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A loss in the family: Silence, memory, and narrative identity after bereavement

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Abstract

Grief theories have converged on the idea that the sharing of autobiographical memory narratives of loss and of the deceased person, especially within the family, is a major way to maintain and/or reconfigure a healthy sense of identity after a loss. In contrast, we examine unspoken memory-the withholding of socially sharing autobiographical memories about the loss and the departed family member-as a way to either conserve an existing narrative identity or assert a new narrative identity. Depending on its context and function, silence about memory can play either a positive or negative role in an individual griever's ongoing narrative identity, as well as in the larger family narrative in which the griever's identity is embedded.
A loss in the family: Silence, memory, and narrative
identity after bereavement
Jenna Baddeley
The University of Texas at Austin, TX, USA
Jefferson A. Singer
Connecticut College, New London, CT, USA
Grief theories have converged on the idea that the sharing of autobiographical memory narratives of loss
and of the deceased person, especially within the family, is a major way to maintain and/or reconfigure a
healthy sense of identity after a loss. In contrast, we examine unspoken memory*the withholding of
socially sharing autobiographical memories about the loss and the departed family member*as a way to
either conserve an existing narrative identity or assert a new narrative identity. Depending on its context
and function, silence about memory can play either a positive or negative role in an individual griever’s
ongoing narrative identity, as well as in the larger family narrative in which the griever’s identity is
embedded.
Keywords: Silence; Loss; Bereavement; Memory; Narrative.
For many years early psychological theory,
guided by Freud’s seminal work on mourning,
tended to highlight the internal dynamics of grief,
focusing on the working through of ambivalent
emotions and the shifting attitude towards the
deceased person (Bowlby, 1980; Freud, 1917/
1997). Kubler-Ross’s (1969) influential work on
the stages of grief continued to point the lens
inward towards shifting psychological states as
the immediacy of the loss receded. More recent
work on loss and bereavement has increasingly
examined grief as a social phenomenon that
occurs within an interpersonal context of friends,
family and culture (Nadeau, 1998; Rosenblatt,
2001; Walter, 1996). Critical to this perspective is
the idea that loss is a challenge to the bereaved
individual’s sense of identity and that healthy
recovery from loss requires the sharing of mem-
ories related to the loss as a way to sustain and/or
reconfigure one’s sense of meaning and purpose
in the face of grief (Neimeyer, 2001). Psycholo-
gists and lay people have long believed that
bereaved people need to talk about their experi-
ences to gain emotional recovery (Kubler-Ross &
Kessler, 2005; Worden, 2002). This belief in the
healing power of talk has fuelled the rising
popularity of grief counselling and bereavement
support groups in recent decades.
In this paper we look at the opposite of sharing
autobiographical memories in the face of grief*
silence. The goal of this paper is to review research
and offer a way to conceptualise the various
meanings of silence*unspoken memory*in re-
sponse to loss. In particular, since one loss that we
all experience at some point is a loss within our
family of origin, we look specifically at the role that
unspoken memory can play in the sense of identity
individuals have as members of a family unit. In
addition, each family member’s sense of personal
identity within the family structure is also a strand
#2009 Psychology Press, an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an Informa business
Address correspondence to: Jenna Baddeley MA, University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station A8000, Austin, TX 78712,
USA. E-mail: jenna@mail.utexas.edu
MEMORY, 2010, 18 (2), 198207
http://www.psypress.com/memory DOI:10.1080/09658210903143858
within the larger ‘‘family story’’. Accordingly, our
inquiry into the role of unspoken memories after
loss explores two interlocking systems: the indivi-
duals sense of identity, as expressed through a
shifting personal narrative or life story (McAdams,
2001), and the familys sense of its identity as a whole,
as expressed through the familys shared narrative
(Fiese & Pratt, 2004; Langellier & Peterson, 2004;
Stone, 1988; White & Epston, 1990).
With regard to unspoken memories in the face
of family loss, we propose the following premises:
1. Each family member possesses a set of
family memories about the departed indivi-
dual. These memories are part of that
individuals‘‘personal narrative identity’’
that defines where he or she fits within the
family structure.
