We are very pleased for the first offering from Our Community Shares to be from Julia Emmert, a much-respected elder of the Braidwood community and a long-time supporter of Tender Funerals Canberra Region. Julia reflects on how she found a way to sit patiently with her grief, despite some well-meaning encouragement from those around her to push it away. This exploration of the natural tension that is created when our culture is uncomfortable with grief and one woman’s way through is, we feel, the perfect way to commence what we hope will be a long series of stories from our community, for our community.

#grief, #community, #books, #reflection

Is there really…


…including grief? 

By Tender Community Member, Julia Emmert

Medicine and writing used to have nothing to do with each other. Especially doctors’ handwriting! Now communicating is more important.  You can even download an app to read your doctor’s cursive handwriting. Narrative medicine is a thing, too, whichever end of the scalpel you’re on. Doctors learn to set down their experiences, becoming better listeners and more empathic communicators. Patients are given journals and workbooks to fill in. This gives them more understanding of, and agency over, their conditions. 

It makes sense. Put something into words and you can understand it; understand it and you can own it; own it and you can control it. It beats medicalising everything and popping pills. 

I’ve reached the stage in my grief journey when there are people thinking I should hurry it up a little by popping a pill or three. So I write about my journey and look to see what others have written. There’s quite a grief industry out there!

First, I turned to C. S. Lewis and A Grief Observed (Faber and Faber, 1961). Lewis, seemingly a confirmed bachelor, married American writer Joy Davidman, who had sought his counsel during her own difficult conversion journey from her Jewish roots. It was a complex marriage, since she was a divorcée, made more complex by her cancer diagnosis. They had only a short time as man and wife, and his grief was devastating. I don’t much care for Lewis’s ‘either/or’ brand of Christianity but I found this book very moving. 

What did I take away from it? That it is indeed physically very tiring, and I do need more sleep. That bereavement is a universal and integral part of the experience of love. It’s not a truncation of the process; it’s the natural end as the honeymoon is the natural beginning, and as much to be celebrated. And it has its natural end. Fighting to keep a memory alive (think Queen Victoria) risks falsifying it. Lewis says, “since I stopped bothering about it, she seemed to meet me everywhere.”

American journalist Joan Didion (b. 1934) died last year. She and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, met while working in New York City, she at Vogue and he at Time, in the 1950s. They had a forty-year partnership, collaborating on screenplays and editing each other’s work. 

Joan Didion quote in a hand-drawn circle - Because we were both writers and both worked at home, our days were filled with the sound of each other's voices.

Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other’s voices,” Didion said in The Year of Magical Thinking (HarperCollins, London, 2006). This made it even harder for her to accept when he died suddenly of a massive heart attack just as they arrived home from visiting their critically-ill daughter. The book is not just a portrait of loss and grief, but a portrayal of an unusually close marriage. She could not read the obituaries or condolence letters, she could not hold the funeral, she could not give away the clothes and shoes. She obsesses over what she could have done to bring about a different outcome. 

Eventually, her daughter in recovery, Didion realises she must move from grief, which is passive and just happens, to mourning, which requires attention. She begins opening the mail. She writes some publishable essays. 

Now there is a Joan Didion t-shirt online. The slogan is Do Not Whine. Do Not Complain. Work Harder. Spend More Time Alone.  

So many similarities already. I find more in A Widow’s Story, by Joyce Carol Oates (Fourth Estate, London, 2012). American writer Oates (b.1938) is best known right now for the film Blonde, a fictionalised depiction of the traumatic life of Marilyn Monroe. Oates has written very widely— 58 novels as well as non-fiction and memoirs — and teaches at Princeton and University of California. Like Joan Didion, she worked very closely with her husband and colleague, Raymond J. Smith, until he died in 2008 of complications following pneumonia. Oates called it ‘a collaborative and imaginative marriage.’

She’s correspondingly devastated. She’s delusional; she’s suicidal. She’s convinced she has no right to go on living, eating, socialising, sleeping …when he cannot. I thought of the Hindu tradition of suttee and understood how widows could be held accountable for their husbands’ deaths. 

A circle with a quote on reading from Joyce Carol Oates

Oates is prescribed tranquillisers and sleeping pills and her experiences are enough to warn anyone off. I remember her for saying, “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul”. For a reader to read, a writer has first to write. Oates too finds this better than pills.

My last book is more local, being set in Canberra and written by someone I came to know. It’s Softly My Grief by Ann MacDonald (McPhee Gribble, Victoria, 1988) and first published as Widow in 1981. 

This grief journey differs in that Ann and Donald were quite young and still bringing up children when he contracted bowel cancer, at first misdiagnosed. His year of slow, painful dying horrifies me now that I know how much better treatments can be, how palliative care is available, how pain can be managed and how Canberrans don’t necessarily have to travel to Sydney. Ann’s book won an award, bitter-sweet as obviously she would’ve given anything not to be in the running for this, and she was directed to my writing group for support. There seemed to be no social workers then. 

Writers say it for those who can’t find the words for themselves. Pills can’t do that. The journey is always the same but you must find your own way to travel it, in your own time. You are entitled to this. People who resent your grief because it makes them uncomfortable, must find their own way through. Don’t talk about pills.

Our thanks to Julia for her generosity in this piece.  This is Julia’s story and her experience only.

A large part of the purpose behind Tender is to provide a way for communities to be part of death and grief in a way that promotes healing and meaning. We hope anybody experiencing grief is able to find ways to sit patiently with it until it becomes part of the tapestry of your life, not the dominating thread.   However, if you or anyone you know is struggling, it’s important to know that complicated grief is a recognised condition that may need additional support. It is natural and healthy for grief to take some time. If, after a year, you’re still feeling intense grief that is impacting your day-to-day function, you may need further support. A good place to start is your GP or Griefline, an online and phone support service.


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