Embarrassment and Loss

Marghanita Laski

  • A Way to Die by Rosemary Zorza
    Deutsch, 254 pp, £5.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 233 97355 9
  • Letter to a Younger Son by Christopher Leach
    Dent, 155 pp, £5.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 460 04496 6
  • Bereavement by Colin Murray Parkes
    Pelican, 267 pp, £1.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 14 021833 5

Both A Way to Die and Letter to a Younger son are embarrassing books, and embarrassment tends to induce unhelpful reactions in anyone who has, or sees it as their duty, to assess arts and entertainments. To one set of views, embarrassment is a response to shock, and what shocks should be suppressed. To the other, embarrassment is admitted only as their response to the shocking, and what is shocking should, for health’s sake, be brought into the open.

With sex, where the syndrome has been most clearly seen, these responses to embarrassment have not worked well, especially for the side on which reviewers usually stand, leaving them lumbered with such dreadful and socially damaging errors as the assertion that Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a great work of literature and a helpful guide to sex-life. There have been too many such mistakes, and a guess, now, is that embarrassment is a response that should be received respectfully – if not Nature’s Guide to Bad Art, then something very close to it.

Death, there is no doubt about it, is difficult, perhaps even more difficult for life to cope with than sex because it cannot be dodged, and death – death in general, death depersonalised, mythologised, distanced, transmuted – was a duty of art while sex was still being treated only as love. Now, in these two books under review, death is being served up nearly raw, and who can doubt they will be followed by others?

Both are about untimely death, the deaths of children before their parents. Jane Zorza died slowly of cancer in her mid-twenties. Jonathan Leach died suddenly of an asthmatic attack at the age of 11. The stated purpose of the Zorzas’ book is to show how dying in a good hospice can relieve pain and bring both the dying and the survivors to terms with death; and of Christopher Leach’s book, to come to terms with it himself. Both fathers are professional writers, both in agony turn to their pens. We readers can see that both books are what Colin Murray Parkes in Bereavement calls ‘grief-work’, a part of the way in which people struggle to make a life after crushing grief, and, for a writer, not an uncommon way. John Evelyn did the same thing when his daughter, Margaret Godolphin, died in 1678, but wiser, I think, than these, he did not publish.

Of these two books, the Zorzas’ is the worse, and for the sad reason that it is, in the literal sense, the more artless. Every wound is bared, all the pains of having to expect death soon for a daughter still in revolt against her parents, every detail of Victor Zorza’s hitherto suppressed guilts about the circumstances of his escape from the Nazis that he was at last enabled to release to the dying Jane. Because, at the last, the hospice allowed Jane to die in love and peace, the Zorzas are passionate converts to the hospice movement, and the book ends with a list of the hospices now in existence, including those with home-care units, and suggestions for helping to extend such Services.

Clearly this movement is of great value to many people, and one worth much examination in the light of services still and probably always needed, once offered only by the religious and to the religious. The Zorzas are not religious, yet this way of death still met their own and their daughter’s need. It evidently demands from those who offer it a dedication destructive of secular life. It is not the only best way to die, even in pain, and the embarrassment the Zorzas’ book is likely to rouse in those who cannot close with it may make them feel it richer to respond to death with something more like anger than resignation. The counter-irritant that came into my mind as I read was Hal Summers’s requiem for his cat:

he would not pretend
That what came was a friend
But met it in pure hate,
Well died, my old cat.

The Zorzas had had time to prepare, and Parkes writes that those who do tend to be better survivors. Leach and his wife had none, and his explorations into endurance are nearly spontaneous cries of agony, overwritten as raw agony tends to appear on the page, and here over-fancifully printed too. Yet because apparently overwritten and presented, the pain appears by that much transmuted, and therefore easier to read without squirming than the relentless minute-by-minute of the Zorza prose. Leach has nothing original to say. Why should anyone have anything original to say in this situation? Perhaps the major interest of his book is in observing the strengthening value to him of what, outside the extreme situations, we take as clichés – that we fear the dark, make God in our image, that tomorrow may be too late and the world is mad.

The reviewer cannot help but wish that these two books had not been offered for review, for there is no honest way of noticing them that can help to assuage the parents’ pain. Any parent can realise that the loss of a child must be, in some ways, the most shocking kind of death, because out of the way of nature, which is, as Jacquetta Hawkes once wrote, that the mother lies beneath the daughter, the grandmother beneath the mother. The loss of a parent is usually well endured. Of nearly unendurable deaths, that most often faced is loss of a husband, and widows are the main subject of Bereavement, as of most similar studies.

