Sunday 29 January 2017

Grief and Loss, Emotional and Material Concerns | Part Memoir, Part Rant

I am working on a few politically related pieces for this Blog (and elsewhere) at the moment. Not surprisingly I'm finding it difficult to keep up with the pace of events and concerns as day-by-day we see and hear more and more of the horrors of life in the twenty first century. For now, in this piece I'm keeping it simple and intend to focus on just one issue: death and bereavement. 

I write about death and loss a lot, as a sociologist and in more personal pieces including memoir and fiction (see for some examples). In my adult life there has been significant loss. My father - Ron - died when I was 20 in 1979, I miscarried my only (to my knowledge) biological child in my mid-twenties and my second husband John died early in 2010 following years of physical and mental ill-health. Two years later the person who was my main support and source of comfort throughout all of these experiences – my mother, Dorothy – died. Other extended family members and close friends have died over the years and, as I've written previously, I feel as if I have become something of an expert in bereavement and grief. In 2015 I published an article in the journal Mortality in which I wrote: 

I went to visit my mum and dad today. I took flowers. It's November and as I arrived in the village I was battered by rain and hail. No sea spray as the tide was well out.  My dad once walked with me along this road, worried that I might be swept away on my way to catch the college bus. Often we were drenched through to our underwear because of the windblown salty waves. Today the weather calmed during the short walk to the graveyard and as I was arranging the blooms a bright rainbow graced the horizon. The weak winter sun came out briefly and shone on the three of us. I took a photograph of the grave stone on the iPad on which I write my first draft of this piece. Although such photographs do not appear in family albums as regularly as pictures of high days and holidays, new babies and family groupings I feel sure I am not the only one to take and retain such images. *

I've just got back from a similar visit. Tomorrow (30th January) will be the fifth anniversary of my mum's death. She died on the eve of the 33rd anniversary of my dad's death. When planning her funeral I told the undertaker that I wanted to honour her wish to be buried in the same grave as my father; her husband. Luckily, the father of the man who dug my mum’s grave, himself of the same profession was a ‘deep digger’. If he hadn’t buried my father deep his son would have had to dig a new grave, elsewhere in the graveyard for my mum. My mum and I had just assumed that I would be able to fulfil her wishes and I know that most bereaved people are unaware of many of the expected and allowed procedures and protocols after death. These practical concerns add to the distress and feelings of helplessness. 
Here is the picture I took today.  

Just as I don’t think of my graveyard photo collection as morbid, neither do I think my continued interest in death and loss is ghoulish. My parents, my husband, the child I never met have all shaped me as a person and continue to have an influence on my life choices, chances and experiences. Not long after my mum's death I watched the 2005 film In her Shoes. The following poem, usually (as in this movie) read at weddings made me cry as I thought how appropriate it was for my lasting relationships with my loved ones:
with me E. E. Cummings
The first four lines . . .
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling) . . .

   And the last . . .

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart).

Some of my work and associated writings clearly show their influence on my head as well as my heart. For many years I have researched and written about reproductive loss and disruption and more recently about loss and bereavement more generally. I have previously reflected on funeral poverty (see Stomach Churns and Chewed Nails | A Summer of Discomfort) and on homelessness and death (see Dead Famous, Famous Dead | Celebrity (and other) Deaths and Some Responses). Today on my return home I intended to work on another piece I am in the middle of. Before turning on my computer I checked my Twitter account and came across an article published earlier this morning - Young and bereaved – and now facing cuts to crucial financial support

The author informs us that:

The government revealed earlier this month how the current system of bereavement support payments will change in April in order, it says, to modernise the structures.

Widowed parents with young children will be the hardest hit as a likely 91% of parents will be supported for a shorter period of time than they would be currently. This means that a typical working family will lose out on more than £12,000, and a working parent with young children even more; £23,500 on average (see

The article continues thus:

"We are really worried about these changes,” says spokeswoman Alison Penny. “We fear for the stress this will place on parents trying to support their grieving children.” The charity predicts widowed parents may need to increase their working hours before their children are actually ready for their parent to be less available. It expects this additional strain on families will have a significant negative impact on children’s lives, resulting in worse mental health and educational outcomes.

