Suicide Postvention: Reminders and Revelations

Posted in Death midwifery, Education, Presentations, Professional on March 8, 2017 by Diana S-V

[Content warning: The following post contains explicit discussions of suicide.]

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the London-Middlesex Suicide Prevention Council’s annual professional development day. This year, it was devoted to the topic of suicide postvention and was led by the absolutely outstanding Dena Moitoso, a registered psychotherapist based in the Kitchener-Waterloo area.

One of the things that I love most about professional development days is that no matter how widely and often I read about death, dying, grief, and bereavement, presentation such as this one are a welcome opportunity to remind myself of many of the fundamental principles of approaching the topic of death with compassion and an open mind. To that end, I wanted to talk about my positive experience from this professional development day by sharing these principles and how Dena built on them to discuss the complexities of suicide postvention.

What is suicide postvention?

When I first saw the title of the PD day, I was a bit confused as I’d never heard the word “postvention” before. I reasoned that if “prevention” came before (PRE-vent) and “intervention” came in the middle of something (INTER-vene) then “postvention” must refer to everything that comes afterwards. What I would come to learn, however, is that even though these prefixes refer to times before, during, and after a crisis or event, suicide postvention is also a prevention and an intervention. That’s the thing about a crisis or traumatic event, as anyone who has experienced or studied responses to these phenomena will tell you: crises and trauma have a way of pervading, manipulating, and persisting across our conception of time and space.

Let’s start with a definition, though. The SPRC defines suicide postvention as “an organized response in the aftermath of a suicide to accomplish any one or more of the following:

  • To FACILITATE the healing of individuals from the grief and distress of suicide loss;
  • To MITIGATE other negative effects of exposure to suicide; and
  • To PREVENT suicide among people who are at high risk after exposure to suicide.”

The word “postvention” is primarily used in the context of the suicide prevention field and, as Ken Norton from the National Alliance on Mental Illness reminds us, it is essential that we prepare for postvention before a suicide. This is another reason why the time-based prefixes muddle the issue. Although crises may not be predictable, being able to understand and prepare for these crises can help equip us to know how to respond in a time of heightened and often confusing emotional, physical, and mental reactions, not to mention logistical complications. Norton notes that the following key players and participants are well served by suicide postvention training: first responders, coroners, funeral directors, faith leaders, emergency departments, clinicians, and journalists. I find these last two to be especially interesting because when it comes to crisis and trauma, we often think of clinicians and journalists as secondary players in the grand scheme of things. However, these are also individuals with a wide sphere of influence and often have immediate, long-term access to people and communities who are affected by crises and traumatic events. Being able to communicate thoughtfully to and about the folks involved is a crucial skill that may or may not be a standardized component in clinician and journalism training. And even though first responders are obvious roles that would seem to require specialized training, it is only recently that educators and professionals in those fields have begun to fully understand and implement training that accounts for the effects of trauma.

That said, even if you are not someone who is interested in understanding or likely to be exposed to similar kinds of crises, suicide postvention responses are part of a larger skill set that we might call “grief literacy,” that is, a sense of competence and basic knowledge in how to effectively and compassionately engage with people in a time of grief and bereavement. One of the things I hear most often from friends, family, and storytellers is that they don’t know what to do or say when faced with a person experiencing grief and loss. Specifically, they are afraid of doing and saying the wrong thing, and this fear can sometimes produce a distance between individuals and communities that would otherwise be a part of someone’s support system.

So how do we become “literate” or begin to understand how to be there for someone in the aftermath of a death, especially one as complex as the suicide of a loved one? Thanks to Dena, the structure of the professional development day laid the groundwork for asking this question. Dena’s approach to postvention was to connect grief, trauma, and bereavement in order to understand how the body and mind respond to a crisis. This approach is one that I might call psychosomatic, that is, it looks at how the brain creates affective responses and how our affective responses impact our bodies in a kind of dialogue or mutually determinative relationship. When it comes to crises, a lot of the metaphors that we use to describe our emotional and mental responses reflect the physical phenomena that our nervous, circular, and endocrine systems are experiencing. For example, the experience of feeling like you’re a robot, machine, or automaton in the aftermath of a crisis reflects the fact that the body goes into a kind of “autopilot” in order to keep you safe, upright, and relatively functional even when your brain feels like it is melting or wholly overpowered. If you’re interested in this, I encourage you to look at this resource from Harvard for a nicely articulated summary of the science side of things. Even though the science side of things isn’t my specialty, this reminder of the physical impact of trauma on the body and the psychosomatic roots of grief was a very useful component of the day’s presentation.

With this in mind, then, I’d like to return to the idea that there are a few foundations of grief literacy that we can recognize and build on to better understand strategies for suicide postvention.

1. Where and who we are in life impacts and has a close relationship with how we grieve. I suspect I don’t need to tell anyone that, say, a child of four years will have a different relationship to and understanding of loss than a septuagenarian. But what if we start thinking about how grief might differ between a four-year-old girl from Alberta and a six-year-old boy from West Africa? Or how a forty-year-old mother of two whose household income is quite comfortable would experience the aftermath of loss differently than a sixteen-year-old queer homeless boy? Although you may not feel equipped to fully understand the networks of power, geography, and preconception that affect how we see ourselves and how others see us, it is well worth reminding ourselves that one of the first components of grief literacy and relating to a grieving person is being there with your ears first, listening with compassion and without judgement, and taking your lead from the person to whom you are listening. There may be time for questions that can help you better support this person later. However, in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, no matter how well you think you know a person, making space and being with them rather than overpowering them or making assumptions is a great place to start. This leads me to my second point, which is more specific to suicide postvention, and that is:

