The Hub AU professor tells a story of love, spousal loss, and resilience in new book

AU professor tells a story of love, spousal loss, and resilience in new book

“Let’s keep meeting this way” 

Yesterday as I worked
I straightened someone’s line of reasoning
I nod to how you sharpened my game.
Last night I told the story of you lecturing,
your flamboyant Catholic self at a Protestant school
using the Lord’s name in vain
with gusto but never to offend,
they called you on it and you blurted out “oh, Jesus!”
The day before yesterday
your good advice was on offer
in my dialogical mind and
last week I stacked up our
impressive list of books,
we do not have biological babies
but we have these.
You still come with me everywhere
a bit quieter now than you were
but always large in my life.
Today I look at your photo and tear up
with gratitude.
Let’s keep meeting this way.

Reinekke Lengelle, 14.02.2020

 

Lengelle teaches the course Writing the Self: The Experience and Potential of Writing for the Purpose of Personal Development (MAIS 616) and Narrative Possibilities (MAIS 621) and will be teaching the Mourning & Trauma course (MAIS 662). Her new book Writing the self in bereavement: a story of love, spousal loss, and resilience is available now with Routledge at a 20% discount.

Losing a loved one is one of life’s great challenges.

Cover of Writing the self in bereavement - A story of love, spousal loss, and resilience. Image is a painting of trees, branches, and flowers.
Cover art is by Calgary artist Darrin Hartman.

For AU professor Dr. Reinekke Lengelle, losing her partner Frans was a life-changing and deeply sorrowful experience. In order to be with her grief and respond to it, she surrendered to her feelings and wrote a book called Writing the self in bereavement: a story of love, spousal loss, and resilience. The book combines her personal story with the latest grief research.

“The book demonstrates powerfully that writing can be a companion in bereavement. It uses and explains the latest research on coming to terms with spousal loss, without being prescriptive. The author explores a number of themes that are underrepresented in existing resources: how one deals with anger, what a healthy response to unfinished business with the deceased might be, continuing conversations with the beloved (even for agnostics and atheists), ongoing sexual desire, and secondary losses,” said Lengelle.

We spoke with Lengelle to talk about her new book, the grieving process, and recommendations for those who might be dealing with loss during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

How did writing this book help you with the grieving process?

This question is really the essence of the book, which is focused on how and why I wrote myself through bereavement. Writing is a companion. Who are the best companions? The people who are gentle with you, but also honest with you. They are the people who are open to your personal truth, even if that truth is believed to be socially unacceptable.

In my book, for instance, I don’t only write about the deep sorrow of losing Frans, but I also wrote about an unresolved family issue we had. I dared to explore some “taboo topics” and explored the ethics of disclosure. I wrote about ongoing sexual desire too. Making love is one of the things we naturally miss when our partner dies, but who talks about that? Even in the most famous widow memories, which are hundreds and hundreds of pages long, the topic is strangely missing. We talk about death being taboo in our culture; I think a lot of realities around death are taboo.

So, to get back to your question, I think we heal when we’re gentle and are very honest with ourselves. Anything else is half work and writing helped me to be both gentle and honest. I do want to say this as well about the power of writing: the book doesn’t tell all. Writing’s power is sometimes in admitting difficult truths that we only need to know and that we might share in a conversation with a dear friend, but that we don’t publish. That’s not only to be respectful to other people but also as a form of self-respect. Some things are rightly private, but we do need to ‘get them out’ in the open. Writing literally allows a gap to observe our internal dialogue: there is space between your eyes and the page.

The other thing I want to say about writing the book and how that has been profoundly helpful to me is that Frans was huge in my life: he was not only my life partner, but he was my work and research partner too. Losing this vital conversation with him felt, at times, like I was on the verge of a deep abyss—the book helped me revive the dialogue with him and not fall in. I wrote imagined conversations with him that were comforting, meaningful, true to our live dialogues…and sometimes they also made me laugh. In the literature they call this having an experience of “continued bonds;” in a wonderful exercise by my friend and American grief scholar and counsellor Robert Neimeyer, clients are invited to introduce the deceased to someone else. This imaginary “play,” which I did in dialogue writing, is a natural part of grieving, that is if we don’t feel we have to censor such impulses.

