The widow project
AU professor speaks about active bereavement – one of the applications of writing the self
I have a hunch
That missing someone
is about being known
having a witness
of what dwells within
beyond the domestic
(but it includes that too).
I imagine how
after a day of working
or an afternoon talking to the kids
or an evening out with friends
when I have come home to myself
I will sit in bed
take out the pen you gave me
and write as many pages as it takes
address: him, general delivery, cosmos
because I will (still) want to tell you
what I think it all means.
AU professor Reinekke Lengelle wrote the poem above several months before her husband and work partner Frans Meijers died of cancer. After his diagnosis and during the seven months of his illness, she worked on a series of poems called, Fifty Poems While You Were Dying and after his death, she started a book and research project about their life, their work, his death and her bereavement called, The Widow Project. “It is a way for me to make meaning of this experience and the writing also helped prepare me for his death. I shared many of the poems with Frans too and we were able to cry together and talk very openly.”
Lengelle explains, “writing the self allows people to actively process what life brings us. Frans and I both felt strongly that every struggle or loss could be seen as an invitation to learn something—in particular about ourselves. I have long worked with words in this therapeutic way and it has been a deep comfort to me. My self-care right now involves being in dialogue with myself through writing, allowing the myriad feelings that come and go (often these become poems), being supported and inspired by literature on bereavement and sharing my process with several close friends. Also, I feel I can still speak to Frans in symbolic ways as I explain in the CERIC tribute I wrote about our career identity work.”
It is inspiring to hear how writing serves as Lengelle’s companion and witness and to hear about what this has meant and means for AU students. Lengelle has been working in the area of writing for personal development for over 20 years and has been teaching Writing the Self for 15 years in the form of a course by that name (MAIS 616) she developed for Athabasca University in 2003 as well as an individualized study course called Narrative Possibilities (MAIS 621).
Her experience with creative, expressive and reflective writing for personal development led her to do research with Frans on career-identity learning 10 years ago. Together they developed Career Writing, a narrative method that promotes career agency. “In our complex, insecure and individualized society, the matching paradigm in career guidance still tends to dominate practice, though it is no longer adequate for responding to the workplace challenges people now face. The ability to become aware of one’s own life themes and drives is essential and this involves cultivating the internal dialogue which can be done through Career Writing—a form of Writing the Self.”
Essentially Writing the Self is a process that promotes identity development and allows Lengelle and her students to “re-store” (re-story)—that is, to tell a more life-giving story than the default narrative that often shows up as an immediate reaction after something “bad” happens. “Our first response to bad news is usually: poor me, this is bad, why is this happening? It’s absolutely human to go there, only it doesn’t help us if we stay there. The writing helps us to go from a first to second story. The courses provide the theory, research and practical writing methods to do that. It’s not about just getting it out (i.e. catharsis)—it’s about developing and telling a new story. Transformative learning in this form also respects that a new story must satisfy us in both cognitive as well as affective ways.”
Lengelle, who is studying the latest bereavement research as she writes her own story of loss says, “poetry and other forms of creative and expressive writing assist in meaning-making.”
In addition to her own writing and teaching, she will be speaking at the Dialogical Self Conference in 2020 on a panel with colleagues who also research and apply writing and other art-based modalities in the context of bereavement and personal development.