2. Family members have a shared set of mem-
ories about each other that have contributed
to an overarching ‘‘family narrative’’ that
belongs to all the family members and de-
fines the family as a whole.
3. The death of a family member (e.g., father,
mother, son, daughter, brother, sister) is a
challenge to each family members personal
narrative and to the familys larger narrative.
4. Silence about memories related to the de-
parted individual or the loss itself can serve a
function of maintaining or reconfiguring the
narrative identity of each individual, as well
as the family narrative as whole.
5. Depending on a particular individual family
members narrative and its relationship to
the larger family narrative, these unspoken
memories can serve as sources of stability,
growth, or resistance in response to losss
demand for change.
To explore each of these premises in turn, this
paper first provides background on and defines
more precisely the concept of narrative identity as
a critical source of self-understanding, meaning,
and purpose for contemporary individuals. It
further illustrates how membership in a family
of origin yields one particular sub-narrative of an
individuals larger life story. It also explains how
families as a whole generate a common identity
through shared memories and familiar family
stories and myths.
It next examines the role that loss can play in
challenging both personal and familial narrative
identity. In particular, we look at the relationship
of narrative identity to Stroebe and Schuts (1999)
dual process model of coping with grief. This
model argues that individuals may engage in
‘‘loss-oriented’’ or ‘‘restorative’’ forms of coping
that have very different implications for main-
taining or reconfiguring identity in the face of
loss.
With these components in place, we are ready
to ask the question of how unspoken memory*in
other words, silence about the loss*is likely to be
either a catalyst for continued adherence to the
previous individual and family narratives, or a
force of change in both of these aspects of
narrative identity. To answer this question we
present one example from a popular film and
four clinical case studies that illustrate the positive
or negative functions that unspoken memories can
play in family narrative identity after loss.
BACKGROUND OF NARRATIVE
IDENTITY
In recent years researchers have increasingly
explored the relationship of autobiographical
memory to ones ongoing sense of identity.
Identity, as originally defined by Erikson (1964),
is the answer that each individual makes to the
question ‘‘Who am I?’’ This question is answered
through a process of ‘‘triple book-keeping’’ that
allows the individual to reconcile the biological
dimensions of the human lifecycle (e.g., tempera-
ment, physical and sexual development, giving
birth, ageing) with the psychological (e.g., cogni-
tive, affective, motivational, behavioural) and the
social (e.g., familial, interpersonal, community,
political). Identity weaves together these strands
into a coherent sense of self that provides con-
tinuity across past experience and meaning and
purpose for future endeavours. Over the decades
since Erikson first described and outlined this
process of identity formation, depicted eloquently
in his books on Martin Luther and Gandhi
(Erikson, 1962, 1969), many researchers have ex-
plored and catalogued the stages and processes
that define the search for and achievement of
identity (Josselson, 1996; Kroger, 2000; Lieblich &
Josselson, 1997; Marcia, 1966; Waterman, 1993).
Perhaps the most important development in
the last 25 years of identity research has been Dan
McAdamsproposal that for most individuals in
Western society, this process of identity formation
transpires through the construction of an ongoing
narrative or ‘‘life story’’ that a person keeps
building or working on throughout adult life
SILENCE, MEMORY, AND IDENTITY 199
(McAdams, 2001, 2006). This life story weaves
together a set of significant remembered episodes
into a coherent whole that guides our under-
standing of ourselves and our goals and actions.
Singer has called these most important memories
self-defining memories. Self-defining memories
are vivid, emotionally intense, repetitively re-
called, linked to similar experiences, and orga-
nised around an ongoing concern or unresolved
conflict within the individual personality (Singer
& Salovey, 1993). These self-defining memories
serve the function within the individuals life story
of capturing in a telegraphic and imagistic fashion
critical recurring themes and affective scripts
(Tomkins, 1979) that help to communicate to the
individual and to others what matters most in their
lives, both motivationally and relationally. Clearly,
building a coherent autobiographical memory, let
alone a coherent life story, requires that we
narrate only selectively and remain silent about
many of the details and many of the episodes in
our lives (Conway, Singer, & Tagini, 2004).
