Death and the after-parties by Joanne Hichens: an inter-review

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Death and the after parties
Joanne Hichens
Karavan Press

Joanne Hichens has been extraordinarily brave in excoriating her soul in a searing and honest memoir about her attempts to survive the unendurable. In Death and the after parties – one of the best titles I’ve heard in a while, by the way – Joanne doesn’t spare herself as she examines the brutal rites of passage which death inflicts on her life.

The first death she endures is the expected decline of her own mother, who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. While this is a difficult and heart-rending experience, she is able to process it fairly well, as the months leading up to her mother’s death are preparation for the inevitable. By the end of this process, Joanne believes she “can do death”.

Fate has other plans for her, however. The mind-numbing shock of her husband’s heart attack and almost instantaneous death destroys the very fabric of her known world. She finds herself reeling with denial, guilt, despair and total devastation as her reality is ripped asunder. Her husband, Robert, a powerful personality and energy who filled up the space in her life as well as his children’s, is gone in a matter of hours. The loss is so enormous that Joanne cannot regain her equilibrium. Unflinchingly, she describes her descent into the deep depression experienced only by the truly heartbroken. All social niceties, politeness and diplomacy mean nothing now that her life has lost its purpose. Family and friends are not quite able to cope with Joanne’s anarchic slide into grief as Joanne limps through months of trying to find a reason to be part of the living. She visits graveyards; she reads about death; she goes to a therapist. The process is deeply personal, and this is where Joanne’s writing is at its most powerful. Using words to make sense of her unreal reality, she stabs at some semblance of meaning through the unbearable loss. The writing is personal and profound. I was in tears more than once reading Joanne’s experiences of grappling with grief.

Her father’s death follows, and once again is a more acceptable slow decline into the inevitable, even though the death of the last parent pits sibling against sibling. Almost unbelievable in its timing, the loss of her mother-in-law through suicide follows shortly afterwards. Another unexpected death brings with it the sense of confusion and shock once more, and Joanne has to deal with the double loss in her own way.

Death and the after parties is a brutal retelling of the depths of despair which Joanne Hichens endured in so many different ways. The memoir will resonate with anyone who has loved deeply and felt an unendurable bereavement at the loss of their beloved. It’s an aching read, as Joanne exposes the breaks in her heart with complete candour. By the end of the memoir, one feels that her heart is mended and more beautiful than ever, just like the kintsugi heart on the cover of the memoir. Rudolf Steiner once said that wisdom is crystallised pain. One feels at the end of this memoir that Joanne has, indeed, grown wise. I recommend this book most highly if you have lost someone close to you. Even if you haven’t, this deserves to be read for the exploration of death and, indeed, its after parties.

Q and A:

Joanne, what gave you the courage to tell your story so honestly?

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I didn’t set out to be so honest, particularly about my childhood. I was going to write a short grief memoir, but the more I wrote, the more I understood that one’s childhood plays a role in how we grieve, that how we deal with loss as adults is connected to how we face loss as children, and so I went down that road, open to exploring my childhood.

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I didn’t set out to be so honest, particularly about my childhood. I was going to write a short grief memoir, but the more I wrote, the more I understood that one’s childhood plays a role in how we grieve, that how we deal with loss as adults is connected to how we face loss as children, and so I went down that road, open to exploring my childhood. And I thought, too, that if I was going to write authentically about my grief experience, I had to talk of how I coped – being dead-drunk, numbing the pain with alcohol and taking pills to sleep. It was too hard to face the emptiness, the fear, the loss, so anaesthetising myself provided relief. Memoir writers, in general, I would say, explore and write of the difficult times. We can’t simply gloss over the main events; it is always about going deeper, finding some sort of truth in what we have experienced in life, hoping it may have resonance with the reader.

(I remember, too, how courageous you were in telling the story of your brother’s experience in the army and his suicide: is it a burning desire to find a core of truth, no matter how difficult it is for the writer/filmmaker/individual? Is searching for truth, then – or greater understanding – what makes us willing and able to expose ourselves?)

I related strongly to the many different ways death impacts on those left behind, according to the circumstances of the deaths. I agree that it’s “easier”, in a way, to cope with a death that is anticipated, when someone has a terminal illness, as in your parents’ deaths. Even though the sadness is enormous in these circumstances, the realisation that death is inevitable prepares one for the final event in many ways. The horror of an unexpected death, such as your husband Robert’s heart attack, which took you completely by surprise, shakes one to the core. You took years to come to terms with it, which is understandable after such a traumatic event. Do you have any words of advice for people who are dealing with an unexpected and traumatic loss?

