The Experience of Grief, The Truths of Bearing Witness

Bríd Phillips // We hang dangling at speed, in fragile air[i]

In many ways, the texts at our Medical Humanities Book and Film Club, while dealing with serious topics, have maintained some streaks of positivity. This positivity formed a thread which we could follow to avoid opening up emotional maelstroms. To date, there have been many animated discussions on pieces such as the documentary Alive Inside, Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal, and Maggie O’Farrell’s, I am, I am, I am. A few members did share powerful personal moments which resonated with these texts, but in the main, emotions were muted, and conversation, while animated, remained within accepted social emotional boundaries.

However, at the last meeting I convened things changed. On this occasion, I took a slightly different approach by inviting a renowned local academic and poet to attend and discuss his last volume of poetry with us. Poetry was a new departure for us but it could, I felt, reap positive rewards.[ii]

“As a health professional who hardly ever reads poetry, I felt intrigued but apprehensive about reading a poetry collection about a cancer journey for our medical humanities book club. As I’m not encultured in the current world of poetry, my occasional encounters with it can make me feel like I’m trying to crack a cryptic crossword. It was a great relief, then, to find that Dennis Haskell’s poetry was so direct, unpretentious and in places nearly prose-like.”

It is a privilege of working in health to be regularly exposed to the illness experiences of people and their carers. However, these experiences are not usually conveyed with the precision and concision of Dennis’s words. Nor, within the confines of a consultation, is it always easy to make as much space to hear them as I would like. Sitting with this book gave me some protected time to simply listen and reflect, without the pressure inherent in the consultation room to ‘do.'” [iii]

We came together to listen to Dennis Haskell talk about his work, Ahead of Us, a volume of poems documenting his experiences of his wife’s journey through ovarian cancer.[iv]  Dennis’ wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in June 2006 and died in February 2012.[v] It was never going to be an easy topic but Dennis is an open and generous speaker. His only stipulation was that he would not be able to read the central poems which documented his wife’s death.

I introduced Dennis and thanked him for coming. I had a list of prepared questions at the ready but then Dennis looked around the table and what came next was quite extraordinary. Without prompting, Dennis described in detail the journey he had while his wife went through the awful, heart-breaking and desperate stages of ovarian cancer. He made this distinction in accord with Montello and Lantos (115) who note, ‘accounts of dying itself are all written from the perspective of those who are observing the process of dying.’ Dennis said that he could observe his wife’s journey but he could not experience how it was for her. That being said, the carer and companion can witness and be witnessed as theirs is also a unique place of travel and suffering. In this way we gain a better understanding of the arc of the narrative rather than a snapshot of a particular moment.  

Dennis never hesitated even at the most visceral and personal moments, intertwining comments about how the poetry fitted in and how he came to write different sections of the volume. He stopped momentarily on occasion to gather himself and at other times his voice shook and his eyes become damp. It was also clear that he was having a similar effect on the room as his words spoke in their own way to the personal experiences of everyone who has known loss in all its various forms.

The clinical and the personal experiences of the families and support of those undergoing treatment for severe illnesses are beautifully interwoven in Denis Haskell’s Ahead of Us. In conversation, Haskell described his experiences with doctors, nurses and with his own writing throughout his partner’s illness and after her death in a beautifully honest way that allowed for another point of view on illness, grief and surviving after.

The atmosphere of the Medical Humanities Book and Film Club lent itself to empathy and learning. In the room, there were students, PhD candidates, Medical Professionals, Creatives and Health Care Industry Professionals, all attentively listening to Haskell’s open and generous conversation. Haskell had tears in his eyes while speaking, and a glance around the room showed the same of most listeners. For individuals with lived experience of being a family member or carer for someone with chronic and/or terminal illness, the collection and conversation were cathartic and validating. For those without lived experience, they were enlightening. The Medical Humanities Book and Film Club has also allowed students studying the major to meet and interact with a diverse array of individuals and see the practical applications of the humanities to health care.[vi]

I usually extend the invitation to book and film club events to students in health humanities and some do attend. It is enriching to know that the shared emotional experience is not embarrassing (I was one of those who wept in the audience) or even possibly diminishing. Instead, it is a powerful tool to demonstrate the humanity that we profess to be teaching to our students and one which, I hope, will leave them with insights into their own selves as they progress in their health humanities journey.    

We all have a personal narrative that unfolds uniquely to each of us, but ‘there are commonalities in our human response to the moral questions and suffering that surround the experience of death’ (Montell and Lantos 120). As health professionals, we are neither immune nor outside of the human response.

As a nurse and a midwife I pride myself on providing care not only to my patients but also being conscious of how I can support their loved-ones.  The book club based on Dennis Haskell’s poetry really opened my eyes to the true impact of the healthcare journey on those very loved-ones.  Attending the session gave me the opportunity to reflect on my experience as a daughter, when my mother went through her breast cancer journey, and how angry I was at times.  I have worked so hard over the years to compartmentalise my personal and professional healthcare experiences, but attending this session really reminded me that it is ok for me to bring these two experiences/identities together, and that in doing so I may actually be a better, more well rounded clinician.[vii] 

The unused list of questions I had prepared underlined the generosity of personal human interactions encountered that night. This was in part because bearing witness to those who have journeyed before us creates a link with humanity as a whole giving us a thread to follow and use when shaping our own life tapestries.


[i] Lines from ‘The Gift’ in Ahead of Us, Dennis Haskell, Fremantle, Western Australia; Fremantle Press, 2016, p. 10.

[ii] I asked a few audience members for their thoughts and, again, the kindness of the people I interact with never fails and I was rewarded with some generous audience feedback. I was going to edit some of their responses down but I am worried that you, our readers, would miss out.

[iii] This attendee is a General Practitioner and academic in a medical school.

[iv] Dennis Haskell is an Emeritus Professor in English and Literary Studies, and internationally acclaimed poet. Dennis has won many accolades not least of which the Order of Australia for “services to literature, particularly poetry, as an academic, author, editor and critic, to tertiary education, and to intercultural understanding”.

[v] All royalties from this work go to support the work of the Cancer Council of WA (Western Australia).

[vi] Words from a health humanities student in the audience.

[vii] Midwife and health professions educator.

Works Cited

Alive Inside. Michael Rossato-Bennett. Projector Media, 2014. DVD.

Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End. London: Profile Books, Wellcome Collection, 2015

Haskell, Dennis. Ahead of Us. Fremantle, Western Australia: Fremantle Press, 2016.

Montell, Martha and John Lantos, “Postmodern Death and dying: A Literary Analysis.” Health Humanities Reader, edited by Therese Jones et al., New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London; Rutgers University Press, 2018, pp. 113-121.

O’Farrell, Maggie. I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. New York: Vintage Books, 2019.

Image: The Road Ahead, Bríd Phillips

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