Researchers, particularly those working in a
social-cognitive developmental orientation, have
recognised how deeply situated and generally
inextricable from social context are our autobio-
graphical memories and our identities (Bamberg,
2004; Langellier & Peterson, 2004; McLean,
Pasupathi, & Pals, 2007). Our self-defining mem-
ories and life stories develop within conversations
and thus bear the stamp of our listeners whose
feedback, however subtle, shapes the course of
our stories (McLean et al., 2007; Pasupathi, 2001;
Pasupathi & Rich, 2005; Thorne & McLean,
2003). From our earliest attempts at constructing
spoken narratives of our autobiographical mem-
ories, our listeners guide us about what is accep-
table material to speak and what is best kept silent
(Reese & Fivush, 2008). The stories we generate
to answer the question of identity are wrought
from the cultural and familial scripts that both
listener and speaker have in mind when narrating
events. These scripts provide the framework for
our narrative material.
All cultures (and families are small cultures of
their own, cf. Langellier & Peterson, 2004) have
implicit cultural life scripts that define preferable
or acceptable ways to be and act. The creation and
(re)telling of family stories is a way of establishing
a family identity that distinguishes the family from
all other families and defines its most prized values,
its outlook on the world, and its shared identity.
Familiesstories convey deep information about
what the family thinks is the best way to be a man
or a woman, what the meaning of death or sickness
is, how much people outside the family should be
trusted, and many other important attitudes that
deeply bind the family together and inform in-
dividual family membersidentities and world-
views (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981; Stone, 1988).
Telling and hearing these stories generates
implicit agreement about the familys value and
stabilises the family system and individualsroles
within it. For example, as has been documented in
family systems theory and family therapy, as well as
in family alcoholism treatment (Brown & Lewis,
1995; Wegscheider, 1981), these memory narra-
tives may reinforce the family membersdistinct
roles of ‘‘scapegoat’’,‘‘hero’’,‘‘lost child’’,‘‘mas-
cot’’,orof‘‘victim’’ and ‘‘perpetrator’’ (Stone,
1988; Taibbi, 2009). However, storytelling is cer-
tainly not a monolithic activity in which established
family meanings and values go unchallenged;
indeed, it can also be a site for family members to
register dissent or disagreement and to contest
established meanings (Langellier & Peterson,
2004). Family storytelling has the potential to
change family patterns and identities as well as
maintain them.
LOSS AS A DISRUPTION TO
NARRATIVE IDENTITY
When a family member dies, each surviving family
member and the family as whole must inevitably
confront the respective questions of ‘‘Who am I?’’
and ‘‘What is my family?’’ now that this critical
member of their family is gone. Whatever previous
narratives have served to answer each of these
questions of self and collective definition, the loss
poses an immediate challenge to their integrity
(Nadeau, 1998; Neimeyer, 2001; Rosenblatt, 2000).
According to narrative bereavement theorists,
individuals turn to (co)recalling and sharing stories
about the loved one and the loss in order to repair
and stabilise their fragile sense of identity and to
reaffirm their understanding of roles and relation-
ships within the family structure (Harvey, 2002;
Neimeyer, 2001; Walter, 1996).
When bereaved people share stories with each
other, Walter (1996) asserts that they are seeking
consensual validation to ensure the accuracy of
their accounts of the deceased person: ‘‘Working
out who the deceased really was, what she was like,
how I related to her, how she died, and checking
this against othersaccounts is surely how the
late-modern individual emerges from the other
200 BADDELEY AND SINGER
side of loss’’ ( p. 15). Yet the family systems
literature disagrees that accuracy is the key con-
cern, suggesting that in family stories the desire for
veridicality is trumped by the need for homeostasis
(e.g., Stone, 1988). Within families, the accounts
that the bereaved people share with each other are
likely to be edited when a secret or other poten-
tially disruptive information is involved. In other
words, the movement toward a stabilising narrative
identity (i.e., a personal story and collective story
in relation to the departed that each person and the
family as a whole can live with) may require that
certain memories regarding the lost individual be
left unspoken. This silence about the departed, and
perhaps about the circumstances of the loss itself,
may serve many different purposes or functions in
the dynamics of family members who are each
seeking to re-align both their personal narratives
and their understanding of the larger family story.