A prepared-for death allows time to make sure business is seen to, papers are in order, and one has time to say one’s last goodbyes. It means, one hopes, that less remains unresolved between those who die and those left behind. The unexpected death is often so sudden that life – conversations, relationships – remains open-ended. My husband’s sudden death was very difficult, as I’d argued with him the night before he died, and I’ll always live with the knowledge that we were not on good terms when he passed. The “survivor guilt”, regret and remorse were unbearable at times, and so I turned to taking and abusing prescription drugs and alcohol. I could not face the fact that I could no longer say, “I’m sorry.” And I was, and am. So sorry. But, after time, the edges soften, and as we learn to deal with ourselves with more compassion, we forgive those times and focus increasingly on the positive aspects of a relationship.

I’ve thought about what advice to offer a grieving person a great deal since reading the question. Unsolicited advice is often dangerous and can serve to alienate and anger instead of to heal. One has to be careful. People say “time heals”. I disagree. I don’t think it’s about healing. It’s about acceptance and self-acceptance. In the case of my husband, I like to focus on his legacy – his children, and what wonderful people they are due to their genetic inheritance. And, of course, Robert’s friends still remember him and talk about him, and that helps, too. As a bereaved woman, I hope I was always open to any kindness – a lasagne, a prayer, a visit, a phone call. It all helped. But it’s not the same for all people.

I would say, simply being present – holding a hand, being there – with the bereaved, acknowledging the pain, is enough, as a start. For me, it helped when people said “you will get through the pain”. I needed to know, basically, that I would survive without my partner; and, as the months and years went past, I knew I could find new meaning in my life, that I could channel the grief into creative endeavour, help others – and my children – and transform, somehow, through grief.

Many people don’t know how to respond to someone who is grieving deeply. You speak of occasions when some people seem afraid to get close to the bereaved in case they, too, are tainted by the death they have experienced. You also had to deal with a number of harsh criticisms from those around you – not least your own family – about your reactions to your husband’s death. Why do you think people are so unforgiving and find it difficult to deal with those who have been deeply affected by the loss of their loved ones and who show it in – to them – a socially unacceptable way? Do you think it might have something to do with our European culture, which doesn’t have particular rituals to deal with grief and which favours the “stiff upper lip” approach?

In some cultures, a set mourning period is prescribed, which perhaps helps the course of things. However, in cultures linked to Victorianism, the “stiff upper lip” attitude has always been considered preferable. Do not cry; get over it; show your strength. Showing vulnerability is associated with weakness. I think we know now that exposing our vulnerability to others is really an honest response to pain and grief.

That said, my take on it is that people essentially need to live their own lives. Those who support those in grief are caring and sympathetic, up to a point; and then, truly, friends and family want to know that you are recovering – perhaps because they need to get on with their daily grind as much as the grieving do. Very few can hold another in grief for a protracted period, perhaps also because people have enough trouble holding their own lives together.

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Many people are afraid of their own mortality, or don’t want to face it, or another’s death holds up a mirror for them – they see their own fragility, and it can be unwelcome.

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Many people are afraid of their own mortality, or don’t want to face it, or another’s death holds up a mirror for them – they see their own fragility, and it can be unwelcome. So, they express condolence and move on, and they want the grief-stricken to do the same. This, though, is a denial of intense and often overwhelming feeling. We, as those who have grieved (and continue to grieve), know that grief is a process that will be part of our journey for the rest of our lives. (And in the case of my mother-in-law’s suicide, I still have hardly discussed it with her son, her family. It seems to remain taboo; the complexities around suicide seem too enormous to contemplate.)

You are very honest about various members of your family and their reactions, especially, to your mother’s and father’s death. As you describe it, death can bring out the worst in families. How did they react to the memoir, and how much does their reaction matter to you?

Families, in general, are a minefield. Every person I know has family issues, or endures family squabbles. Just as “romantic love” is a fantasy, I think another fantasy is to believe that “blood is thicker than water”. In fact, the precise wording of the saying is: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” which implies that bonds made by choice can be stronger than familial bonds. That said, my personal view is that family is vital, that even if we don’t “like” each other, we are connected not only by genetic similarities that make siblings closer to one another than they are even to their parents, but we’re connected by the shared memories and struggles of childhood. In my case, we all seemed to regress to childhood after the death of my father; old wounds were exposed which have still not been dressed.

Memoir is always a limited view, written from the perspective of the writer. My brother Daniel, Golden Brother, congratulated me on the book and said he loved it. My brother in the US is so far removed from the family that I don’t think he would read it. However, I might be wrong. My sister, unfortunately, although I have contacted her since publication, and pre-publication, asking her to add her voice to the work – remains silent. (It was mentioned to me in passing that my sister contacted her old book club to ask “what had been revealed about her” in Death and the after parties – this shows that she is curious about the story. I would love nothing more than to reminisce with her about my parents and about my husband, Robert, whom she knew for 20 years. The door is always open for reconciliation.)

