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Grief is not unique

PhD research on narrative meaning-making concerning grief in Dutch bestsellers
10 April 2023

PhD student Krina Huisman researched how we can ascribe meaning to the loss of a loved one by narrating that loss in the form of a story. She studied different types of books on grief and distinguished four ways in which bereavement literature narrates the subject. She concludes that grief is not at all as unique as we think it is. Huisman will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 13 April.

Krina Huisman
Krina Huisman

After the death of a loved one, the bereaved will try to internalize the loss in their own life story. They will try to find answers to questions such as: What does this loss mean? What purpose does it serve? Literary scholar Krina Huisman researched this process, known as narrative meaning-making.

For her PhD project, Huisman studied different types of popular books on grief that have been published in the Netherlands since the year 2000, both Dutch as well as translated work. They include ‘bestsellers like The Widower by Kluun, The Sum of Our Days by Isabel Allende, Tonio by A.F.Th. van der Heijden, but also also self-help books such as Helpen bij Verlies en Verdriet [Help with loss and grief] and Vingerafdruk van Verdriet [Grief’s fingerprint] by Manu Keirse, Je Mag Me Altijd Bellen [You can call me anytime] by Karin Kuiper, and Rouw op je Dak [A loss/lot to process] by Jos Brink,’ says Huisman. She examined these books’ narrative patterns and how they tell stories about loss, and distinguished four different ways in which this was done. Huisman calls them ‘meaning-making models’ or 'grief plots’.

Growth plot

The first plot Huisman distinguishes is the ‘growth plot’. ‘The idea is that you cannot just grow and develop despite an experience of loss, but also because of it,’ Huisman explains.
‘This could be done by experimenting with new world views or social roles, by realizing untapped potential, or by clearing away the negative voices and influences from the past.’ We often find growth plots in books written by grief counsellors and experts, but it also appears in novels such as PS, I Love You by Cecilia Ahern, The Widower by Kluun, and the memoir Toen Ik Je Zag [When I saw you] by Isa Hoes.

Recovery plot

Then there is the recovery plot. ‘These stories are not about growth, but about recovery, allowing what was there to be preserved as best as possible.  This may involve the restoration of a social order or a disturbed mental balance. Examples of stories with a recovery plot are As in Tas [Ash in bag] by Jelle Brandt Corstius, Counterpoint by Anna Enquist, but alsoZolang er Leven Is [As long as there’s life] by Renate Dorrestein.’

'It is often said that grief is unique, but in the ways we tell our stories about grief, we are not as unique as we think we are. To quote Connie Palmen: “You won’t be able to think of that many literary variants to narrate the completely shattered state of the bereaved.'
'It is often said that grief is unique, but in the ways we tell our stories about grief, we are not as unique as we think we are. To quote Connie Palmen: “You won’t be able to think of that many literary variants to narrate the completely shattered state of the bereaved.'

Search plot

The search plot revolves around finding a way to relate to the loss and the lost one. Huisman: ‘In Tonio, for example, writer A.F.Th. van der Heijden searches for his deceased son in the language, and he attempts to picture Tonio by describing him. In Schaduwkind [Shadow child], P.F. Thomése does the opposite: the deceased is absent from the book and the language helps to capture this loss.’

Anti-plot or resistance plot

The final plot that Huisman identifies is the anti-plot or resistance plot. In these plots, the author resists narrative meaning-making. ‘This is a very clear motif inLogboek van een Onbarmhartig Jaar [Log of an unmerciful year] by Connie Palmen. In this book, she shows that grieving someone’s death is so all-consuming that it is impossible to turn it into a story. But resisting narrative meaning-making can also make meaning. Anger, for example, is an important stage of grief, according to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, because it prevents the bereaved from succumbing to the loss.’

In her research, Huisman shows that one’s personal experience with death is imbued with meaning by shared narratives, and that these stories share certain commonalities in the ways in which they are narrated. ‘By reading these books, people are exposed to these narrative patterns, which in turn allow them to shape their own experiences. It is often said that grief is unique, but in the ways we tell our stories about grief, we are not as unique as we think we are. To quote Connie Palmen: “You won’t be able to think of that many literary variants to narrate the completely shattered state of the bereaved.”’

Last modified:24 January 2024 09.29 a.m.
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