SILENCE’S ROLE IN FAMILY
NARRATIVES AFTER LOSS
The family systems literature is replete with
accounts of the role of secret-keeping in the
perpetuation of family memberspsychopatholo-
gies. Incest and alcoholism are classic family
secrets whose concealment only reinforces these
destructive behaviours for the sake of maintaining
homeostasis (e.g., Jahn, 1995; Swanson & Biaggio,
1985). Yet some family secrets (i.e., autobiogra-
phical memories of individual family members
whose revelation would be threatening to other
family members or to the family system) remain
unspoken because their status as secrets effectively
stabilises the family system without undermining
the psychological health of any of its members.
Empirical studies (e.g., Kelly & McKillop, 1996;
Kelly & Rodriguez, 2006) have provided support
for the idea that keeping secrets can be good for
individuals, and some writers have explored the
potential benefits of keeping secrets within the
family for fostering autonomy and keeping bound-
aries (Grolnick, 1983).
That silence about ones autobiographical mem-
ories may at times be a healthy way of responding
to a loss is supported by the dual-process model of
grief (Stroebe & Schut, 1999), which situates
narrative construction within a broader framework
of coping processes. This model suggests that both
avoidance of ‘‘processing’’ related to what has
been lost and turning instead to dealing with the
stressors associated with constructing a new life,
and confrontation and processing of the loss,
including thinking about the deceased person and
what it was that was lost, are pathways to recovery.
Stroebe and Schut call these two processes restora-
tion-oriented coping and loss-oriented coping, and
suggest that bereaved people oscillate between the
two. Telling stories about the loss clearly fits into
loss-oriented coping. Restoration-oriented coping
involves the taking of action to move past the loss
and an avoidance of ruminative concern with grief
and memories of the departed. Silence about ones
autobiographical memories of loss and ones loved
one is surely important to allow room for restora-
tion-oriented coping activities. Silence can even be
involved in loss-oriented coping. Even if one is
thinking about the loss or the loved one, keeping
some autobiographical memories about the loved
one silent in the family environment can contribute
to the grievers own identity growth or stability, or
to the stability of the family system.
Keeping silence (as opposed to sharing narra-
tive memories) within the family about a loss or a
deceased loved one can indeed be a way of
asserting a new identity or hanging on to an old
one in the face of loss. A family members silence
may challenge or support his or her previous
narrative identity in relation to the departed and
the remaining family members. This silence may
also challenge or support the larger family narra-
tive to which all members belong. It can addition-
ally have a challenging or supportive influence on
the newly shifting personal narratives of each of
the other family members. Finally silence, like
narrative, can be a way of finding an appropriate
place for the deceased person in the new family
system. Figure 1 depicts the individuals narrative
as nested within the familys narrative. The reci-
procal line between the individuals narrative
identity and the larger family narrative identity
concretises the idea that there is a dynamic tension
between the familys story and each members
personal story. The solid lines that form the ovals
around the person and the larger family indicate
stability in each of these narrative identities. The
location of the personal identity within the larger
family narrative also indicates the strong bond
between the two.
EXAMPLES OF LOSS, SILENCE, AND
FAMILY NARRATIVE IDENTITY
The following five examples illustrate how unspo-
ken memories can facilitate individual identity
SILENCE, MEMORY, AND IDENTITY 201
stability or change, as well as stability or change in
the larger family narrative. Whether unspoken
memories benefit or hurt the individual or family
as a whole is clearly a complicated and contextual
question, hence the reason for the contrasting
examples that we provide. What the examples
taken together demonstrate is the significant role
that unspoken memory (arguably just as significant
as spoken memory) can play in narrative identity.
Figure 2 depicts the ways in which the indivi-
duals and families in our examples strengthened
narrative identities (represented by bold out-
lines), maintained narrative identities (repre-
sented by solid outlines), or suffered weakened
narrative identities (represented by dotted lines)
as a result of silence about the loss. The reciprocal
lines between family and individual may also be
strengthened, maintained, or weakened (again
represented by bold, solid, and dotted lines).
The movement of the personal identity oval
from its place inside the larger family oval
indicates a significant distancing of the individual
from the encompassing family narrative.
