.’

from Digging

‘Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.’

With characteristic humility, Heaney dismissed Digging as a ‘coarse-grained navvy of a poem’, its interest mainly lying in its success in ‘finding a voice’, and arriving at that place where ‘you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them’.

I have just re-read Heaney’s wonderful Nobel Lecture, Crediting Poetry. Here, Heaney credits poetry ‘both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative  between the mind’s centre and its circumference…’for its truth to life…’

In a TV profile that included a series of interviews with the poet in 2009, Heaney was asked about his views on death. He replied that his attitude towards his own mortality had eased with age, and that any sense of fear in particular had gradually diminished. Prescient perhaps of his final words to his wife Marie before he died last week, ‘Noli temere’, which translates as ‘Don’t be afraid’.

Heaney’s poem A kite for Michael and Christopher ends with the phrase ‘long-tailed pool of grief’. Prescient again, on this occasion of a nation’s sense of loss.

We no longer have the man. Yet we do have the words, so many words, which he chose to share. A lasting comfort, of sorts.

CQ

I saw this tonight, and really enjoyed it. Even though the subject matter – illness, death, difficult relationships, loss – may appear ‘heavy’, I am glad I experienced it.

Melanie Spencer’s play is not perfect – it felt slightly too long and would have benefitted from deleting some scenes – but it effectively deals with very tricky life events imaginatively, sensitively, and with an appropriate, and important, dose of humour.

Daisy is almost 16. She is off school in her GCSE year, as she has recently been diagnosed with the autoimmune disease lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus). She lives with her dad, Peter. Her mum died from cancer just 18 months earlier.

Much of the play focuses on the relationship between Daisy and her dad, which is mostly fractious and involves much shouting (and non-listening) and storming out scenes. Peter still grieves for his wife. Daisy feels not understood by her dad.

Daisy’s best friend Alice loyally visits her pal regularly at home, updating her on school work and on school gossip. Theirs is an affecting and touching relationship, which holds much that feels real and raw, and full of teenage-appropriate angst.

As Daisy embarks on a course of low dose chemotherapy treatment, her dad calls on his wife’s sister Diana for help. Struggling to make ends meet, he cannot take the time off from work to accompany Daisy on her hospital visits. Diana, who appears to have had some mental health issues, is initially reluctant, but rises to the occasion, and ultimately thrives on this new challenge, and purpose, in her life.

There are many issues here, including serious illness, death of a parent/spouse, grieving, loss, mental illness, and not least, the challenges that teenagers face, which are so greatly enhanced by the arrival of serious illness.

I particularly loved the ending. It was open-ended enough to allow you to consider and to personally reflect on much of the stuff you had experienced, but also poignant and touching, and importantly spotlighted on teenagers, whose story it ultimately is…

CQ