How private is (my) grief?
‘My loss, shared grief’. Original picture drawn by my friend, animator, illustrator and musician, Chris Glynn. Chris and I have held several events together.
After seven years, a hole appeared in the pair of socks that held my grief together. Talking about my loss or the socks has been difficult for two reasons: the lack of a secure space and the fear of letting go of my grief! My cousin Paul left me the pair of socks and a scarf as he went back home to Uganda to die. Paul had lived in the UK for over twenty years. He had AIDS after contracting HIV in the 1990s and died in 2014.
I am George Gumisiriza, a PhD student based at the Centre for Death and Society (CDAS) at the University of Bath. My ongoing research is about African Diasporic Bereavement Stories in the UK titled ‘Repatriationscapes: Afrocentric perspectives on death and body repatriation among the African diaspora’. Repatriationscapes is a framework for exploring death and the process of repatriation of the deceased to the country of origin. Migration contexts underpin my research.
Many people may agree that grief after bereavement is personal. Grief connects survivors to their loss and to the memory of their loved one. People express grief in various ways based on their cultural practices, beliefs, and backgrounds. Sometimes this involves material objects. Viewing grief as only private may be healing, but also destructive. Private grief is the dominant norm in the UK. How can a grieving person reconcile private grief with public expectations: a) to talk about it, and b) not to talk about it at all? How have death and grief facilitated resilience, community cohesion, and social harmony in the face of inhibitions in the UK?
Recently, individuals and charity organisations have revived campaigns on This Grief Thing for being open about grief. These new initiatives draw on individual experiences. Similar earlier campaigns on talking about death, dying and grief (the Death Positive Movement) became popular in the 1970s in the US. In the UK, such conversations about grief have existed for a long time though in subtle ways. The broader outcome of talking about grief includes understanding grief after loss as a process rather than an event.
Talking involves other people and enables us to confront questions often without answers. People are increasingly using social media to express their loss and share grief with other people, including strangers. This way, talking can address personal issues of death denial or anger – often repositioning your relationship with the deceased.
I talked about my pair of socks, for the first time, at a Fevered Sleep online event (‘Can We Talk About Grief?’) in a conversation with a death doula, Amanda Blainney. The space felt safe. It was about facing the shame after loss, sharing my disenfranchised grief, and feeling vulnerable among listeners who would understand my grief. Fellow PhD researcher and artist Katie Taylor, who offered to mend the hole in my socks, was one of the listeners. Katie lives in Oxford. The journey of my socks via post has offered me therapy into a new relationship with my deceased cousin Paul.
The socks of cousin Paul.
My loss but shared grief
In the UK, there is renewed initiative to revive conversation on death, dying and bereavement through charity organisations, death scholarship and initiatives such as death positive libraries, from diverse perspectives (see the CDAS InConversation Directory). However, power-imbued practice and inhibitions regarding migrant corpses and grief particularly in contested spaces of diverse migration contexts persist. For example, cultural practices of expressing grief after loss such as wailing or crying loudly among Africans may socially be unacceptable in the UK. I recently concluded my master’s research into death and body repatriation among Gambians in Wales, UK. Gambians hesitate to cry loudly, as one interviewee told me, for fear of being misunderstood. Bereaved Gambians, like other African migrants, therefore tuck in their grief so as to behave according to the dominant UK practice of private grief. I could not wail when I learnt of my cousin Paul’s demise in Uganda. The pair of socks embodied my grief and consolation. I wore them secretly every day as I struggled with my loss. This demonstrates how migrants may struggle with the effects of disenfranchised grief that affect their emotional wellbeing.
Understandably, African death customs are different back in Africa. Grief is shared through rites unlike in the UK. Crying loudly informs other people about the loss and demonstrates grief. The place and space in death collectively accommodate the relational connections of the survivors to the deceased. One summer afternoon in 2019, my neighbour who lived in the flat opposite died. He was a known substance abuser, including alcohol. From an African perspective, my neighbour’s demise affected me. My university mental health and well-being service supported me through the grief.
Grief following migrant body repatriation
Migrant cross-border body repatriation is widespread in the UK, but it is complex due to the power-imbued regulations of individual nations and its excessive costs.
Migrants and the public have resisted power and prejudiced practices involving migrant death, body repatriation and grief. In 2019, the UK public through crowdfunding reportedly raised £84,850 for the repatriation of 39 Vietnamese bodies. The deceased were victims of human trafficking found at the back of a refrigerated lorry in Essex. Both the UK and the Vietnamese authorities operate non-supportive policies toward financial assistance for the body repatriation of ordinary people. Crowdfunding as resistance supported the Vietnamese survivors to take the bodies home for death rituals and the grieving process.
In a similar case, the public raised funds to repatriate the body of Mercy Baguma, a Ugandan asylum seeker who starved to death in Scotland in 2020. African diaspora very often appeals to their folks and affiliations for help towards funding funerals and body repatriations. This form of sharing grief promotes public mutuality and speaks to empower against inequalities. Also understanding grief across cultures enhances social harmony among survivors.
My conversation on grief with Amanda Blainney offered me the niche to start working through my grief for Paul. The variety of our individual experiences of grief, scholarly knowledge, and the scope of the questions from attendees led me to one broad question. How private should grief be?
George is pursuing a PhD in Social and Policy Sciences, funded by ESRC and the University of Bath. His PhD thesis Repatriationscapes: death and body repatriation among African diaspora in the UK focuses on Afrocentric perspectives on death. George has an MRes in International Development (distinction) (University of Bath 2021); an MSc in Social and Cultural Theory (University of Bristol 2020); and a Bed(Hons) from Makerere University, Uganda. George is enthusiastic about social cohesion, health, and wellbeing. He organises and facilitates public engagement events, particularly regarding death awareness. As a result, George is a finalist nominee for an Individual Doctoral Recognition Award 2022, University of Bath. George moved to the UK in 2011.