In the first example the family is silent about
the death of a son with negative effects for the
remaining sons narrative identity and the specific
memories that define his identity. Once this
silence is broken the family loses its fragile
equilibrium, which has been held in place by their
willingness to cling to ‘‘an official story’’ of the
death that reinforces their family myths. In
the second example a widow remarried soon after
the death of her husband and was silent about
memories of her departed husband in an effort to
transition into her new identity. Although her
silence facilitated her own identity development,
her silence strained her surviving family members
and constrained her sons possibilities for narrat-
ing the loss and developing his own coherent story.
A third example shows a similar pattern, but the
daughter defines herself even more separately
from her remarried father. In the fourth example
a daughters silence and her mothers desire to talk
about the loss represent a family-straining tension
between the daughters claims for an autonomous,
achievement-oriented identity and the mothers
desire for the family system to remain intact and
structured around the figure of the deceased
husband. In the final example a daughter keeps
silent within her family about secrets that she has
discovered about her deceased mother. This
silence preserves family harmony and ushers in a
more adult identity for the daughter.
family
person
Figure 1. The individuals narrative identity embedded in
family narrative identity.
Claire Helen
family
Meredith
family
(e) Meredith(d) Claire and Helen
son
family family
son
Jonesy
(b) Jonesy(a) Ordinary People
Rhona father
family
(c) Rhona
Figure 2. Effects of silence after loss on individuals, families, and the links between them.
202 BADDELEY AND SINGER
Ordinary People
Our first example comes from the film Ordinary
People (Schwary & Redford, 1980) in which a
family maintains silence about the death of their
older son. The silence keeps their family life
running with a semblance of normality, albeit
with immense tension below the surface. In
psychotherapy, the surviving son begins to revise
his autobiographical memory narrative of the loss
and question his role within his family system. He
recalls the incident of his brothers death in a
sailing accident, for which he had initially blamed
himself (and it is implied that his mother also
held him responsible). In retelling the accident,
guided by his psychotherapist, he realises that it
was not his fault. This revelation fundamentally
rewrites a major, identity-defining autobiographi-
cal memory and facilitates his exiting his prior
role in the family from the alienated, ‘‘mentally
ill’’ child. His insight and behavioural changes
allow him to express more of his emotions, both
anger and affection, in a healthier and more
adaptive manner.
The father, following his sons successes in
psychotherapy, begins to shift the family balance
away from silence and towards more open con-
versation. A critical moment in the film comes
when the father tries to talk to the mother about
the sons funeral and she refuses. The mothers
silence in this context becomes, for the father, a
sign of her weakness: her inability or unwillingness
to face her own pain or the pain of any of her
family members. Their marriage, now potentially
irrecoverable, shifts into separation. In this story
the familys silence had held them together tem-
porarily, at the cost of a healthy identity for the
younger son and a truly intimate relationship
between the two parents. To preserve the larger
family narrative, the young son had been willing to
retain a personal narrative identity in which he was
the ‘‘black sheep’’ and the inferior brother to his
older ‘‘golden child’’ sibling. Key to his collusion
with this family story was his silence about the true
memory of what happened during the sailing
accident*that his brother was not strong enough
to hold on to his hand when he might have been
able to save him. Ultimately, this unspoken
memory had stymied the younger sons ability to
narrate an acceptable story of his life: he had to
break this silence to claim a healthier identity. The
silence*intended to preserve the family system*
could not protect the parentsrelationship, and
may have ultimately done more harm than good to
the family system (see Figure 2a).
In the Ordinary People example, silence was
used (ultimately ineffectively) to preserve the
familys existing narrative identity, while con-
straining the possibility of growth and change in
the narrative identity of one of the family mem-
bers (and, most likely, in all three of the remaining
members). In our next two examples silence is
effectively employed by one family member to
claim a new, positive personal narrative identity in
the wake of loss but it results in disruption to the
overall family narrative and to the other family
membersindividual narrative identities. One of
these examples comes from the clinical practice of
one of the authors
1
and another from a published
case study (Riches & Dawson, 2000).
Jonesy
In the first of the two stories, an adult client
suffered the loss of his father. After the death of
his father, the clients mother quickly remarried.
