Ed Thornton considers what happens to our sense of self when we talk about our grief with others.
As part of this project, we will be interviewing bereaved friends and family members about their experiences of funeral care during the pandemic. In the context of this work, it is useful to reflect on some of the reasons why it can be difficult to put our grief into words.
Talking about grief can be many things – it can be upsetting, enlightening, infuriating, and therapeutic, to name a few – but no matter what else it is, it is almost always difficult. It is difficult to find the right words to articulate feelings of loss in a way that can do them justice. But might it also be the case that what makes talking about grief so difficult is that, as we tell the story of our loss, we are going through a transformation of our own?
This is one of the insights offered by the work of the American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler. In an article published in 2003 she explores experiences of grief and mourning, and tries to ask what these experiences can tell us about human relationships. Most of her article is about the acts of collective mourning that occurred (or did not occur) in America after the attacks on 9/11, but her interest is broader than that. She is really concerned with the way in which mourning can teach us about our shared vulnerability and the way in which a recognition of this vulnerability might lead us to develop a more inclusive kind of politics.
Along the way, Butler offers a number of fascinating insights into the complexities of grief. In one passage, she discusses why it can sometimes be difficult to vocalise our grief and to tell the story of losing someone close to us.
According to Butler, the experience of grief exposes our reliance on other people. Not only do we live in a social world, in which our access to the necessities of food and shelter is always mediated by other people, but we also rely on others to help us understand who we are. If I ask myself the question ‘Who am I?’, I might find an answer in part by thinking of my relationships with other people: I am someone’s brother, someone’s partner, someone’s friend, someone’s neighbour, someone’s teacher, someone’s son. Even the fact that I am a stranger in someone’s eyes will affect who I am.
But my relationships are not simply facts about me, they also affect the way that I experience the world. Whether I feel confident or frightened, whether I feel optimistic or depressed, these feelings can never be detached from the ways in which I am connected to other people. It is, at least in part, through my relationships with others that I come to be the person who I am.
When someone I know passes away, not only do I lose that person, but I also lose that part of me that was connected to that person. If my sibling passes away, then I am no longer the brother to them that I once was. My connection to them does not disappear altogether, but I no longer have the opportunity to perform the role that I performed for them.
In a booklet titled ‘Being Bereaved’, created and distributed by a Funeral Director in West Sussex, this experience of loss is explained in the following way:
“When someone dies, we lose our relationship with them, but also theirs with us, and we lose the aspect of ourselves that only they knew. Shared memories, pet names, and day-to-day habits can often be between two people and so lost when one of them dies. This can be true of all types of relationships. An elderly distant relative may take with them memories of the older generation. Siblings often share experiences of childhood.”
But what does this mean for our understanding of death itself? If I am defined by my relationships with others, then am I fundamentally changed when someone I have known is no longer around? Describing a similar phenomenon, the contemporary philosopher Alison Stone speaks of death as being shared. For her, death is a collective phenomenon, because as relationships are lost, we lose a part of ourselves. She writes:
“When someone I love dies, the whole way I was disposed to act and feel with them ceases to be available to me… A person’s death is never solely his or her own, then, because it is never the case that only this person who dies, dies. Always it is we who die: the death is shared, communal, or collective.”
According to this understanding of grief, the process of mourning can be understood as a kind of transformation. As we mourn, we slowly rearrange the pictures we have of ourselves, and slowly rebuild our relationship with the world, in light of having lost one part of ourselves. If this way of thinking about grief and mourning is correct, then it can help us to understand why talking about grief can be so difficult.
When I sit down and I try to tell the story of having lost a loved one, not only am I speaking of the loss of another person, but I am also speaking about my own transformation. In fact, we might say that I am speaking through my own transformation. At the beginning of the story I understand myself as one person, but by the time I get to the end I have changed. I begin to explain my feelings and my reactions to the loss of someone I knew, but as I tell the story I realise that I am no longer the same person as I was when I first experienced the loss.
This may be one of the reasons why it can be so difficult to speak about the deaths of those we know. As we begin to explain, we falter. We start to speak from the perspective of being someone’s friend, or their relative, but as we speak we find ourselves untethered from this relationship, so the words we choose are continually slipping away from what we are trying to say. This is how Judith Butler explains it in her article:
“I might try to tell a story here, about what I am feeling, but it would have to be a story in which the very “I” who seeks to tell the story is stopped in the midst of the telling; the very “I” is called into question by its relation to the Other, a relation that does not precisely reduce me to speechlessness, but does nevertheless clutter my speech with signs of its undoing. I tell a story about the relations I choose, only to expose, somewhere along the way, the way I am gripped and undone by these very relations. My narrative falters, as it must.”
By recognising the way in which death is experienced as shared, and by considering the way in which a bereavement can both expose and alter who we really are, we can begin to make sense of our loss of words. “I” do not know what to say, because the “I” who I am is changing as I speak.
As we listen to and consider the stories of those who have lost loved ones during the pandemic, keeping this idea in mind can help us to be more attentive to the experience of bereavement and to the specific kind of difficulty that comes with talking about it.
 Freeman Brothers, ‘Being Bereaved’ booklet.
 Alison Stone, Being Born: Birth and Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. p.189.
 Judith Butler, ‘Violence, Mourning, Politics’, Studies in Gender and Sexuality 4(1), 2003. p13.
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