As far as my children go, my daughters haven’t yet read the book. Louise, the middle child, now 25, said to me, “Mom, it’s difficult to read about myself.” Jessica, my eldest, at 27, bought ten copies, which she dished out to her friends. This is her way of being supportive, and I’m deeply appreciative. My son, on the other hand, now 18, raved about it, compared me to Hermann Hesse, said how impressed he was with the description. I then asked him how far he’d got, and he said, “I’m on page three,” so I laughed and let it go at that. I hope they will read it sometime.

This is possibly the worst question, but I feel compelled to ask it anyway. Is there any advice you can give to anyone who goes through what you have in these past few years? What have you learnt that could be of value to those traversing the dark territory of losing a loved one for the first time?

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We can find meaning in the world, and perhaps help others by sharing what we ourselves have gone through. You did that, too, Janet, with your film about your own dear brother’s time in the army and his suicide.

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It’s a difficult question in the sense that nothing one can say can erase the pain of the survivor. Some people feel the phrase, “This too shall pass,” to be glib and dismissive of survivor pain, but it’s true – we carry on. Others need us. It’s good to be useful. We can find meaning in the world, and perhaps help others by sharing what we ourselves have gone through. You did that, too, Janet, with your film about your own dear brother’s time in the army and his suicide. This shows that the deceased person stays with us, in some form or another. Perhaps, over time, we come to look on whatever short life a loved one had as a precious time, and although we never completely heal, in the sense that the pain of memory can be bittersweet, we can love others and ourselves and find compassion for ourselves and others. I say this because part of traversing the dark territory is letting go any guilt or regret, and focusing on our own well-being, and that can be terribly difficult in the face of loss.

We can stop punishing ourselves.

Protracted grief can also have a negative influence on our lives, and so at some stage we have to focus on the practical – living, getting on with things. I would recommend grief counselling or therapy – talking openly to someone trained in how grief can unravel our sanity. It helps to understand the process and the stages of grief – much like Kübler-Ross’s stages of dying.

Joining a group such as Grief Beyond Belief on Facebook, provides the space for people to express grief at whatever point in their lives they’re experiencing grief, or re-experiencing it. This is helpful, too. I often read posts by people who have lost parents, children or spouses many years previously, and they come to the group and say, “I know this is a safe space; I know I can find a willing ear here; I know that people here will understand.” None of us are alone in grief. At some point in our lives, each of us will lose someone. It is good to be connected to a community that knows the pain.

I love the cover of your book, which has the image of a once-broken ceramic heart which has been repaired using the Japanese art of kintsugi. This is an art form where broken pottery is repaired with lacquer mixed with powdered gold. The repaired object is more beautiful than the original. Do you feel that writing the memoir has helped you process the enormity of enduring four deaths in relatively quick succession, and that your own heart is now more filled with empathy for others going through similar circumstances, and is therefore also more beautiful than before? Or is that too much of a cliché?

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Yes, my heart is more able to be feeling toward others. In fact, my most successful writing is always prefaced with the desire to write “from the heart”.

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As we know, cliché is cliché because of the universal truths of clichés. Yes, my heart is more able to be feeling toward others. In fact, my most successful writing is always prefaced with the desire to write “from the heart”. When writing pieces, over the years, about my life, I have thought that if I write from the heart, I’ll convey my authentic voice and that will resonate with the reader.

As for Kintsugi, my few attempts have been elementary – I’ve fixed a floral dish of my mother’s, and a Chinese platter – but the concept of repairing something broken in order to imbue it with even greater value appeals to me. Too often, we discard what is broken. We don’t accept what is broken in ourselves; we see our flawed and cracked and broken selves as less, as irreparable, as shameful. Yet, it is in our broken state that we become open to others – it’s because we are broken that we understand what it is like, intrinsically, on a visceral level, to be broken, and can offer compassion to those suffering just as we do.

Certainly, writing the memoir has helped me to process the deaths – to say goodbye to those I loved – but it also served me to think about my own death, to see life as fleeting, to gauge the temporary nature of all things. I hope to keep learning, to get to know myself better, to be kinder to myself and to others. To see the value in what is broken, and to accept how we are all so vulnerable in the end.

I have a fascination with gold, too …

Thanks for answering these personal questions, Joanne. I really appreciate the book and salute you in your courage to write so honestly about a subject which is so very close to your healing heart.

Also read:

Reader impression: Death and the after parties by Joanne Hichens

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