Her new husband and stepchildren gave her the
nickname ‘‘Jonesy’’, a name by which her own
children had never called her. Jonesy seldom
talked about her deceased husband, although her
adult children wanted to talk more with her about
the loss of their father and share memories from
their years together. Despite their requests, Jonesy
almost never spontaneously brought up memories
of her husband of over 25 years and only shared
stories in a perfunctory manner. Jonesys silence
allowed her to more fully invest in her new
identity as the wife of her new husband and
strengthened her ties with her new husbands
family. However, Jonesys silence weakened her
bonds with her own children. For her children, the
silence changed their familys larger narrative
identity from that of a happy and harmonious
family to an identity of a more separate and
private family. In fact, Jonesys unexpected silence
about their shared past even led her children to
question at times whether she had been as happy
in her marriage as they had fully and perhaps
naively assumed she had been.
Similarly, her adult oldest son, formerly his
parentsgolden child, felt very much robbed of
this special position within the family and arrived
1
Both case examples from our own clinical work represent
amalgams of similar cases. We have removed all identifying
information.
SILENCE, MEMORY, AND IDENTITY 203
at therapy with a shaken view of his ability to
count on good fortune. In the course of therapy
he often noted that his mothers silence on the
topic of his father created a different and more
strained relationship with her. He remarked in
session once that it was not uncommon for him to
have the thought he had suffered a double loss
and was now orphaned from both parents.
In this case, silence allows for the reconstruction
of a new narrative identity*the pleasant and
popular Jonesy who is connected to and beloved
by her new family*but it exacts a cost on the larger
family narrative and the personal narratives of her
original family members. In our Ordinary People
example, family members colluded in silence for
the sake of the departeds revered status and the
larger family narrative of normality and propriety.
In the case of Jonesy, a family member employs
silence to facilitate the development of a new
personal narrative identity, but does so at the
expense of the larger family narrative shared by
the other family members (see Figure 2b).
Rhona
In a similar case (Riches & Dawson, 2000) a
17-year-old girl, ‘‘Rhona’’, had lost her mother.
After a brief period of distress, her father began
dating a neighbour and shortly thereafter they
married. Rhona tried to talk to her father about
her feelings of grief for her deceased mother and
her feelings of anger towards her father for
moving on so quickly, but when she tried to talk
she felt like she was causing pain to her father and
to his new partner. She felt like ‘‘the wicked
stepdaughter spoiling my fathers chance of happi-
ness’’ (p. 365). Eventually, instead of trying to talk,
she kept her feelings to herself, which may have
felt like a better means of keeping the peace,
but also made her feel like an ‘‘abandoned
orphan’’ (p. 366).
Riches and Dawson (2000) interpret the case
as illustrating the difficulties a daughter may have
for successful grief resolution when her way of
grieving is so different from her fathers, and
when conversational constraints prevent them
from talking about the loss. Left with a restricted
choice of identity narratives, Rhona chooses what
seemed to be the lesser of two negative identities,
rejecting the outspoken ‘‘evil stepdaughter’’ iden-
tity in favour of the silent abandoned orphan
identity. In doing so she has allowed her fathers
unspoken memories to reconfigure her personal
narrative identity, while her connection to her
larger shared family narrative with her father has
become more tenuous (see Figure 2c).
Claire and Helen
Our next example comes from a case study by
Ester Shapiro, a researcher and therapist whose
work highlights the importance of social and
family contexts and takes a developmental systems
approach to treating and writing about bereave-
ment. In Shapiros (2008) case study the father, a
charismatic college professor, died in his forties.
He left behind a devoted widow, Helen, and three
children. His widow had been a full-time mother
and homemaker. In losing her husband she also
felt painful secondary losses of closeness with his
extended family and his network of university
colleagues, as well as anticipating the loss of her
youngest son who would soon graduate high
school and depart for university. She revealed to
the counsellor that she wished she could occupy
the widow role for her whole life, so that she could
remain attached to her deceased husband without
being expected to ‘‘move on’’ and sell their home
or develop new romantic relationships. Her daugh-
ter, Claire, took a contrasting position. Away at
college, Claire successfully pursued her studies in
science and stayed at her university instead of
coming home for the holidays, feeling that embra-
cing her academics was the best way to honour her
fathers legacy.
