Death and Bereavement. Workshops for bereavement counsellors

In June 2019, the Good Death team hosted members of the Cruse Bereavement Care Cambridge team for the first of an ongoing series of workshops exploring death writing and its potential to open up conversations and provide new perspectives for the bereaved. It was a privilege to hear first hand about the challenges of listening to and guiding bereaved people; and to recognise the dedication and professionalism of these volunteer counsellors. Below is a reflection from the workshop leaders.

An extract from the emotive diaries of Audre Lorde provoked debate about the authenticity of death writing, and whether the act of being literary could paradoxically both hide true feelings and provide a way to express them more authentically. All three groups reflected on the metaphors of water which pervaded Lorde’s prose: from choppy seas of anger and emotion, to overwhelming waves of grief, to uncanny calm and to the restorative nature of the tides. We also explored the inconsistency of tone which characterises the diaries, which combine very private and very public reflections on terminal illness and the approach of death. Lorde’s sense that a great source of knowledge, insight and energy lay in her own realisation of personal mortality seemed to chime with the professional experiences of the group as they reflected on their conversations with clients.

We moved back through the centuries to the rich and assertive voice of Anne Finch, an early eighteenth-century poet whose ode ‘To Death’ personifies a superhuman grim reaper who is inescapable, and yet who can be confronted and challenged in words. Finch’s Christian theology underpins a deceptively simple text, and provides contradictory impulses: on the one hand, she expresses a steadfast faith in an afterlife free to pain and worry; on the other, she uses the poem to dwell on the tortures of the deathbed. Some of the group noted the gendered effect of the poem, noting that the tending of the bedside of the dying was an intimate familial role historically reserved for women, despite the poem’s masculine images of swords, crowns and sceptres.

Finally, a short lyric of William Wordsworth challenged us to find sympathy for a speaker whose epitaphic poem is more concerned with his own experience of grief than with a celebration of the life of the deceased. The solipsism of grief is surely something we all recognise and with which we can sympathise; but somehow the quiet artistry of this poem failed to move at least some of our group, who saw the work as a failure of commemoration. Who was the real Lucy, the lost ‘maid’ of the poem? What does the poem really tell us about her as a person? Does it matter if she is fact or fiction? Again the question of authenticity and poetic truth took central stage in our conversation. We identified that a struggle for any poet or writer is not just to generate emotion or sympathy, but to sustain their readers’ belief in a reality behind the writing.

Thank you to our workshop participants! We look forward to hearing about your use of poetry and literature with clients. You can read more about the amazing work of Cruse here.

If you are part of a professional or volunteer network who support those affected by death, dying and bereavement, we would love to work with you. Please get in touch!