Additionally, the Conservative government has also confirmed that cohabiting unmarried couples, including those with children, will continue to be ineligible for any bereavement benefits. And this despite recommendations in 2016 by the work and pensions select committee to extend eligibility to ALL families. 

Grief is hard work; for children and for adults. Dealing with the emotions it evokes, as well as the practicalities involved, is enough, more than enough, to cope with without having to worry also about how to pay for a funeral or to put food on the table or pay the rent. Shockingly, cohabiting widowed parents already have the additional concern of how to support their children whilst returning to work earlier following bereavement leave and working longer hours in order to pay the bills. Rather than righting this wrong the government is instead about to extend the worry further. 

Remembering my mum and dad this evening I feel sad. 

Thinking of those who will suffer as the result of the changes to financial bereavement support I feel angry. Very angry. 


Extract from: Letherby, G. (2015) ‘Bathwater, Babies and Other Losses: A Personal and Academic Story’ MortalityPromoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 20(2): 128-144

Monday 16 January 2017

The Present and the Future | The Need to Get Involved

The Samaritans have declared today as Brew Monday. They write: 
Forget Blue Monday, we’re declaring 16 January ‘Brew Monday’ instead.
We’re turning the ‘the most depressing day of the year’ on its head by renaming the third Monday in January ‘Brew Monday’ and celebrating that great tradition of simply getting together to talk over a cup of tea (or coffee!)
Given that, despite repeated pronouncements suggesting the contrary, government spending on and support for mental health care is dismal, such initiatives are more than welcome. Add to this the plethora of evidence that the NHS is experiencing a crisis like never before, so much so that it’s future is more than fragile, whilst at the same time we here of more and more MPs who have business interests that will profit from a privatised NHS, and it is not surprising that #HuntMustGo trended all Thursday evening. Individuals continue to tweet with this hasstag along with #MayMustGo; #ToriesOut; #NHSCrisis; #SaveOurNHS and similar. There has been much, much critique of the governments’ handing of the situation from the political left and from those working in the NHS. There has also been a great deal of support, including much on social media, for nurses, doctors, paramedics and all of the other professionals allied to medicine who are continuing to just get on with their job, as they do every day.

In the light of this, one of my incredulous concerns this morning, is just how some people, indeed anyone, can (as one opinion poll suggested yesterday) believe that the NHS is safer in the hands of the Conservatives than it would be under Labour. I hope, intend, to write further about the value or not of polls, about media bias and what some call post-truth, about life in a ‘shared society’. This morning though all my thoughts are consumed with what to do right now, how to help. I have been and remain inspired by others who debate, campaign, organise and write. Their work informs me and moves me to action.  In my writings, including this piece, I hope to add a little. This afternoon I’m attending a consultation meeting which will focus on challenging the potential negative impacts of the NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plan on local NHS services. This weekend I, with other Labour Party members, delivered leaflets about said meeting. It’s not that much but it’s something. We can all do something: protest; petition; educate ourselves and others; talk, talk, talk over coffee, or tea, at work, in the pub, via the internet. . .
In recent months my writings, on this blog and elsewhere, have become much more Political (having always, I think, been political). I am conscious that ‘talking politics’ isn’t always welcomed by some. So, when posting pieces I often ‘warn’ potential readers of the content. But, given that (in addition to the NHS crisis) a ‘hard’ Brexit will negatively impact on the life chances and experiences of students, workers, pensioners; that the eight richest men in the world are worth more than half the world’s population; that private companies outside of the UK now operate 70% of Britain’s railways and so on and so on I care less about what people think of me or my approach. 
The constant distractions (by way of unfounded smears, tantrums and blustering, and false promises) from the alternative messages of hope and possibility provided by the government’s political opposition are powerful. Many of those who have power have a lot to lose and others who want power (whilst maintained the status quo) are sometimes unscrupulous in their quest for it.
I have written before about my feelings surrounding recent political events. I have written of distress, anxiety, hope and so on. What drives me to write today is fear; fear of what will happen to us, in the present and in the future, if we don’t all do what we can.

