Lessons in loss and grief

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Bibliothques de l'Universit de Montral]On: 08 December 2014, At: 08:27Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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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

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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

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  • 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

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  • 302DOWNS

    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 therecovery increases, the individual can more easily articulate the lesson of theexperience. Painwithout time for recovery, peace, and new-found wisdomcreates a bitter experience that can be overpowering.

    The course involves two formally graded performance presentations, basedon an interview of two different subjects. Between these two presentations,students also have the opportunity to present a non-graded, non-evaluatedpresentation. They are encouraged to express their own stories of personallessons in loss and grief. In their research with the other, the students see how allpeople are subject to human pain; then they have the opportunity to share theirown previously hidden pain.

    As was true in the National Writing Project, instructors in "Lessons of Lossand Grief must be role models for their classes. An instructor who is able toarticulate his or her own personal loss, recovery, and recognition of grace can bea source of hope to those who are new to the process. We all need role modelswho bear witness that life can be survived and still be perceived as containingelements of beauty and hope.

    I begin the exercise in personal narrative with the story of my year ofuncertainty about whether I had AIDS. I describe my debilitating fears. I tell ofthe friends who offered their support and of those who deserted me. I describethe remarkable group therapy sessions with a number of my friends as Iexorcised my fury at the possibility of having the disease. Each member of thegroup worked out personal angstfear of expressing anger, fear of being alesbian, fear of failing in businesswhile clubbing a punching bag and shoutingobscenities in therapeutic expression of anger.

    I tell the students about the time I went to a holistic therapist who determinedthe kind of vitamins I needed by having me pinch my forefinger and thumbtogether. If she could pull them apart while a particular vitamin lay on my lap, itindicated my need for that vitamin. I describe a trip to Chichenitza, Mexico,with a group of New Age advocates, where I chanted myself into a trance thatenabled me to walk across hot coals, hopeful that success would affirm a mindmore powerful than matter. And, finally, I tell them of becoming acquaintedwith the work of Oncologist Bernie Siegal, M.D. He developed the concept of"Exceptional Cancer Patients," who are asked to take responsibility for theirillness, and thereby recognize that they are equally capable of willing their fullhealth.

    I tell them how my personal journey that year demanded that I embrace thefull humanity of myself, both the light and shadow sidesomething I had neverdone before.

    And then the students follow suit. They tell us of fathers and mothers whorefuse to love their children; of the pain at the death of pets who had becomeparent surrogates; of being blamed by the family of a friend killed during a bike

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  • LESSONS IN LOSS AND GRIEF303

    race; of a young man who went on a rampage of crime to evoke a response froman indifferent father.

    This is the course exercise that is frequently cited as being most profound. Asone student said after telling his storyin which he refused to prosecute hislover for repeatedly stealing from members of his banking family"Each time Itell my story it occupies less space and grief in my soul."

    Not everyone is an appropriate candidate for a course of this type. Forexample, one member of a recent class showed no emotion in the performances,focusing instead on staging visual metaphors to project an emotional state. Heshowed no emotion in telling his personal story, and he expressed greatdifficulty in the use of active listening. "I've trained myself all my life to giveadvice to others. I can't stop now." Later in the course, however, he was able toarticulate his feelings: "The cumulative effect of all that pain performed by othermembers of the class, performed with such sensitivity, dredged up so muchfrom the depths of my own psyche that my own memories became overwhelm-ing. While I did learn about the performance of loss and grief, I learned muchmore about the demons hiding quietly within my mind for many years. It was aterrifying experience."

    The class needs regularly scheduled times for venting personal feelings.Witnessing real life in a classroom is a novel experience for which some studentsmay not be prepared. And there are those who may choose not to embrace thepain of living. Perhaps they cannot. Perhaps they will at some later time. Theirsis another path. Respectfully, this course is not for them.

    Ben wept and raged in his performance, and he wept during the telling of hispersonal story; he was also delighted with his ability to use active listening. "Thisclass proved to me that it is all right for a male to show his feelings. I always felttentative in expressing my feelings, especially in front of an audience. This was abig step for me. And I feel through this semester I matured in caring for otherpeople. One weekend I went to Gainesville and ended up in a conversation witha friend. She told me that her sister had tried to commit suicide. By using activelistening I was able to get her to talk to me and release many of her feelings andfrustrations. After we talked, she gave me a hug. It made me feel good that I wasable to help someone in trouble. I found a special part of myself through thisclass."

    Central to the creation of the performance text is the relati...