Literature and Medicine II

Women in the Medical Profession: Personal Narratives

Blogging the Pain: Grief in the Time of the Internet

by Bärbel Höttges, Johannes Gutenberg-University of Mainz, Germany

1 On August 31, 2008, a 12-year-old boy named Keeghan died from a brain tumor in Washington, D.C. The boy’s death caused a wave of sympathy from hundreds of people all around the world, not because Keeghan had been a public figure in any way, but because his mother, Sharon Barry, had documented Keeghan’s fight against cancer in an online diary, a so-called blog, which had attracted more and more readers since its inauguration in 2006. Barry’s webpage is just one blog out of many dealing with illness and death. More and more people have started to publish their experiences with cancer and other diseases online, and many of these webpages have gathered a notable number of regular followers. At first glance, virtual grief narratives simply seem to be a variant form of printed grief narratives, which also have become increasingly popular over the last few decades. A closer look reveals, however, that blogs do not only reinvent the genre of the grief narrative but also reflect a web-based redefinition of (auto)biographical writing as such.

Grief and Writing

2 Grief writing is not a new phenomenon. From Anne Bradstreet’s autobiographically inspired poetry on the death of her grandchildren to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, the subject of illness, suffering, and death has been transformed into literature over and over again. The personal encounter with illness, caretaking, and dying, it seems, can be a trigger of literary activity, not because grief is experienced as a creative high, but rather because writing can apparently help the mourner to come to terms with the feelings of loss and despair. Psychologically, writing fulfills two important functions in the process of mourning. First, it can help to “[keep] the deceased person alive socially and culturally through the narration of his or her life and death” (Klugman 169). The influence of the deceased is not annihilated by his or her death, and the written words preserve his or her life and protect it from dissolution and the destructive forces of obliteration. Secondly, grief narratives contain an educational potential, as they teach both the writer and the reader the wisdom that can be extracted from the experience of caregiving, dying, and grief (cf. Klugman 169). As a result, grief narratives almost always contain lessons about the human condition, and they often insistently uncover and illustrate the factors and forces that really matter in life.

3 The potential of grief narratives to turn mourning into knowledge and a sense of thankfulness is closely connected to the act of writing itself because writing can be a force realigning the writer with the world. This healing capacity of writing becomes evident once the destructive consequences of sickness and death are considered. Fatal diseases constitute a disruption of life, not only for the patients but also for those caring and mourning for them. Pain, both in a physical and a psychological sense, can unhinge the world. Things no longer are the way they used to be, and the natural order of things collapses. In pain, the medical anthropologist Byron Good explains, inner and outer time—durée and cosmic time to use Alfred Schutz’s terminology—no longer match: Time caves in. Past and present lose their order. Pain slows personal time, while outer time speeds by and is lost. [...] [T]he world of pain [...] cannot be sustained by language. It is a world threatened by dissolution. Space and time are overwhelmed by pain, and the private world not only loses its relation to the world in which others live, its very organizing dimensions begin to break down. Pain threatens to unmake the world, and in turn to subvert the self. (126; cf. Schutz 214-18) These observations, Good maintains, also apply to those in acute mourning. In grief, the world loses structure and coherence as well, and the mourner experiences a sense of alienation: “For the mourner, the world also appears unfamiliar; people are strange, the landscape unnatural, movement stops midstream. The mourner has an acute awareness of the conventionality of the objects we live among; nature appears alien” (130-31).

4 This breakdown of a mourner’s world—the “lifeworld” or Lebenswelt as the philosopher Edmund Husserl calls it (108)—is closely related to a breakdown of the self. The person’s sense of self changes with the death of what the medical anthropologist Craig Klugman calls a “relational anchor” (174-75)—a relative or close friend, whose existence shapes and defines one’s identity, behavior, and self-perception. The death of such a person forces the mourner “to reassess his or her self-identity” (Klugman 174-75) since existing models of selfhood can no longer be maintained: With the loss of the individual who gave a person that specific relational aspect of identity, the person must rewrite the story of the self. The self that was a parent before the death of a child is no longer a parent in the same way after the child’s death. Thus the person must write a story of a new self as the parent of a deceased child or as a person who has no child. (Klugman 154)

5 Grief writing is a strategy that can help the mourner to overcome both the breakdown of the self and the sense of alienation caused by the death of a relational anchor. This healing potential of grief writing is connected to the restoration of language. Pain, as Elaine Scarry writes in her book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, is not only “world-destroying” (29), it also shatters language (cf. 5): “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language” (4). Indeed, “[p]hysical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned” (4). These observations also apply to intense and acute psychological pain—grief—which also resists language and articulates itself in cries, screams, and sobs instead. Attempts to “invent linguistics structures that will reach and accommodate this area of experience normally so inaccessible to language” (6), then, can only be made retroactively, once the wave of pain has subsided enough to allow access to language once more. If the attempt to describe the pain of grief, whether orally or in writing, is made, however, it can “reverse the de-objectifying work of pain by forcing pain itself into avenues of objectification” (6). Writing, thus, can restore language and reverse the unsharability of pain.