2. Proximity and identification count for a great deal. Where we are in location and in life in relation to a person has an enormous effect on our response to the loss of that person. I can tell you that since becoming a mother, my affective response to the loss of a child has intensified drastically and changed in a number of different ways. I can also tell you that I respond very differently to the news of the death of a person with whom I share a number of characteristics than one with whom I do not have much in common. In the aftermath of a suicide, this is even more significant. Peers and colleagues might find themselves experiencing additional complications in their grief because of similarities between them and the person who died, and those of us who are already experiencing mental health issues, distress, anxiety, PTSD, or grief will find that this identification can exacerbate existing issues and make us more susceptible to harm or danger as a result of those issues. Furthermore, although suicide can be traumatic for everyone in the sphere of influence of the person who died, the trauma of hearing the news of a suicide is very different from the trauma of being, for example, a loved one who finds the body of a person who died by suicide. Suicide postvention asks us to take proximity and identification into account as a part of the larger work of empathy and holding space for someone’s experiences. And while we are on the topic of “proximity,” it is worth noting that…

3. Attachments and relationships are not the same things. This distinction comes from an understanding that even though we may not choose our relationships, our attachments are more frequently a matter of deliberate choice and outreach on our part. For example, I have many aunts and uncles for whom I care deeply but with whom I am not particularly close. I do, however, have a number of colleagues with whom I have worked for years and to whom I have grown very close. The loss of an aunt or uncle that I’ve known since birth may thus be very sad but a different intensity of loss from what I might feel if I lost a beloved colleague with whom I’ve worked closely, even if only for a few years. Anyone who has experienced estrangement or has a non-traditional family structure will tell you that the folks in we might call our “chosen family” are much closer to us than our blood relatives. In some cases, your chosen family might consist of mostly blood relatives, and that’s important to understand, too.The danger lies in thinking that someone will not be affected by loss just because the title of the relationship is not familial or the relationship has existed for a shorter time than other relationships. The frequency of contact is another aspect of relationships that can have an impact on attachment. A woman whom I consider a dear, trusted friend moved to Toronto to pursue her law education and career while I have been caught up in learning to become a parent and getting back on track with my career. As a result of these efforts, it has been hard to be able to meet in person or find time to stay in touch. That doesn’t change the fact that I love this woman very much and would be devastated if anything ever happens to her. Someone looking at, say, her text message history might not realize this, however, and so if something were to happen to her, I might not come to mind as someone who would be strongly affected. Part of suicide postvention is realizing that we can’t make assumptions about who is and is not affected by the traumatic event of a suicide and that it is not our place to decide who is and is not allowed to be affected by suicide, how they are affected, or for how long. This leads me to another important point that came up again and again in Dena’s presentation, which is:

The danger lies in thinking that someone will not be affected by loss just because the title of the relationship is not familial or the relationship has existed for a shorter time than other relationships. The frequency of contact is another aspect of relationships that can have an impact on attachment. A woman whom I consider a dear, trusted friend moved to Toronto to pursue her law education and career while I have been caught up in learning to become a parent and getting back on track with my career. As a result of these efforts, it has been hard to be able to meet in person or find time to stay in touch. That doesn’t change the fact that I love this woman very much and would be devastated if anything ever happens to her. Someone looking at, say, her text message history might not realize this, however, and so if something were to happen to her, I might not come to mind as someone who would be strongly affected. Part of suicide postvention is realizing that we can’t make assumptions about who is and is not affected by the traumatic event of a suicide and that it is not our place to decide who is and is not allowed to be affected by suicide, how they are affected, or for how long. This leads me to another important point that came up again and again in Dena’s presentation, which is:

4. There are a number of ways in which grief can become directly or indirectly disenfranchised. Let’s think about how disenfranchisement is defined for a moment. The term, which can also be used in a legal context as it applies to civil rights, refers to the revocation of power or control of an individual, community, or being to a natural resource or amenity to which they are entitled. This amenity could be some sort of privilege, right, or immunity, and while it is used primarily in a legal sense it is an important term to think about when we discuss grief and bereavement. Who has the right to grieve? Who is allowed to grieve, in what way, for how long? What is acceptable, appropriate, permitted, or prohibited? The answers to these question aren’t written in stone, of course, or even defined in certain terms, but the answers are informally shaped by cultural, religious, social, and even political and financial factors. Think for a moment about the way we perceive individuals who have lost a partner or spouse. There are several Miss Manners and other advice columns as well as countless long form articles about etiquette, behavior, and approaches regarding the loss of a spouse. Even though we say that everyone grieves differently, there is still an informal Western standard that we inherited from the Victorians that governs our approach to grieving spouses. Conservative clothing, waiting a certain amount of time before pursuing a new romantic or sexual relationship, wearing or taking off a wedding band—these notions of the grieving spouse may be changing but they are nevertheless pervasive.What I want people to get out of this example is the idea that even if we don’t make conscious

What I want people to get out of this example is the idea that even if we don’t make conscious judgments about the way people grieve or express these judgments to a grieving person, there are certain narratives and forces that inform an “appropriate” idea of who grieves, how, and for how long. If someone’s grief takes a form that is unfamiliar to us, if someone grieves in a way that we feel is not commensurate with the relationship to a lost loved one, or if someone grieves for what we feel is an inappropriately long or short amount of time, we run the risk of disenfranchising a person of the right to grieve in the way that they need to. I should note that this does not mean that people should be entitled to grieve in ways that include harm to themselves and others and should be left alone, or that people should not be supported in changing habits or practices as a result of grief that become harmful to themselves and others. What I do want to express is that a grieving person is directly and indirectly inundated with narratives of permission and prohibition, and this can affect their relationship to their grieving process. Furthermore, we can directly or indirectly support or change these narratives with the choices that we make in how we relate to a grieving person.

For example, let’s say that I have a friend who has lost a parent and that this friend returns to work immediately after the funeral. What might have influenced my friend’s choice? Perhaps she feels helpless after this loss and wants to return to the familiar workspace where she can feel useful, valued, and competent. Perhaps she has no other choice because her financial situation does not permit unpaid leave and her workspace does not offer paid leave. Perhaps she feels pressure to “act normal” and “get back in the swing of things.” Perhaps it is a combination of one or more of these factors. What is important to understand is that there are many forces that underly a person’s experience of bereavement and that when the power to determine this experience for oneself is explicitly or implicitly taken away, an individual can experience disenfranchised grief. The first influence, the choice to return to work, is an empowering one. Even if it turns out to not be the best choice for my friend, it is a choice that she made and is a part of her self-determination in a time of grief. It should thus be respected by friends, family, and colleagues. Swooping in and insisting that it’s “too soon” to go back to work and that she needs to take time off might be well-meaning, but it is not supportive of her right to self-determine and it can contribute to disenfranchisement. Similarly, the implicit social pressure or explicit and very real financial pressure to return to work can result in another serious type of disenfranchisement in which my friend does not feel or does not have permission to take time that she might wish as a part of her grieving process.