Mother and daughter clearly occupied quite
distinct poles on the Stroebe and Schut (1999)
dual process model, with the mother engaged
primarily in loss-oriented coping and the daugh-
ter in restoration-oriented coping. If we could
hear the stories that each would tell about the
loss and the deceased person, we would likely
find complementary silences. The mothers story
would likely be silent on the subject of the
deceased husbands desires for their daughters
autonomy and achievement and, indeed, his
belief in achievement and ambition above family
togetherness. The daughters absence from family
holiday gatherings is a clear example of remain-
ing silent rather than contributing her assenting
voice to mournful discussions about her father,
and especially remaining silent rather than as-
senting to her mothers framing of the family
story as one of togetherness around the central
pole of her (deceased) father. The daughters
silence challenges the mothers version of the
204 BADDELEY AND SINGER
family story and asserts instead an identity claim
of herself as an independent, ambitious indivi-
dual, carrying on what she perceives as her
fathers legacy.
In contrast to Jonesy and Rhonas father, and
more similar to the mother in Ordinary People,
the mother in Shapiros case has a strong orienta-
tion towards preserving both the pre-loss family
narrative and her own pre-loss personal narrative
identity as wife and companion to her now
departed husband. Unlike the offspring in the
three previous examples, the daughter in the
Shapiro case recognises that silence is an ally
for her, a way of asserting her independence from
the backward-looking impulse of her mother,
while simultaneously allowing her to move for-
ward in her academic pursuits in a fashion that
would have pleased her father. In this complex
example, silence by the daughter may undermine
one dimension of the larger family narrative (i.e.,
the depictions of family togetherness), but may
paradoxically reinforce her strong identification
with her fathers own intellectual journey (see
Figure 2d).
Letters left unspoken
Our final case example comes from another one
of our clients experiences. This case provides an
example of a daughters silence that protected the
homeostatic balance of the family system as well
as promoting identity growth for the daughter. In
this case, a daughter, Meredith, lost her mother
when she (Meredith) was a small child. Years
later, when Meredith was an emerging adult, she
discovered a collection of letters that the mother
wrote to a close female friend. In those letters her
mother discloses feelings of discontent in her
relationship with her husband, the daughters
father. Meredith chose to keep the contents secret
because there was no way that this knowledge
could possibly be of use to her father, who shared
very positive, affectionate autobiographical mem-
ories of his marriage to his deceased wife and
clearly remembered the relationship as a very
happy one.
The process of keeping these secrets, albeit for
the purpose of preserving family identities the
way they are, is also an act of self-development
for the daughter in the sense that maintaining
these privacy boundaries feels like an act con-
sistent with a more adult relationship with the
surviving parent. In this case and in the Shapiro
(2008) case, the daughtersacts of silence may
also be ways of continuing the relationship with
the deceased person by promoting or protecting
their legacy. In the Shapiro case the daughter was
continuing her fathers intellectual legacy as she
constructed it. In this case, the daughters act of
silence was a way of protecting the legacy of the
narrative that her mother chose to present to her
family, one that is expressed in positive autobio-
graphical memories shared by father and daugh-
ter (see Figure 2e).
In this final example we can see a positive
function of silence in the service of the persisting
family narrative of conjugal happiness between
the departed mother and the clients father.
However, it simultaneously serves the individual
personal narrative of a daughter emerging into an
adult role of caretaker and equal who is capable
of delineating and maintaining boundaries in
sensitive interpersonal dilemmas. Unlike the pre-
vious examples, silence tactfully employed in this
circumstance gives support to all family members,
even as it supports their differentiation.
DISCUSSION
We have argued that silence after a loss*the
choice to leave unspoken, rather than share,
autobiographical memories of the loss or the
loved one*can have multiple meanings and
effects on family members, depending on the
contextual application of that silence. This asser-
tion about the conditionality of unspoken mem-
oriespositive or negative influences after loss is
the mirror image of the contextual effects of
bereavement narrative disclosures (Baddeley &
Singer, 2008, in press). In examining these dis-
closures we marshalled evidence to challenge the
simplistic assumption that all bereaved individuals
must talk about their grief in order to achieve a
successful and healthy recovery from their loss.
