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Death days

By Eleanor Hogan - posted Friday, 18 January 2008

Yesterday was my brother's death-day - at least, April 10 is the official date given on his death certificate. Judging from the medical report, I think he actually died about ten days earlier, alone in his flat in New Jersey. He rang on March 30 to wish my father happy birthday, and I suspect my father was quite well the last person he spoke to. In a kind of awful symmetry, my father died six months later from a stroke, five days after my brother's birthday. I believe the two dates were interconnected; others don't.

The period from my father's birthday through to my brother's death-day often coincides with Easter, and I feel it passing through similar rhythms, from the acknowledgement of death through to the slow lift of hope, of life returning again. As I was teaching last week, I felt a sense of heaviness, which could have been to do with the fact I was teaching a particularly cramped block and the abrupt change from summer to autumn here. But I suspect it was more to do with the sombreness of the season for me.

I've often pondered blogging about the subject of death and grief but I've feared I lack the eloquence or grace of some other bloggers to write well enough about it. I fear writing something raw and ugly. Underneath it all, I think I fear disrupting the particularly Australian and generally Western calm that says don't talk about it. It's not appropriate; it's never appropriate.


Still, in the midst of life we are in death. Each day that passes is someone's death-day; each year we pass our own death-day without knowing which day it will ultimately be.

One of the things I struggled with most about grief was its lack of acknowledgement as a genuine and legitimate state. Part of the problem seemed to be the confusion with its relative, depression. People get worried, very worried, if you're not happy these days. There are good reasons, of course, for worrying about depressed people, but ironically, the belief that everyone should be feeling sunnyside up all the time only seems to fuel feeling worse about yourself.

Some people, I felt, would have been much happier, relieved even, if I'd suddenly announced that I was embarking on a course of counselling or taking a script of anti-depressants. I would have been saved the perils of feeling bad about something bad that had happened.

In my case, I kept on going, weathering out grief with journalling and cups of coffee with gay men, refusing to engage with the machinery of the depressive niche market. I guess that in the parlance of contemporary psychobabble, I demonstrated resilience. But the thing about resilience, and its less-modish antecedent stoicism, is that you come to see it as a rather hollow quality, something like a raw athletic ability. The endurance runner keeps on running because they have the capacity to do so. Others may fall by the wayside, but you don't. There's no particular virtue to being a survivor; if anything it seems almost a random phenomenon.

If I could have worn a black armband (without seeming like a pretentious git) or observed a six-month period of mourning like the Victorians, I would have been a much happier person. Instead of being unable to explain to people with whom you have everyday dealings but don't know you all that well that you're distracted not only by painful thoughts but by things like an inability to concentrate, absent-mindedness, sudden bursts of racing heart-beats, and so forth.

Grief becomes a largely personal terrain in a society that allows only a very short initial period of public expression of a loss. There seems almost no time to be allowed to sit with your grief. The reading on the subject of grief I did, in the scant material available, indicates however that it's a definite psychological, if not physiological, state lasting from around six months to two years.


The notion that death was one of the last century's greatest taboos is now something commonplace. For me, one of the most interesting 20th century books on death and mourning is Philippe Aries' In the Hour of Our Death. Here's Aries on the pathologisation of grieving:

A new situation appears around the middle of the twentieth century in the most individualistic and middle-class parts of the West. There is a conviction that the public demonstration of mourning, as well as its too-insistent or too-long private expression, is inherently morbid. Weeping is synonymous with hysteria. Mourning is a malady. ... The period of mourning is no longer marked by the silence of the bereaved amidst a solicitous and discreet entourage but by the silence of the entourage itself. The telephone does not ring. The bereaved is in quarantine. (p.580)

But I think there's a peculiarly Australian - stoical, hedonistic - inflection to the suppression of grief. Bathsheba writes in a comment on an earlier post of mine:

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First published in The View from Elsewhere on April 11, 2007.

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About the Author

Eleanor Hogan is a freelance writer living in Alice Springs with a background in Indigenous policy and research.

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