Disenfranchised grief is a complex issue, which is why I’ve talked at length about what it might look like. Especially in the case of a traumatic death or crisis like a suicide, the “norms” for grieving and everything we think we know about grief tends to go out the window, and even well-meaning individuals can contribute to disenfranchising a person grieving the loss of a loved one by suicide. This is why a key part of suicide postvention is to leave our judgments about appropriateness, propriety, and what is “normal” at the door. This first step can help us stop focusing on what is supposed to be happening and recognize and respond to what is happening to a person or community in the aftermath of a suicide. This is a good foundation for my next point:

5. Grief is not something we “get over.” Grief and its effects are something that we integrate into our lives in different ways over a long period of time. This is a hard one to write about and an even harder one to experience. I suppose the way that I interpret this core tenet of compassion towards people in a time of grief is this: grief is not an event with an end point or set of signposts. It is not a ruler with markings on it and it is not a burden that we pick up and put down. I have come to think of grief as a set of habits, practices, and beliefs that change and fluctuate over time, things that are an integral part of everything from the minutiae of our daily lives to the “big picture” of how we think about our identities and relationships and everything in between. When, from the outside, we observe someone who has “gotten over” the loss of a loved one, what we are really seeing is a person who has integrated their grief and the changed relationship to the person who died into the way they move through the world.

What this looks like in theory and in practice is a topic so immense and complicated that it deserves several web pages worth of writing rather than this small section. But what I think is essential to understand about the myth of “getting over” with regard to suicide postvention is that grief in the aftermath of suicide can also be considered a set of habits, practices, and beliefs that will, to a greater or lesser degree, be a part of a person’s life for the rest of their life. Suicide will have an impact on individuals and communities in ways we can imagine and for stretches of time that go beyond what we can comprehend, and that means that, once again, we have to leave our judgement at the door and let go of our assumptions if we want to learn how to respond to and engage compassionately with people who have experienced the loss of someone by suicide. More importantly, just as a person learns different ways of relating to their grief, so, too, do we have to be open to learning different ways of relating to a person who is grieving. Our habits, practices, and beliefs in relation to this person will change and shift over time, and that means that being there for someone who is affected by suicide is a dynamic process and not a static achievement. One does not suddenly achieve enlightenment and become a superhero of support for a grieving person. One becomes a watchful student at the side of the grieving person and tries to change with them as they observe and learn more about what that person’s life with grief is like.

Being with someone who is grieving is hard. There are no two ways about it. All the training and qualifications and experience in the world does not make it easy even if it helps us to become more competent and confident in our abilities. This brings me to my final point, one that is hopefully familiar to anyone who works in front-line care or as a first responder:

6. You cannot care for others if you are not taking care of yourself. This is not the first time I’ve talked about this on my blog and it won’t be the last. If someone in your life is grieving or experiencing the effects of a death by suicide, grief becomes a part of your life, even if it is indirect or distant part of it. I can’t remember when I first heard the metaphor of the oxygen mask as a way of talking about self-care, but I suspect I was reminded of it by the very wise Cassandra Yonder. When oxygen masks drop from the ceiling of the plan in a time of emergency, flight attendants remind you that you should always put your own mask on before helping others. This is because if you run out of oxygen while struggling to put a mask on someone who needs help, you’re in trouble and neither of you will get the help you need. If you are able to breathe, you are better equipped to help others who may need assistance to do the same. This is another topic that deserves several thousand words, but I will summarize by saying this: part of your suicide postvention “toolkit” is the ability to self-reflect and assess how you are doing before, during, and after your direct or indirect engagement with suicide. Do not underestimate how important this tool is and please do not hesitate to seek help for yourself if you need it.

Final thoughts

By way of closing, I wish to thank Dena and the LMSPC for another incredible training day. I encourage folks in the London community who are interested in learning more about how they can help people struggling with suicidal thoughts or dealing with the effects of suicide in their lives to visit the resources I’ve listed below. Suicide and its effects are a public health issue that impacts all of us, and as I mention at the beginning of this post, suicide postvention strategies are actually prevention and intervention strategies, too.

Home Funeral Practicum – this weekend!

Posted in Death midwifery, Education, The corpse on May 30, 2016 by Diana S-V

I’m incredibly excited to be participating in a two-day home funeral practicum with the wonderful Don Morris and Shannon Calvert this weekend in London. Don was one of my instructors for the VSDM and the week that he taught was one of the highlights of the course.

The workshop will tackle legal and logistical issues, health precautions, body preparation, rituals, vigiling, ceremony, and more. I can’t wait to be able to put some of my online training into physical practice and to connect with others in the London area. Look out for a blog post about my experience in the weeks to come.

Information about the Practicum can be found here!

Adventures in Death Midwifery: The Dissertation, and the Dreaded “Rut”

Posted in Death midwifery, Dissertation, Education, Theory on May 30, 2016 by Diana S-V

Hello, death-friends!

Apologies for the delay on this post. I started and wrote the majority of the post on the fourth of April, and four days later I went into labour and gave birth to my son. I also needed a bit of time to learn how on earth one keeps a tiny newborn human alive, happy, and healthy. So far, so good!

In my last post, I talked at length about my first few weeks in the BEyond Yonder Virtual School for Death Midwifery (VSDM) course and how my approach to being a student and researcher began to change as a result of my experience in the course. In this post, I’d like to talk about how my dissertation developed, stalled, and was revitalized by the timing and content of the VSDM course and by the death midwifery movement as a whole.

Beginnings (aka. “the noob years”)

My first academic introduction to the schools of thought that have had the greatest influence on me as a scholar and writer came in my second year of undergraduate work. As with most English programs, my undergraduate program required me to take a full year introductory course on literary theory and criticism and, as I suspect is the way with most undergraduate students, the course was a real game-changer for me. I was fortunate to have an instructor whose mission it was to not only introduce us to the concepts but to facilitate a space in which we could use the language and approaches we were learning to challenge those concepts in dialogue and in writing. It was a relief, in a way, to finally have a language for things that I had noticed in high school and first-year classes in literature that had been bothering me but that I hadn’t quite been able to articulate clearly.

Granted, I would later be challenged to critique the notions of articulation, language, and privilege in the academy, but this was early on and I was simply grateful to have the tools when I did. By the end of my second year, I felt equipped to ask questions about and explore the concepts of class, gender, race, language, colonialism, sexuality, and aesthetics, and I also felt as if I had been given the permission to ask if I bought what a particular school of thought or thinker was “selling,” and why or why not this would be the case. It seems so simplistic now, but anyone who has taken a course like this or had an epiphany in a classroom where a whole new portion of your mind seems to open up and breathe knows what I’m talking about.

In terms of my dissertation, this course catalyzed a number of practical and theoretical convictions that still inform my work at present. My introductions to critical race theory and thinkers who focused on anti-oppression, Marxism, and feminist theory made me determined that whatever work I did should have a “boots-on-the-ground” component in which theoretical ideas could (and should) be enacted in practice. The way in which I was introduced to these topics also made me aware of the need to reflect on one’s own practices to see what might be ignored, overlooked, or silenced in the process of discussion and writing, what I would later understand as something resembling intersectionality and checking privilege. Again, my understanding of these immensely complex topics was simple at the time, and even after many years of listening and reading I often feel as if getting better at this type of reflection can only be measured in millimeters rather than leaps and bounds.

I also fell in love—and I don’t mind calling it that, because I don’t think it’s shameful to say that you fall in love with or love a writer or school of thought provided you don’t let that love blind you to problems—with poststructuralism, and with Derrida in particular. I adored his playfulness, his writing style, his willingness to experiment, and what felt like the novelty of it all, and the obtuseness that frustrated and turned off my classmates (and still does!) somehow felt sensible to me. I’m a bit less cheerleader-y about it now, and much more practical in my approach to reading and rereading his work, but I still find his writing innovative and pragmatic in its own way after all of these years.

Now, fast forward to the last year of my undergraduate degree: I wanted to work on Southeast Asian and Caribbean literature, with a focus on gender. I was completing an honours thesis on Karukku, a translated narrative autobiography by a Tamil Dalit author writing under the pen name of Bama, and had submitted applications to Masters programs with the intent to do a thesis on Sam Selvon’s “Moses” trilogy. I would go on to successfully complete both of these projects, and applied to doctoral programs with a dissertation proposal that would focus on translated autobiographies written by Dalit women and see me do a year of exchange at the University of Pune in Maharashtra. I was accepted to UWO’s PhD program with this proposal.

So… here I am. I took my secondary qualifying exam in theory and criticism, and my primary qualifying exam in Twentieth-Century British and Irish Literature, I’m working on thanatology, and I never did make it to Pune. Huh. Best laid plans and whatnot, right?

First of all, if you’re at the beginning of your career as a researcher and you feel like it’s too late to change the trajectory of your research because your interests have shifted, STOP THINKING THAT. I’m sure there are times when it is definitely too late—three months before you’re scheduled to defend, for example—but in your Masters program or at the beginning of your PhD program is not too late. I won’t lie. It is a lot of work to catch up and re-establish yourself in a new field when some of your colleagues have been interested in the same field since they entered their undergraduate program. It can be tricky to navigate the changing of supervisors and committees, and to write grant proposals from scratch when you decide to commit. However, if the topic that you’re switching to is truly what you want to be working on, if it’s what will keep you energized and motivated to finish a dissertation that you can be happy with, and if you’re willing to put in that work, for the love of God, do it.

That’s what I was preoccupied with in my first and second years of my PhD. I had realized around the time that I finished my Masters project on Selvon that while I loved the literature, I was ill-equipped to navigate the identity politics of my project and the scholarly community that I had to be a part of in order to see that project come to fruition, and the topics I was addressing didn’t keep me up at night. That’s not to say that they must, of course, but nowadays after a good day of researching or writing, I’m often so excited about what I accomplished and what I’ll be doing tomorrow that I have a hard time turning that part of my mind off and falling asleep. For me, having a few days like that every now and again is a non-negotiable component of my work as a researcher, and not a bonus.

Fresh Starts

As my motivation for my original dissertation proposal waned, my interest in corpses as material objects, death and dying, memorialization, and thanatology snowballed as did my interests in new materialism, ecocriticism, abjection, and Derrida. In almost every single course in the first year of my PhD, I found a way to explore these topics in presentations and final papers. I wrote about hunger strikes and starving bodies, about abjection and nuclear fission, decomposition and the encryption of bodies, giving bodies as gifts, fetishism and photographic archives, and the notion of the “post-mortem.” Despite it being a very tough year in terms of my personal life and ability to manage work-related stress, each of these papers was a joy to write. I felt like one does after taking a corset off after a night of performing burlesque when one’s ribs are finally able to expand in all directions and one’s skin can breathe. It was liberating, it was motivating, and it was writing the way that I hoped writing would someday be for me: frustrating, infatuating, and immensely pleasurable at the end of the day.

One paper stood out, however, and that was my final paper for a class called “Melancholy and the Archive.” I had decided to use this paper as a “test run” for the idea I had for my new dissertation proposal, which had been percolating in my head since October or so. The paper concerned the absence of bodies and the presence of archival materials, read through the notion of “skin,” in José Saramago’s All the Names, and was founded upon a close reading of Derrida’s Archive Fever. I figured that the worst-case scenario was that I would get great feedback on the paper and be able to go back to the drawing board, but the best case scenario… well, perhaps this is a bit too personal and maybe was a bit unprofessional at the time, but when I handed the paper in to the instructor, Jonathan Boulter, I wrote something foolhardy to the effect of “Depending on how you like the trajectory of this paper, and if you think it’s worth expanding to something resembling a dissertation, I’d like to talk to you about becoming my supervisor for that dissertation.” When he wrote back to say that he’d like to talk more about the paper, my hope that my new interests could be channeled into a dissertation that I would want to write and that people would want to read felt affirmed. I wasn’t a dolt! These ideas could have a home!