Friday 6 January 2017

Extraordinarily Ordinary OR Ordinarily Extraordinary | Us and Them Again

I love words, reading them, writing them, hearing them. And yet, some words become troublesome in their usage. In my sociological work I have been often concerned with the use of the words normal, natural, real and pretend. My examples below relate to the status and experience of mothers, fathers and families but similar comments could be made when discussing issues such as dis/ability, sexuality, sex and gender and so on.

Defining some human conceptions as natural and particular births as normal means that others (often those enabled by low level or more significant technology of some sort) are considered unnatural and abnormal. Similarly, some ‘instincts’ to parent are considered natural, even inevitable, whilst others are not. Those who do not have the desire to mother or father may be considered to be denying and defying the natural individuals whereas those that parent outside of expected social, economic and sexual circumstances are viewed by some to be living in abnormal (or pretend) as opposed to real families (remember Section 28, Section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986 (England, Wales and Scotland) which stated that the ‘acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ should not be ‘promoted’ through the education system). And how many times have you read a newspaper or magazine article or watched a TV programme focusing on a man or women searching for their real mother and/or father? Social (adoptive, foster, step) parents, like all parents, may or may not parent well, but whatever their qualities or not, those that wash, clothe, feed, care for, socialise, 'bring up' children are just as real as those that provide gametes towards the creation of, or carry and give birth to them. Technological advances and social agreements concerning such things as sperm and egg donation and surrogacy add to the need to take care when describing the status - as normal or not, as real or not - of those that parent and those that do not.

Recently, and with reference to discussion about and description of individuals and groups within society, I’ve become equally exercised by the use of the words ordinary (which ironically is defined as ‘with no special or distinctive features; normal') and extraordinary (defined as 'very unusual or remarkable'). I do not intend here to get into a debate about the future of the Queen's Honours system, although, like others I am quizzical, at the very least, about the honours given to political party donors, to serving politicians and civil servants (including those working in a Department of Work and Pensions that increasingly appears to be punishing those most in need), and to those who style the hair of prime ministers and their life partners. Rather, what interests me here is the way in which the honours' recipients are described. In her annual Christmas day speech the queen spoke of being inspired 'from meeting ordinary people doing extraordinary things: volunteers, carers, community organisers and good neighbours…’ Such description continued in news coverage of the New Year’s Honours with references being made to ‘ordinary people’ alongside more well-known politicians, sportspeople and those who work in arts and entertainment. But, and I have no intention here to deny the skills and achievement of Mark Rylance, Jessica Ennis and similar others, aren’t these individuals ordinary also? Don't they eat, sleep, watch TV, sing in the shower, enjoy a night out with their mates, and (I'm thinking now of that intimidating interview panel too) use the loo just like every other living person? So rather than being extraordinary people having to do ordinary things, aren’t they, just like most, if not all of us, ordinary people capable of extraordinary actions? Some honours are awarded for philanthropic activism as well as, or instead of, physical, material or political achievements to the famous and to the ordinary. But there are many, many other extraordinary ordinary people whose invaluable work will never be noticed or recognised in this way and there are those whose acts of kindness are quietly undertaken. I’m thinking here, not least, of the children who spent their birthday money to buy food for those living in one of the buildings taken over by Dublin homeless activists this winter and the many acts of generosity by George Michael that most of us only heard about after his death. 

The prime minister has repeated told us (most recently in her New Year’s message) that she intends to do more to secure a better deal for 'ordinary working people'. Aside from the weeping irony of such statements made by the head of a government in a country where there was a 15% rise in child homelessness in the twelve months between December 2015-2016; plus significant increases in zero hours contracts, benefits cuts and food bank usage (by those in and out of work), the incorrect, frankly offensive, implication here is that the 1% of the population who are more successful, more famous, and richer (either through inheritance or effort) are in fact inevitably, naturally; extraordinary and remarkable.     

This week we reached Fat Cat Wednesday (4th January) the day in 2017 by which the UKs top bosses earned more than the average worker will earn (£28,200) by the end of December. Reading about this I was reminded of the title track on the mid-1980s album by Irish folk singer Christy Moore. Ordinary Man (written by Peter Hames) tells the story of a factory worker who after losing his job struggles to survive whilst the owner continues to live in luxury. In 1985, as the song reminds us, there was 'one law for the rich, one for the poor'.

Despite assurances to the contrary nothing much has changed.