Similarly, we have hoped to dispel the truism that
the choice to remain silent about ones loss and
related memories is necessarily a path to dysfunc-
tion and psychological distress. In this article we
illustrate that silence after loss can either preserve
or transform family membersprevious narrative
identities. We have highlighted the importance of
considering how silence functions not just for the
individual, but also for the family system in which
the individual is embedded. As our examples have
highlighted, one family members silence can be
used to sustain or change, for better or worse, that
SILENCE, MEMORY, AND IDENTITY 205
family members narrative identity, the identities
and stories of other family members, the links
between family members, and the overall struc-
ture of the family system. Silence can also be used
to locate a persisting image of the deceased person
within the new family system.
The use of silence as a way of reconfiguring
narrative identity after loss is an important but a
relatively unrecognised, and poorly understood,
social process. If silence is defined as a way of
shaping narrative identity, then it is framed not as
a form of denial, but as a way of striving to
accomplish developmental tasks that are impor-
tant after a major loss (Shapiro, 2008). This
framing is more compassionate and more useful
as a basis for trying to help people to work their
own way through the identity challenges that they
face after a loss. It allows for some silences not to
be considered ‘‘defences’’, but rather valorises
them as part of a developmental process of growth
after loss.
Framing silence as one means of building a
narrative identity after a loss is also a way of
recognising its importance as an act situated in an
interpersonal field and with interpersonal pur-
poses. Silence gets its meaning from the context of
stories and tacit understandings shared by the
people in the group in which it occurs. As
suggested, unspoken memories, judiciously cho-
sen, can be similar to spoken memories as a means
of building narrative identity. Yet silence is
inherently more ambiguous and more difficult to
interpret than stories, and even more defined by
its context. Thus, research on silence is difficult.
We emphasise an approach to future research that
considers silences in the context of existing family
scripts, roles, and developmental needs. When
considering the function of unspoken memories
in familial interactions, researchers can focus on
the role of silence for identity affirmation or
transformation for each participant in the family
interaction, as well as its role in the larger story of
the participantsshared narrative.
As we conclude our review of unspoken mem-
orys role in identity reconstruction after family
loss, we are struck by the preference of human
processing for the presence of phenomena rather
than their absence. Artists are well aware that
judicious use of space, the withholding of the brush
or pen stroke, is what often allows for perspective,
contrast, and volume in a painting or drawing.
Perhaps we might acknowledge that the same
lesson applies to the construction of narrative
identities. Rather than see what is left out as
a defensive or destructive omission*an act of
repression or oppression*it is possible to see
silence in certain contexts as a necessary form of
definition and boundary*the absence of words
or memory as a way of expressing a different form
of identity. In this sense, the key to the story lies in
what is missing rather than what is found.
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... Stories may evolve over time, opening up to new interpretations as they are retold in the context of unfolding realities and as they are told by new tellers (Roberts, 1994). Thus, storytelling has the potential to change family patterns and identities as well as maintain them (Baddeley & Singer, 2010). Although telling stories is natural in most families, not every family experience is narrated and some experiences, such as loss in the family, are more difficult to narrate than others. ...
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Chapter
In this introductory chapter, Pearce and Komaromy contextualise the accounts by contributors within key theoretical and societal debates in western experiences of parental death, including the medicalisation and professionalisation of death, and the quality of dying. They explore how the ‘timeliness’ of parental death might mitigate loss alongside the potential reality that when a parent dies the psychological buffer between life and death is removed. Part of making sense of and narrating parental death involves drawing upon the stories of previous generations and the editors consider how memories are intersubjectively constituted by families. Pearce and Komaromy utilise the perspective of feminist epistemology to interrogate the connections between ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’, in autobiographical accounts and the role of narratives in bereavement. Finally, each chapter is briefly introduced.
Chapter
Drawing together the central themes addressed in the anthology, Caroline reflects on her own experience of parental death as a teenager to compare and contrast with the accounts in this book. Caroline documents the significance of her mother’s death following a long period of illness and how writing about her experiences of grief became interweaved into her academic accomplishments. Disentangling her own sense of self-identity and the boundaries between the personal and professional became increasingly difficult while establishing herself as a researcher of grief and bereavement. Writing 20 years on from the death of both her parents, Caroline reflects on the loss of the sense of home and the importance of belonging.