Of course, one of the disadvantages of being a late bloomer in terms of one’s dissertation topic is that you have a lot of catching up to do. My secondary qualifying exam, which was focused on literary theory and criticism, was a great refresher and definitely helped me reread a number of texts with my new topic in mind. Baudrillard, Freud, Lacan, Bataille, Baudrillard, Benjamin, Butler, Blanchot, Kristeva, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Jameson, Kristeva, Lyotard, Nancy—all of these thinkers mattered in a completely different way than they did before, and the summer I spent studying for the secondary exam was great preparation for rewriting both the following year’s grant proposal and the field study. My primary exam, however, was a struggle. I’d never taken a single course in British and Irish literature, and there were huge gaps in my knowledge that my peers taking the same exam didn’t seem to have. For my optional texts, I tried as much as possible to pick texts with death, dying, bodies, and performance so that I could at the very least have something to latch on to and find some new (to me!) and relevant texts about which I could write for future projects. This was not the healthiest time in my student life, I must admit, and the pressure that I put on myself and the way that I approached studying for this exam really took a mental and physical toll on me. To top it all off, I had to shuffle my schedule around deferring the exam because my stepfather ended up in the hospital the week I was supposed to do the written portion. I made it through, but I was pretty raggedy when I got to the other side of the exam.

However, it was conference season! And not just any conference season—this was a big one for me. I had applied and been accepted to three major conferences and was over the moon about it. My papers for each conference were either directly related to or very closely related to my dissertation, and I was eager to receive feedback on them and mingle with other like-minded individuals. I was most excited about being accepted to the Derrida Today conference, where I hoped to work through and become acquainted with other major texts and trends in Derrida scholarship. The conferences were spectacular. However, most of my summer and part of my fall semester was seriously derailed in terms of my mental health and safety due to an incident that you can read more about here. After a lot of therapy and help from my support network, I finally completed my field study and my prospectus was accepted by my department. I was ABD (All But Dissertation) and free to finally write my masterpiece! So, what the hell happened?

The Rut

Oh, “the rut.” There are many names for this hellish time that almost everyone seems to face over the course of writing a dissertation, but I think of mine as a rut because it reminds me of when you are driving out in the boonies or in winter with godawful snow patterns, and you end up with your tires spinning in the mud or on the ice. You gently try to move your car by physically or mechanically creating a rocking motion that is intended to give you a boost, but there you are. You’re in the rut. You can be as gentle or as forceful as you like, but until something gives, in the rut you shall stay. The rut is your home. EVERYTHING IS RUT.

My rut was, as it turns out, a problem of methodology. I had a lot of ideas, a lot of possibilities, and a wealth of ways to tackle these ideas, but absolutely no clue how to tackle the methodological problem of a highly interdisciplinary project that tackled sociocultural, legal, ethical, material, narrative, political, and aesthetic components of death, dying, and bodies. Every time I thought I had “solved” the methodological problem, it turned out to be another false start. I had mountains of notes, and many outlines that tested out various ways to talk about my approach to my dissertation and what it was about, but very little actual writing and nothing that was, to my mind, suitable to be handed in to my supervisor or second reader.

And so I avoided writing. I made more notes, I made more outlines, I read more books, I found more resources, but I was still in that rut. I wasn’t even rocking back and forth anymore. I think writing, in this metaphor, would have represented that kind of effort. Even ineffective writing would have meant some sort of motion, but I was afraid. I was afraid that if I wrote something that it would be crap. What I SHOULD have done, and what I do now on a regular basis, is embrace the fact that the first bit of writing is always crap. What else could it be? It would be like me talking in a whisper for six months and expecting that I’d be able to slay Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” at Sunday night karaoke, or staying in bed for a week and expecting that I could nail an advanced version of a yoga pose without permanently damaging my groin and my dignity. Why we get it into our minds that writing is any different is beyond me, but fear is a powerful thing, and I didn’t feel strong enough to face the crap that would flow from my fingertips so that I could move past it and get to the good stuff.

The VSDM to the Rescue!

Perhaps I’m exaggerating when I say that this course rescued me, but it’s certainly not a hyperbole by much. Here’s why and how the course got me out of my rut and kick-started my dissertation writing process again.

  1. Reading about the death midwifery movement is incredibly motivating.

If you’ve ever been on the Facebook page that is a hub for death midwifery in Canada, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t been, you really should. The group boasts over 2,400 members and is growing every day. Some of these members are observers, some are occasional posters, and many share daily postings and resources. It’s a veritable treasure trove of links to all kinds of valuable materials, and the comments often reveal some great conversations about key topics and awesome recommendations for additional reading. Not only have I managed to connect with a number of like-minded academics through the page but I have also garnered an enormous collection of scholarly and other writings that have sustained my interest, expanded my knowledge, and will even make it into the dissertation proper. My connections to my classmates are also nurtured by this group and the smaller groups dedicated to the “death nerds” who have taken the course. Updates on what my classmates have done, such as seeking out new jobs related to deathcare, organizing events, starting their own death midwifery practices, and writing have served to encourage me to foster my own interests and projects, such as this blog.

  1. The structure of the course made me talk to real live human beings about my dissertation.

I am a prodigious talker, and an enthusiastic writer, but you’d be surprised at how often I’m afraid to talk about my work and the dissertation in particular. I can talk about death and dying till the cows come home. Ask me to describe my project, to talk about where I’m at and my successes and failures, and you are likely to witness me dance around it or get flustered when I can’t articulate what I’d like to articulate. The VSDM’s forum posts, buddy chats, and teleconferences asked that I rise to the challenge of introducing myself and my work to others over and over again, and it got to the point that I started feeling a little more adept at discussing my work and justifying its value and place in the death midwifery movement and the academic landscape. After qualifying exams were done, I drifted away from my cohort of peers when it came to actively collaborating and chatting about my work on a regular basis. I didn’t really talk to anyone about it, to be honest, because I was worried there wasn’t much to be said and was afraid of bungling my end of the conversation. But it wasn’t that I didn’t have anything valuable to say. I was out of practice, quite literally, with talking to other human beings. It was also gratifying to hear others say that they were interested in what I had to say or to declare that it sounded like there truly was a place for my work in the movement when I was experiencing doubt.

