Lessons in loss and grief
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Lessons in loss and griefBarney Downs aa Assistant Professor of Communication , University of SouthFlorida , Tampa, FL, 336207800Published online: 18 May 2009.
To cite this article: Barney Downs (1993) Lessons in loss and grief, Communication Education,42:4, 300-303, DOI: 10.1080/03634529309378941
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03634529309378941
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LESSONS IN LOSS AND GRIEFBarney Downs
I didn't know Ben Thompson; he was new to me. I only knew that he hadtaken the introductory course in performance studies. He was pleasant lookingand agreeable, but quiet; he did not distinguish himself in any way. Not until Iread the transcript of his first interview did I realize his was an extraordinarystory with unusual performance potential. But I had no idea how he wouldperform it. I remember his introduction; it was brief. "This is about a friend ofmine. It really happened. He never told this story to anyone, with the exceptionof his girlfriend."
Ben sat casually on the edge of the stage, his feet resting on the floor three feetbelow. Assuming the persona of his friend, he announced, "This began when Iwas nine years old."
He told of playing on the front porch of his home with a friend. When hedecided to go inside, he was stopped by the sound of his mother in the back ofthe house. She called out to tell him he couldn't enter, that he must play outside.He did that dutifully, but after a while tried to enter again. He was met with thesame admonition, but this time delivered with greater insistence.
A while later a man came out. The man regarded him in a pointed manner, ina way he could never forget. He went in to find his mother crying. She said shehad been robbed. When he tried to call the police, she stopped him. "No, no. I'llcall your father," she wailed. "He'll take care of things."
When his father arrived home, his appearance startled the boy; it was strangeand pained, wounded, a look he'd never before seen.
Two years later, he was told the burglar had been caught. The little family,father, mother, and son, went down to the police station to identify him. The boywas amazed to discover that he was the only male testifying in a group of women.Later he was told the man had been convicted, but he was not permitted to readnewspaper accounts of the trial. "You shouldn't be concerned with the life of acriminal," he was told.
Ben's story moved to the present day. His friend, now a college student, toldof getting a speeding ticket after an impromptu visit to his girlfriend inGainesville. Unfortunately, he knew he'd have to confess the infraction to hisparents because the fine was more than he could afford. He invented an excusefor rushing out of town. "My girlfriend was at a party, and a drunk came on toher," he fabricated. "She was fearful and called me."
Hearing that story, his mother said she'd wanted to tell him something for along time, but didn't know how to go about it. He began to feel apprehensive.Suddenly breaking down, she sobbed out, "Remember that time years ago? Iwas raped."
The young man had told Ben of his grief and his rage following his mother'sadmission. With the pieces of the puzzle together, he finally understood hismother's peculiar responses, his father's wounded look, and his own fury at hishelplessness and pain.
COMMUNICATION EDUCATION, Volume 42, October 1993
LESSONS IN LOSS AND GRIEF301
As Ben repeated the tale, he performed his friend's anguish, thrashing aboutthe room, weeping. He told of how his girlfriend had cradled him, curled in afetal position, as he rocked with his sorrow.
During Ben's performance, I, too, wanted to curl into a ball, to remove myselffrom the recreated world of pained living. The performance was both terribleand wonderful. It haunted me for days: I kept reliving the scenes, and wanted totalk to others about my experience.
Through the performance, we could see the confused boy on the porch; thechild in awe at the police station; the young man fabricating a lie to avoid hismother's anger, and then the young man recognizing the pain his parents hadcarried all those years. Over time, some of their pain had dissipated, while hisown journey was just beginning.
Afterward, I asked Ben how his performance had come about. "When myfriend told me his story, he cried and I cried with him," he said simply. "I had todo my very best for him. His story demanded it. I wanted to go there and take allof you there with me. I wanted to become him. I had never let go like this before.But this performance was not about me; it was about him."
The course, "Lessons in Loss and Grief," began two years ago when I decidedto create a performance course that would involve oral history. I intended toimmerse myself, as Dwight Conquergood has, in some pocket of society. Ientered a training program for hospice volunteers. The social worker whotrained us made one point that continues to reverberate in my awareness: "Theway people die is relative to the way they process loss or grief in their lives."
The social worker was from the Northeast. "I only recently returned to work,"she explained. "I took a six month leave of absence. I did it to mourn." Theentire class was silent. I had never heard of anyone deliberately taking time tomourn anything.
She continued, "The dying, too, have things to work through, in addition tothe loss of their life." Then, the social worker threw a few disks that looked likecheckers onto the carpeted floor. Sitting on the floor in front of us, she pickedup one disk. "This is the patient's unforgiven selfunforgiven for not doingwhat he wanted to in his life, for not taking that job, for not taking the risk to dosomething he really wanted." She picked up another, "This is the piece ofhimself that needs to make peace with a troubled relationship." She continuedwith a remark for each disk until she came to the last. "And this is the piece thatneeds to come to terms with the fact that he is dying." Now all the disks had beencleared from the floor. "Hopefully, when these are all worked through, thepatient will be at peace, and will die in peace." The room was still in reflectedthought.
"How a person dies is relative to the way loss and grief are processed in life.Those in the habit of working through their pain in ordinary time will beprepared to work through their pain in dying time. 'Working through' meanssharing the pain, talking about it, owning it, digesting it."
That process, the process of sharing a story of loss or grief with an interviewer,became the core of the new course, "Lessons in Loss and Grief." Using non-directive, active listening, students interview people who are willing to share apersonal story of loss or grief. After assuring anonymity, the student asks forpermission to record the interview so a transcript can be made. That transcript
becomes the text of the student's performance. All students in the class agree toprotect the confidentiality of any information that is revealed there.
The instructor must keep the focus on "Lessons" of loss and grief. As aconsequence of the loss and grief, what did the subject learn? The storiesselected for performances are those in which the subject was able to recognizesome benefit from the experience. The more recent the experience, the lesslikely the subject is to realize this benefit. As the time between the loss and