Dr. Reinekke Lengelle

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

What was it about grief that surprised you the most?

What surprised me is that studies show that 68 per cent of us are resilient in grief, while we have an impression in society that grief is so terrible and that we must struggle a great deal. The irony, I believe, is the more we resist grief, the more we suffer.

What also surprised me was that I could be angry and sad. In every spousal relationship, I learned—from reading marriage researcher John Gottman’s work—there are some perpetual problems, and it turns out two thirds of those issues never get resolved. Learning that was a relief; Frans and I had one repetitive issue that we had to navigate right until the end. I have since learned a lot more about myself and what my needs are now. Bereavement is more than dealing with the loss of the beloved; it can also be about personal change.

Dr. Reinekke Lengelle

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

Having lost Frans, do you have any recommendations to those that have lost loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I lost Frans to cancer over a period of 7 months and we had a lot of wonderful conversations that prepared me, so I am less equipped to talk about losses due to COVID-19, which are going to be more sudden. In the grief literature, prolonged or complicated grief is often associated with sudden losses, so COVID-19 related deaths will be more traumatic, especially because one might not even be able to sit at the bedside.

With all this in mind, I want to say from what I’ve studied about grief, it will be important to have follow-up (self) care to respond to those losses. Allowing the feelings to flow through without inflaming them with destructive and unhelpful thoughts (e.g., he should never have gone to that party; why didn’t he go into ICU earlier?!) is a key point.

Writing is the way I found my way through; it was self-therapy. For those who don’t write or end up feeling very stuck or anguished, I would recommend reaching out to a grief counsellor. Though grieving is unique to each person, we don’t have to do it alone.

Dr. Reinekke Lengelle

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

You talk about the unfinished business of grief. How do you think that applies to people grieving the loss of what life was like before the pandemic?

Where there are people, there will be unfinished business. That’s the fundamental human condition. If I were to talk to my freshly grieving self in November 2018 when Frans had just died, from where I stand now in January 2021, two years later, I would say, “expect all kinds of feelings…the less resistant you are to anything that arises, the better off you’ll be.”

So, the same applies here: why resist it? Why not surrender to the realities of the pandemic and, where possible, ask for help. We can look at what we’re learning in a positive light. Grieving can bring huge gifts. Difficulty can show us new things about ourselves. For instance, I have colleagues who are saying, “I’m glad I didn’t have to cook Christmas dinner for 25 people this year…” and others who say, “I was never a hugger, so glad I don’t need to do that now…”

What if we could learn from these experiences? The question to ask yourself is not “why does it have to be this way,” but “what is the pandemic showing me about what I value? What do I realize about myself and my addictions, for instance? What would I really want to experience again? What am I glad I don’t have to experience now? What can we learn as a species?” You could write out your answers to such questions and surprise – even delight – yourself. One of the things I say in the introduction to my book is, “if you’re grieving, don’t miss it.” We can apply the same to the pandemic.

 

Dr. Reinekke Lengelle

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

What are your recommendations for coping with the feeling of grief for COVID-19 and for those that have lost loved ones?

Do all the mourning things as Toni Morrison says; listen to what you are compelled to do. Let what you choose be a source of meaningful ritual; let what you do or express bring your heart peace; you can allow yourself to be raw too.

There are so many ways to grieve and honour loved ones. In the spirit of my book, which is the focus of this interview, I would say, write a poem honouring that person. It doesn’t have to be a good poem.

Shakespeare already taught us about this healing remedy when he said, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”

I’d like to share this poem that I wrote for Frans on Valentine’s Day 2020. It is about the “continued bond” I have with him. People we love stay a part of us, folk wisdom tells us. I can attest to this being true and even scholarly research supports my hunches.

Dr. Reinekke Lengelle

Published:
  • January 26, 2021
Tagged In:
book, fhss, writing the self,