  1. Treat writing like a dialogue rather than a lecture and you won’t feel so shitty when you sit down to do it.

I could go on and on about which strategies do and do not work for me when it comes to writing. However, the biggest struggle is beginning something new and getting the first few words out of the way. The first few words are always awkward and weird and shitty, or at least this is the case when I sit down to write. It’s a matter of flushing the rust from the pipes. My supervisor calls it “throat-clearing,” an expression I quite like. The journaling component of the VDSM course was strange for me as I’d not been in the habit of journaling before, but to make the style of reflecting writing easier I began my journaling in a style that seemed wacky at the time but ultimately made me a better academic writer—I started talking and writing to myself. I don’t mean this obliquely. I explicitly and deliberately wrote as if I were having a dialogue with another version of myself, one that would be receptive to my own ideas and see value in them. A more forgiving and open-minded version of myself, someone less inclined to judgment and more interested in what I had to say became my own “Ideal Reader,” that person that you write for and whose approval you want. The journaling format and this much more benevolent Ideal-Reader-Diana started to influence my academic writing insofar as I no longer felt that my drafts were for my supervisor, or for anyone else. They belonged to me and me alone, and that meant that I could take some of the pressure off of myself. After all, if I’m the only one who is going to see this version, who cares what it looks or sounds like? What matters is getting the words out. I can always turn shit into gold at a later date, after all.

  1. I felt like I had something to offer. Don’t forget that your dissertation should make you feel like that, too.

When you’re surrounded by other academics and accomplished scholars and researchers, it’s easy to forget that the little slice of knowledge that belongs to you is actually interesting. My work had become so familiar to me that I began to see it as repetitive, stale, and boring as hell because I had become accustomed to my own ideas as some sort of normative, average base material that needed expansion to be worth anything at all. My discussions with others were a form of defamiliarization through which I could see and imagine my work with the eyes and ears of other people, and appreciate it as original and valuable even in its most rudimentary form. We can become used to our own ideas and immune to their charms, as it were, and although I didn’t leave conversations feeling like a genius, I was certainly reminded that what I was working on was new, fresh, and interesting in its own right, and that meant that I didn’t have to keep justifying my existence as a scholar and researcher to the darker parts of my own mind every time I sat down to write.

  1. We are in an academic bubble where the goal is perfection. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It has to be written.

As hokey as it is, I often tell students for whom I am a teaching assistant that when they are working on an essay they should always remind themselves of the French verb essayer: “to try.” I think it was an Acadian colleague who first told me this, and it stuck.

I want to finish this post by deferring to the words of a wonderful human and brilliant colleague, Eileen Wennekers, whose excellent advice on writing and on life has always been sound and has gotten me out of more than one psychological jam. I recommend reading her piece, “How To Be A Writer,” in its entirety on the Weird Canada website. However, the following words are my favourites and I return to them again and again until they have become like old friends to me. I hope you find them as worthwhile to keep around as I have.

When you are writing you are not a radio. You are doing work, in the deepest dialectical sense: You are engaging with your material in a way that imprints it with a subjective mark, changing it, and in doing so, creating a manifestation in the objective world of what is inside you. You are working out a particular problem that only you could set yourself.

What this means is that if you have an idea about writing something, you are already inspired. You do not have to wait for inspiration to realize your idea. It is merely a matter of choosing to either relieve yourself or get off the can.

If you ever perfectly articulated everything exactly as you wished, a drain-hole would open up in the interstices between the world of signification and that world it refers to, and all that is would implode into this drain-hole in an impeccable inversion of the Big Bang. Thankfully, this has not yet happened.

This means that your piece is done not when it is perfect, but when it is done. Does it make sense? Does it say something? Are you deeply sick of the sight of it? Done. Everyone regards that which she excretes with an undeniable interest, but if you’re trying to shove it back into yourself in the hope of a more transcendent outcome, it’s just going to end up a mess. Just. Let. Go.

Please feel free to comment on this post with any resources on writing, academic or otherwise, that you think are worth sharing. In my next blog post, I’ll be talking about community-building, professionalization, and the complexities of the language of the death midwifery movement and in death and dying more broadly.

Adventures in Death Midwifery: Introduction

Posted in Death midwifery, Dissertation, Education on February 25, 2016 by Diana S-V

 

skull quill

Pieter Claesz’s “Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill” (1628) – oil on wood. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Hello, death-friends! Long time, no see!

The past year has certainly been a busy one. I spent most of the first half of the year writing a book chapter and article, neither of which ended up being published—more on that another day—and most of the second half finishing my last teaching assistantship for the foreseeable future and navigating some non-academic adventures, like finding out that I’m expecting my first child this April and learning how to tackle the physical and financial changes that this welcome but unexpected news brought on. However, one of the other reasons that I was off the radar for the latter half of the year was because I was fortunate enough to a part of the inaugural class of Cassandra Yonder’s twelve-week core program in death midwifery.

The program was intensive on a number of levels, some of which I anticipated and some of which I was in no way prepared for. Returning to my role as a student in a virtual classroom with a heavy emphasis on community-building, frequent writing, twice-weekly videoconferences, and one-on-one dialogues was initially exhausting, especially since the first part of the course overlapped with first-trimester fatigue. The format of the course was also very different from my most recent student experiences in academia, and while from the outside it might have seemed like I was very well suited to the course format and would have no problem keeping up, I found the opposite to be true.

The traditional academic learning environment, even before the dissertation takes priority, relies more heavily on intensive periods of work towards larger tasks over long durations of time. For example, my graduate coursework consisted of several once-weekly three-hour seminars that involved an incredible amount of discussion, concentration, sustained mental effort, and connection to others in the classroom. Anyone who has ever been in a similar seminar environment knows it is as exhausting as it is rewarding, and although I needed to quickly learn that part of participating in that environment meant giving myself time to recuperate after seminars, I adapted to and thus began to thrive more easily to this pedagogical structure. Similarly, the structure of my qualifying exam year—which consisted of a secondary field exam, primary field exam, and field study—was focused on long, sustained periods of intensive study culminating in one massive exam. Four months of reading and researching was ultimately capped with four hours of writing and, in the case of the primary exam and field study, a two-hour discussion with a designated committee.

The BEyond Yonder Virtual School for Death Midwifery (VSDM for short) could not have been more different. Each week focused on a different module, each day focused on a different component or facet of that module, and expectations for fulfilling the course requirements and contributing to the community environment of the course included daily journaling, daily forum posts and conversations, the aforementioned twice-weekly two-hour teleconferences, and weekly “buddy chats” where we had the opportunity to get to know our fellow classmates and spend time talking about our time in the course. The massive differences between approaching traditional academic labour—long bouts of reading balanced by short bursts of intense writing or dialogue—and this kind of labour was a shock to my system. It became apparent to me almost immediately that I required some sort of structured routine that would allow me to not just cover the readings, discussions, and journaling but to enjoy them and actually experience the benefits of these components. Keeping up with readings was not difficult, of course, but I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be for me to find a comfortable tone and approach to the forum posting and journaling. I also didn’t realize until the first few weeks were over that like traditional academic labour, my success in this course depended a great deal on how well I took care of myself and stayed in touch with how the course content and structure affected my life outside of my studies.

Once I experimented with and got into a rhythm that worked for me—no small feat, I’m afraid, and my contributions in the first few weeks of class were somewhat paltry compared to later on in the course—my engagement with the material and with my classmates increased at a rapid rate. The forum discussions began to feel more natural and dialogic in terms of their formal elements, and I began to feel less nervous opening up about aspects of the course that were not based on the reading: my personal experiences, my affective responses to the material, my comfort levels with certain topics, and gaps in my knowledge. I also became better at targeting what I appreciated about the ideas of my colleagues, building upon those ideas where possible, and offering my thanks for and compliments on those posts of which I was particularly appreciative. The first few weekly teleconferences were a learning curve for everyone involved, I think, both on a technological level and in terms of crafting an environment in which we could all feel connected. However, after two or three teleconference, I found myself recognizing the voices of my classmates and hearing a more natural cadence and conversational tone begin to enter into our discussions. The teleconferences still involved a great deal of critical thinking, and I found it very helpful to keep a Word document open so that I could quickly jot down phrases that resonated with me or things I wanted to look up later without sacrificing my focus on the dialogue. After the teleconferences, I often took an hour or so to decompress and take care of myself after such heady and sometimes personal discussions. This habit was something that I continued throughout the course, and was something that I found my classmates (as well as our fearless leader, Cassandra) encouraged one another to do.

Indeed, that self-care became an integral part of what we might call the “hidden curriculum” of the course was something for which I was very grateful. I quickly observed that as with other emotionally and mentally taxing forms of labour that involve direct contact with people and their stories (psychoanalysis, therapy, social work, birth doula work, hospice and palliative care work, anything in human resources, stewardship in labour organizations, and innumerable positions in activist, front-line care, and community organizations) the work of learning about death and dying, and sharing our stories with one another, was very much work, even if it didn’t always feel like that when we were in the thick of things. It became even more important to me when I started realizing that it was important to have a pulse on my need for self-care based on the topic of my dissertation and various projects that I have taken on.

I began to reflect on certain occasions in my career during which I had been quite ignorant of the effect of my research topics on my emotional and mental well-being, and the ways that I could have taken better care of myself at those times. For example, I became quite physically ill and exhausted after a weekend of preparing a conference abstract on the topic of the circulation of collectible lynching photographs in mid-nineteenth century America. I also suffered a number of symptoms (insomnia, anxiety, and an increase in depressive thoughts) that I now suspect were partially psychosomatic when I was researching and writing my article on executed inmate’s last statements and capital punishment in the summer of 2014. I have noticed that today, as I work on my dissertation topic, there are days when I recognize that the contents of my reading or writing for the day call for more self-care than on other days, and I am more willing now to take steps to address this while still maintaining a steady work pace. Prior to the course, I was not nearly as adept at this kind of reflective work, nor was I willing to take steps to address self-care in relation to my dissertation topic.

All in all, even a few weeks into the course, I was already undergoing some major meta-cognitive adjustments that, while occasionally frustrating and requiring no small effort, were already benefiting me within the course as well as supplementing my skills outside of the course. I was being asked to examine and re-evaluate the relationship that I had with myself as a learner, as a researcher, and as a communicator, and the end result was a better awareness of how my time within the university—especially my first two years of graduate school—had influenced my strengths and weaknesses in these areas.

The course also jolted me out of what I now recognize as a rut or groove that wasn’t really serving my approach to my work on the dissertation. In my next blog post, I’ll be talking about what I think the root cause of this rut was, how I first became aware of the death midwifery movement, why I chose to take the VSDM course when I did, and how my involvement with the movement got my dissertation back on track.

How to Die Like Bowie, or, We Can Be Heroes

Posted in Music with tags , , on January 12, 2016 by Diana S-V
bowie

A picture from David Bowie’s final photoshoot, shot by Jimmy King.

 

By now, everyone has heard the news of David Bowie’s death of cancer at sixty-nine years of age. Bowie’s death came two days after his birthday and the simultaneous release of his newest album, Blackstar, and so many fans and Bowie aficionados likely received this news after a few days of appreciating the new album, revisiting old favourites, and generally appreciating the oeuvre of a man whose work, words, and aesthetic profoundly changed them in some way.

When I first read the news of his death, the first thing I felt was shock. The second thing that I felt was appreciation. Let me explain: Bowie is one of the most famous and widely known musical artists to have ever lived, and if he was living with cancer for eighteen months without it being public knowledge, it was very deliberate. This means that he, his family, and his colleagues had to make several complicated arrangements to ensure their privacy, and it also means that the folks who were a part of Bowie’s inner circle had to respect that desire for privacy. In other words, a number of factors had to be in place—human, bureaucratic, legal, and more—in order for Bowie to confront his death in the way that we wanted.

