Publication in: Spring 2023 Issue

The Language of Grief: Autoethnographic Reflections of Loss in American Culture
Christian Donaldson
Faculty Mentor(s):
Heidi Kelley
Abstract / Summary:
In Disrupted Lives: How People Create Meaning in A Chaotic World, Gay Becker explains what disruptions are and the imprints they leave on our lives. “In all societies, the course of life is structured by expectations about each phase of life, and meaning is assigned to specific life events and roles that accompany them. When expectations about the course of life are not met, people experience inner chaos and disruption. Such disruptions represent loss of the future. Restoring order to life necessitates reworking understandings of the self and the world, redefining the disruption and life itself”1. What is more chaotic and out of order from what we expect than the sudden loss of a child? The loss of one’s child is one of the most disruptive events that can occur in a person’s life, and many bereaved parents would agree that it is the ultimate disruption. Becker also states that “Studies of disrupted lives afford an opportunity to examine out of the ordinary life experiences for what they can tell us about cultural constructs that are taken for granted”2, such as the natural order of life and death or the culture of toxic positivity in the US that leads to the avoidance of negative emotions because people do not know how to respond to those who embody them3. Bereaved parents often find themselves ostracized, misunderstood, and pathologized. With an ethnographic lens and situating my grief in the context of disruption, I write about the struggles with belonging, identity, and meaning that parents experience after the sudden loss of a child and the ripple effects those crises have. Taking inspiration from Renato Rosaldo’s poetic and ethnographic account of grief in The Day of Shelly’s Death, I use poetry to both describe and unravel the grief of my own daughter’s death. I also integrate the accounts and experiences of other bereaved mothers using archival methods of data retrieved from blogs and other public forums to explore the ways in which culture and language interact with the grief from losing a child and the repercussions those interactions have on belonging, identity, and meaning for bereaved parents.
Publication Date: