Mourning time: Grief and the anthropology of space, time, and absence

Some early thoughts on the interplay of emotion and ethnographic practice.

In the weeks following my father’s death I stayed in an old caravan that was parked amid the horse stables on my father’s property. I couldn’t sleep and so I’d find myself awake late into the evening, leafing through the books that, in daze and under some fundamental misunderstanding that grief might lend itself to productivity, I had taken from my office the day after I had gotten the news that my father had died.

These books were Michael Jackson’s The varieties of temporal experience: travels in philosophical, historical, and ethnographic time, and Renato Rosaldo’s The day of Shelly’s death: the poetry and ethnography of grief.

It strikes me now as fitting, to have such literature with me in that strange space-time of mourning. But I had in fact selected them not because of their content but because of their form. Both are creative ethnographies by poet-anthropologists—Jackson’s is a meandering collection of ethnography, theory, and memory and Rosaldo’s is an interweaving of poetry and essay. Both test the boundaries of anthropological representation and both draw extensively on the thoughts and feelings of the ethnographer in a manner more akin to personal essay than traditional ethnography.

You see, in the months before my father died, I had reached something of a crisis point—one of many—in my anthropology PhD. I no longer knew what my thesis was about. I had some inkling it involved time and what it does to people’s stories. But questions of how best to represent my interlocutors and how to separate truth from fiction, myth from reality, then from now, weighed heavy on my mind. Added to this, own thoughts and feelings about the field were fraught with emotion that mingled with unresolved stories from my own past. Someone or other had suggested that reading anthropologists whose writing inspired me would help, and so it was that these two books came with me on the long drive to my father’s property.

Grief, I found, makes reading difficult. I would look at the words but the sentences simply would not make sense. They would shift and blur and interact with memory and anxiety. Still, something must have sunk in. Because as I wrote eulogies, and planned a funeral, and listened to stories of my father’s childhood, and wondered what I’d do with the horse business he had built, and raged, and cried, Jackson’s and Rosaldo’s words hung in the back of my mind. And perhaps as a means of distracting myself, these question of story—of time and place, myth and reality, representation and erasure—came to dominate my thoughts.

Varieties of temporal experience

‘There are moments in life of which we later say, everything changed. Nothing was ever the same again. This is as true of our histories as of our lives. There is a before and an after; our world was turned upside down; we suffered the eclipse of all that we took to be tried and true’ (Jackson 2018, p.129).

Mourning makes for an intriguing time.

Death itself is a rupture, a moment, Jackson would say, that changes everything. The moment of my father’s death is etched in my mind, though it was two hours before I got the phone call. I recall what I was doing, what I was thinking, with vivid clarity. It is an axis point.

The time after the rupture, the mourning time, is a liminal zone, where multiple temporalities intermingle: distant pasts and potential futures were served up with the endless array of cakes that seemed to arrive at the farmhouse door as people dropped by to give their regards. There were old photos, and stories, and fragments of memory, and long lists of all the things he wanted to do with the long life we all thought was ahead of him. Those places in memory become something else too. I lay the photographs like tarot cards and tried to remember a past that was not my own. ‘“Space” and “time”’, writes Jackson, ‘continually morph into each other. Nostalgia fuses a longing for another place and another time. Here and there readily become metaphors for now and then, and vice versa’ (Jackson 2018, pp. 121-122).

After a death, people must reconfigure who they are in relation to each other and the world without that person. This is what I mean when I say it was a liminal period. Sitting around on rocking chairs with cups of tea, we were ‘betwixt and between’ in social order. I met old friends of my father who told me detailed stories of their youths together. By invoking the past they shared with my father they were asserting who they were, crafting an intersubjective identity, while also comprehending what it means that the other person who shared those moments is no longer here. I wondered, what will these middle-aged and older men do as one by one the people around whom they constructed their identities disappear? What do any of us do? What would I do?

Some of the stories I heard about my father’s past were not true. Others likely were, but did not match my own senses and recollections of who he was. The past came to be re-written again and again with each telling, and the dead, no longer able to lend the story their own inflection, becomes reified as myth. The Facebook posts presented him as a hero. The conservative shock-jock radio host who reported his death gave graphic details but got them all wrong. A family member painted him as a villain. At first, I raged at all of this. I wanted to tell people to stop engaging with fantasy, to stop reducing my father to a trope, to stop telling lies. But then, I realised that in death, as in life, one is multiple. Stories are multiple. Jackson (2018, p.xiv) calls this the difference between the ‘happening truth’ and the ‘story truth’: ‘What actually happened in the past may be no less existentially compelling to a person than what he imagined happened, or dimly remembers, or deliberately reinvents in the name of creative licence…the stories we tell, the thoughts we entertain, and the actions we undertake transfigure our experience of reality…

As well as mystifying the past, death makes the future unsteady. What happens when the people you’d envisioned a future with are no longer there? What happens to all the things unsaid, the things now relegated to an alternative universe of ‘what ifs’ where time and space operate in a different order? The way one envisions a future is always predicated on a plot that stretches into the past that shifts with each unfolding moment in the present. In mourning time, my future became a blur. I no longer knew if I wanted to finish the phd. I no longer knew where I would live. I ended a long term relationship and dreamed of living in a hut where I would take care of all my father’s horses. I did not know what to do, or where I was in time.

‘It’s so strange’, my father’s partner said to me two weeks after he’d died, ‘time moves differently. I feel like I’ve been on one very strange, very bad, holiday, and I don’t know when it will end’.

Poetics of grief and absence

‘The work of poetry…is to bring its subject—whether pain, sorrow, shock, or joy—home to the reader. It is not an ornament; it does not make things pretty. Nor does it shy away from agony and distress, Instead it brings things closer, or into focus, or makes them palpable. It slows the action, the course of events, to reveal depth of feeling and to explore its character. It is a place to dwell and savour more than a space for quick assessment’ (Rosaldo 2014, p. 105).

Rosaldo’s book of poetry about his wife’s death was published 33 years after the fact. Mourning time continues unspecified, unmoored from clinical timelines.

In mourning time, the lost person (and with them, the lost future and your own identity in relation to them) becomes an ‘anthropology of absence’ (Bile et al 2010), where the absence of a thing renders it more palpable, more present than it might have been when it was materially present.

Absent things become present in a multitude of ways: Through stories (like those told at home of the recently deceased), rituals (like funerals), through symbols and material objects (someone asked for his reins as a keepsake), and through elaboration of the past and imaginings of the future (me, wondering what I will do with myself). This is concentrated around, but not limited to, the period after death. But sometimes, long after, an absence catches you off guard. You are struck, as if by the pain of a long absent limb, by what is not there.

As Rosaldo puts it, the ‘event’ of death continues to rupture as an emotional ‘force’ long after the day itself. But through these emotions, we learn, we grow. Rosaldo’s grief and rage at his wife’s death helped him understand what emotion compels an Ilgot man to go on a headhunt. It allowed him to experience an emotion for which there was no analogous word in the English language except perhaps a combination of grief and rage. From absence, something new emerged.

Mourning time is a time for learning, and feeling, and growing.

There will be dying

‘Spend a week in solitude, know your essential aloneness

Observe one year of mourning. Otherwise people will talk’.
(Rosaldo 2014, p.79)

It has been two years since my father’s death. My thesis became one about time-place narratives, multiple irreconcilable stories, and absence. It was also about every day poetics and affects that exists in these space-times. I wrote much of it in that caravan in between packing my father’s things and managing his estate.

These past two years I have marked the anniversary his death by reading poetry. Poetry, as Rosaldo and Jackson know, is more suited to grief than theory. It is shorter, but the brevity demands that its meaning resounds beyond the length of the line. It’s more affect than logic. The metered verse is better for a mind that wanders forward and back through time, the line breaks mark the felt absences, and the ambiguous verse can be read through tears.

This year, like last, I read a poem that might have been an anthropology of mourning time-space, two years after death:

How should I not be glad to contemplate

The clouds clearing beyond the dormer window

And a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,

But there is no need to go into that.

The poems flow from within the hand unbidden

And the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything

And the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

Watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

-Derek Mahon (In Copus 2019, p. 83).

And in this strange space-time of mourning, I know that is true: Things will be multiple. Things will be mutable. Things will change in an instance, rendering pasts and futures incomprehensible. The stories you tell yourself to lend some existential coherency to your life will fail. But there will always be poetry. And everything is going to be all right.

John Brekelmans

Works cited

Bille, M., Hastrup, F., & Soerensen, T., & Flohr, T. (2010). An Anthropology of Absence: Materializations of Transcendence and Loss. New York: Springer.

Copus, J. (Ed.) (2019). Life support: 100 poems to reach for on dark nights. London: Anima Books.

Jackson, M. (2018). The varieties of temporal experience: travels in philosophical, historical, and ethnographic time. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rosaldo, R. (2014). The day of Shelly’s death: the poetry and ethnography of grief. Durham: Duke University Press.