Bereavement, first published in 1972 and in Pelican first in 1975, is only moderately good. Parkes has worked with John Bowlby, and shares Bowlby’s interest in emotional deprivation as he charts some of the depths and shoals of grief. If we commit ourselves to another human being, there is likely to be suffering ahead of us, and one widow, after her husband’s death, suffers very like another. There’s numbness and there’s searching and there’s probably some guilt; there are the illusions of presence and the due period of grieving, and the due term set (by the doctors, that is) after which continued grieving may be counted as pathological. And where, for the bereaved parents, the death is intolerable because untimely, for the widow, for the old widow as well as the young, a husband’s death is likely to bring special miseries that the parent is spared, such as loss of income, loss of status, and loneliness – if she is old, probably irreparable loneliness.

Where the Zorzas’ book and Leach’s book are likely to find their mark with people in similar situations, Parkes’s book will be useful to people who want to or must help the bereaved, and he, too, provides a useful list of those who offer specialised help. There is, certainly, much that will be useful in the book itself – most of all, I think, some indication of the timing of the stages of grief viewed as a disease that helpers, lay or professional, must nurse. But it is not so enlightening or compassionate a book as it could be, and for two main reasons, both to do with self-imposed limitations.

The first, which applies damagingly to most empirical social studies, is the limitation of investigations to working-class people, even when the situations studied are likely to be, in their cultural populations, universal ones. Whether because of legends about the working classes and their especially valuable culture, or whether because these are the people that middle-class investigators find it easiest to go and ask, we know virtually nothing about middle-class responses, as a group, to grief, as we know almost nothing of their recollections through the oral historians, or of any treasure-store they may have of old songs or the lore and language they used as schoolchildren. Of course there may sometimes be good justification for studying the limited population, as there was for Peter Marris in his Widows and their Families of 1958: Marris was specifically concerned with the economic as well as the emotional needs of widows in what was still the closely-knit community of Bethnal Green. Parkes has no pre-set geographical or economic limitations, but in fact the bereaved who are the subject of his own specific studies are almost all widows – there are, in fact, far fewer widowers to be studied – almost all very poor, and, in some of the studies made both here and in America, people who came into psychiatric care.

More, it is clear that several of the women in Parkes’s own studies were recent immigrants, as the subjects of any studies based on the very poor are likely for some time to be. In some of the instances given – for instance, where a widow may send a child back to Africa or the West Indies, with the intention of following – we must doubt whether the culture is yet near enough to our own to make its solutions valuable to us.

Again, because Parkes’s English groups are composed, mostly, of the very poor, he has too little evidence of what succour may be found in customs and ceremonies. Here, in particular, some study of richer people might well help, for if it is found, as we must suspect, that the patterns of grief itself differ little throughout a society such as ours, then what help the greater elbow-room of the richer may enable them to provide may indicate what help kindness should provide for the poor. The middle classes, for instance, often seem desperate to provide some continuation of the name: a church window, a woodland tree, a memorial volume (what a source of embarrassment that can be, too), or – pleasantly, I think – a wayside seat. Memorial services, usually called, now, Thanksgivings, seem increasingly frequent. Both Leach and the Zorzas felt the need for some ceremony in disposing of the ashes, the Zorzas with a party, Leach with a solitary rite. Does it help to receive and answer letters? Leach received printed cards of consolation, perhaps a good idea for those to whom letter-writing does not come easily, though such cards as I have seen are culturally indigent. And is there any consolatory significance in the existence of a will, or in the distribution of presents and keepsakes, no matter how small and how few?

Such detail is worth knowing about. But the most extraordinary limitation of Parkes’s book is his perverse avoidance of marital desertion as the obvious analogue to bereavement by death. He mentions it jauntily about half-way through as one of the changes of life people may choose: ‘I may divorce my wife or give away my money ... pretend to be a better golfer than I am ...’ Then, in his last chapter, when positively seeking comparisons with the death of a loved one, he mentions divorce as a possibility only to discard it in favour of amputation and compulsory rehousing.

Yet comparison of the deserted spouse to the spouse bereft by death is poignantly close, not least because there seem to be more women than men whose special sufferings these are. All the factors that make the widow’s lot peculiarly terrible are likely to be there: the loss of income, the loss of status, for the young woman probably the restricting care of grief-shocked children, and the loneliness made worse by the knowledge that all the misery has been caused, not by chance, but by human choice. Parkes quotes a second wife who resented her husband’s peaceful death: ‘He looked so happy in death it made me think he was with her.’ In the widow this may be pathological jealousy, but the jealousy of the deserted wife is based on reality – he really is with her – and to be added to the extra miseries of her situation, such as the humiliation of being publicly shown to be unwanted, the constant agony of constantly frustrated hope.

But our society cannot afford pity for the deserted wife if the ethos based, in part at least, on a determination not to be embarrassed by Lady Chatterley’s Lover is to continue to dominate us. That particular lesson should make us chary of welcoming embarrassing explorations of death, or we may well find ourselves lumbered with formal responses to it as painful as they are well-intentioned. But death is, like sex, a subject worth right exploration to the benefit of us all, and if Dr Parkes’s book is an inadequate exploration, it is still an exploration of the right kind, and not in the least embarrassing.