The more I learn about things like his final photoshoot, the deliberate timing of the release of the video for “Lazarus,” and the tone of ★ (Blackstar) the more I appreciate what a good death looked like for David Bowie, especially given how much labour, organizing, and effort had to be expended in order to make this good death happen. In the weeks to follow, we will likely learn even more about Bowie’s final months and his approach to dying of a terminal illness, but in the meantime, what can we learn about how to die from Bowie? What can we learn about how to make a good death happen for ourselves? Here’s another way to think about it: how can we emulate, in a meaningful way, the worldview and courage of a man that was so widely admired and loved? I’ll be going into more detail in subsequent blog posts about my encounters with the following topics, but it seems to be that David Bowie’s good death consisted of several basic components or actions that we can all practice ourselves. These components are:

  • Accepting death: although Bowie may have undergone treatment, at some point he must have made the decision to accept that he would die of cancer, and once that acceptance took place, his death would have become a fact over which he could have some modicum of control. We cannot control that we die, but there are many parts of how we die that we can begin to manage if we are able to address them early enough and with the necessary support.
  • Support: speaking of support, it is very difficult to go through the process of confronting and planning one’s own death and dying without some sort of support network. In Bowie’s case, this was likely a combination of family members, including his wife, Iman, a professional network of palliative care and other doctors who could have assisted with pain management and comfort at the end of life, and the collegial network that was equipped and willing to make sure that Bowie’s wishes were carried out. This network looks different for every individual, but it is crucial that those you wish to be close to you and are in a position to help you are informed of your wishes in as much detail as possible. This enables them to execute any wishes that you may have and also relieves them of the emotional and mental burden of doubting whether what they are doing is in keeping with your wishes in the first place.
  • Documentation: between his medical care, his disposition wishes, and the complicated legal, financial, professional, and artistic networks required to ensure that albums, videos, and photographs are released according to schedule and in accordance with the artist’s wishes, I can only imagine the stack of paperwork that Bowie, his family, and his colleagues would have had to tackle. That said, many hands make light work. It is likely that there were some documents that only Bowie could legally handle, but many other tasks could have been delegated to a family member, colleague, or other professional with signing authority and knowledge of Bowie’s wishes. Documentation is the one aspect of death and dying that people least expect and most underestimate, and it is likely to be something that overwhelms you if you aren’t prepared for it. Your support network can help you with this, but knowing a timeline also helps. What needs to be signed immediately? What can wait, and for how long? In other words, in the face of the documentation side of death and dying, taking small bites and, yes, starting as early as possible is the best way to avoid additional anxiety.
  • Advance planning: related to documentation and the support network, it is clear that Bowie was able to approach his death and dying in such an organized, coordinated fashion only because he made ample use of the advance planning tools that were available to him. In terms of his legacy, it seems that the news of his passing, the completion of his goals, and the release of his final albums while ensuring his privacy and getting time to spend with his loved ones were priorities to him. These priorities could only be enshrined in official terms, so to speak, by planning early, planning thoroughly, and planning in detail. Again, the majority of this would have been made possible only through the appropriate documentation and lots of help from Bowie’s support network, but it also likely began with Bowie simply sitting down and asking himself, perhaps several times, the following questions: “What do I want to accomplish before I die? Knowing that I only have one or two years to live, what is important and meaningful to me? What do I want my death to look and feel like for myself, for my loved ones, and for the many people that I care about?” Advance planning is nothing more or less than the answers to these questions enshrined in some form of documentation, legally binding agreements, and even ephemeral forms such as frank, detailed conversations with the executor of your estate and your loved ones.

It takes a great deal of courage and dedication to tackle these components. However, in the end, the reward is self-determination and what we might call “a good death”—a death that is arranged so that it speaks to our values and that which we found meaningful and significant when we were living, and that helps us to realize those aspects of ourselves in our dying. David Bowie was a hero to many, and it is clear that the arrangements he made to connect with the world through his music and ever-changing aesthetic prior to his death have been received in the spirit in which they were intended. He worked hard to say goodbye in a way that made sense to him, and if you wish to pay tribute to him in some small way, what better way to tip your hat to the man than working towards the same courage and effort when it comes time for you to die? For myself, I can’t think of anything Bowie would have appreciated more than people finding, following, and committing to their own unique passion even in—perhaps especially in—the face of death.

Forthcoming publication | Surviving the Death Sentence

Posted in Presentations, Professional, Publications on January 30, 2015 by Diana S-V

I had a fantastic experience at the ACLA annual meeting last spring, and was part of a great panel on the death sentence. My one regret was that I didn’t have enough space or time to elaborate on some parts of my presentation, but fortunately, I’ll be getting the opportunity to do so very soon. An article expanding my paper on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s digital archive of death row inmate’s last statements will be appearing in a special issue of Parallax in April 2016. I’m excited to continue my work on this topic, and for my work to appear alongside a number of other excellent articles, many of which are from my fellow panelists at ACLA. Especially in the wake of the botched executions in Oklahoma, new perspectives on the death sentence (and new ways to talk to people about them) have never been more crucial.

“Pop/Corn,” Word Hoard’s Latest Issue

Posted in Film, Literature, Publications, Theory with tags on January 8, 2015 by Diana S-V
https://i2.wp.com/ir.lib.uwo.ca/assets/md5images/ec3dab5a265f06923cb861b272dad16d.gif

Cover by artist Hinson Calabrese

One of the greatest opportunities I’ve had as a graduate student at Western was becoming the managing editor of Word Hoard, an interdisciplinary journal of the arts and humanities based out of the Department of English. As of yesterday, our third issue, “Pop/Corn,” is now being served up (as it were) and is available to download from Word Hoard‘s main page, where you can also find our previous two issues on the topics of “The Unrecyclable” and “Community and Dissent.”

Featuring articles and interviews about contemporary and classic horror, melancholy, the state of the university, nostalgia, bachelor pads, Camp, kitsch, Kundera, Kant, and Kanye West—as well as a beautiful cover—”Pop/Corn” has something for everyone and, more importantly, is yet another provocative, diverse collection of thoughtful and engaging writing from scholars across North America. I’m proud to be a small part of the incredible team that makes such a collection possible, and encourage you to pay a visit to Word Hoard.