After Death

Social Engagements with Death and Dying

The Place of Narrative in Death and Dying

Kinsey Cantrell


Kinsey Cantrell: People have long used narratives to contextualize or understand worldly phenomena or events in their lives. Narratives provide a degree of comfort, a proffered explanation for what would otherwise be an uncertain anxiety. More than explanation, they also provide a sense of purpose, a reason for the random. This purpose and understanding becomes especially necessary in the event of a traumatic experience, such as a life-altering illness or a sudden death. For the After Death podcast series, I spoke to Dr. Arthur Frank, professor of sociology at Calgary University. Dr. Frank has written a number of books on narratives, illness, and illness narratives, including but not limited to At the Will of the Body, The Wounded Storyteller, and Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology. Illness narratives, the narrative resources available to patients and family members, are Dr. Frank’s primary focus. However, I wanted to explore death narratives, or the narrative resources available to those afflicted by a death, sudden or expected, a dear friend or a stranger. Dr. Frank had a lot to say about his background in narrative theory, how and why death narratives are used, the nature of representation in the death narrative, and the various considerations behind who is able to speak and whose voice is able to be heard.


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KC: What exactly is narrative theory and how did you come to study it and what is your interaction with it now?


Arthur Frank: Well, narrative theory looks at who tells what stories in what way on what occasions. How stories are put together is the topic of narratology, as it’s called, and narrative theory then takes different shapes in different disciplines depending on the interest of that discipline. But you’re always concerned with how stories are put together, their structure, and where the narrative resources come from that people use to construct these narratives because a point that’s been crucial in my thinking is that people don’t make up stories by themselves, they just put stories together out of resources that they have available.


KC: I’m interested in these resources that they have available and I guess how those resources might impose limitations on the story that is being told, if that makes sense.


AF: Absolutely. It’s important to me to divide those resources into at least two sort of bundles, big categories, but they’re big and loose categories. One category would be what I would call narratives. Narratives involve a generalized logic of what kinds of things are likely to happen and why they happen. A narrative is a resource for telling a particular story. In a narrative you have character types, as opposed to individually recognizable characters, and you have a general principle of action. The other big bundle of things are resources that we use for telling particular stories, and that would include again character types that are recognizable, it would include metaphors, it would include how scenes are constructed and how we know what various kinds of scenes are, it would include all of the tropes that stories are constructed from.


KC: I also wanted to bring in some of your research on illness narratives and sort of compare that to death narratives. So, the ill person sort of has to conform to certain types of narratives that you enumerate in The Wounded Storyteller, so the restitution narrative, the quest narrative, the chaos narrative, and I was wondering about how this societal drive to conform to these narratives might transfer to death narratives and how the dead person is literally unable to tell their own story but the family must conform to certain tropes and narratives.


AF: I first of all wouldn’t say that these are types to which the family must conform, I would prefer to say these are narrative resources and it’s very difficult to tell stories without fitting the stories into one of those narrative types, because otherwise it just isn’t a recognizable story, either to the tellers or the listeners. So the question is often are the narrative resources adequate to the task given what people sense is going on but may not be able to articulate is going on because they lack a narrative for that articulation. The problem with restitution is that it creates a dramatic irony between the need of the narrative and the reality of the situation. If it’s a death narrative, there’s not going to be restitution in a medical sense, although often people get trapped in that narrative, and that’s why aggressive care will continue until as my colleague Eric Cassell put it ironically, someone noticed the patient was dead, that said with extreme irony, bitter irony. So the restitution narrative is mostly an ironic narrative of people who have gotten trapped in the narrative to the exclusion of their sense of reality. The chaos narrative is what happens to people when everybody else is trapped in a narrative that doesn’t conform to reality, and they realize it, but they can’t formulate another narrative outside of it, and so it’s a condition of narrative disjunction between what one person is experiencing and the narrative that other people are imposing on that experience. The quest, insofar as it figures in, tends to figure earlier. It would involve someone who recognizes that they’re dying, but they still are in full possession of their faculties, and they decide that they want to use that narrative, either within the family, or they want to use their death, either within the family or the community in a larger sense for some sort of purpose. I mean, some people will say I want to use my death to teach my grandchildren how to die, one gets that comment, I want my death to be an example to them that death is all right and the first way in which you do death right is by recognizing that death is all right. And so how do I leave to those who watch me and will take my story forward as a basis of their possibility of experience, how do I give them something that’s a viable building block for their own life, and they try to construct their dying as a lesson to those who come after.


KC: I think that occurs at a secondhand level too, so parents who lose children to maybe suicide or cancer might lead initiatives to or create foundations for those causes, you know.


AF: Very much so. “Nobody wants a wasted illness,” is the famous quotation, never let a crisis go to waste. People don’t want aspects of their lives going to waste. And I think you’re getting at something very important in why people write memoirs, whatever, tell stories of illness generally. They want their experience to count for something, they want to give it some sense of purpose. And particularly when a young person has died, those who loved that young person want that life to have left a mark, to have made a difference. And so whether it’s starting some foundation in that person’s name, whatever the activity, or trying to bring to other families the resources that the bereaved family feels they did not have available, or they might have had available but they fear are not generally available, these are all ways in which one tries to make something of what otherwise could be a waste, and they’re ways in which you continue a responsible relationship with the person who’s died, because especially for parents who have had a child die, there’s a need to go on being a parent. And parents are supposed to be responsible, they’re supposed to do things for their children. Well, you can’t do things in the usual sense but you can continue to feel that you’re doing something your child would have wanted done.


KC: Is there anything else you would like to say, any other thoughts you have?


AF: It’s interesting to me, when I first studied this in the early 70s, there were quite a number of spousal narratives especially, of parents dying, there were some elder adult children narratives of parents dying. I get the sense that that genre is less around these days. I don’t find published the narratives of the other’s death in the same way. If they do it tends to emphasize the illness preceding dying more than the actual dying. So it interests me quite a bit that there was what seems to have been, bubbles, there are things that are just bubbles of interest at various times, they come and they go. I think Philip Roth’s book Patrimony was really one of the last big time narratives of a parental death, and I can’t think of that many spousal narratives of death that have been big time recently.


KC: Have you read The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion?


AF: Yes, you’re right, of course, yes, sorry. I definitely stand corrected. Yeah, and of course, part of that is, it’s Joan Didion. One of the things that I’m always thinking of is, is a book like this getting published only because of who the author is, or can a book in this genre get published by a first time author?


KC: So along those lines I just wanted to ask what kind of voices are often portrayed in death narratives, illness narratives, narratives in general, and what kind of voices might not have that kind of access, and what limitations those might impose on narratives as a genre.


AF: Right, the really awful, in the old sense, that is, full of awe, responsibility in writing a death narrative is that you’re ventriloquizing the voice of the person who’s died, and maybe you actually have notes, and you feel you can quote them more or less verbatim, but to a considerable degree you’re projecting feelings to those people, and you’re taking on the responsibility of their last words, and you’re creating the image in which they’re going to be remembered. I remember Simone de Beauvoir was criticized for her Adieux to Sartre book. Some people went so far as to say this was her revenge on Sartre, that she was now getting the last word, and it may not have been the last word he would have wanted. So when you’re dead you’re necessarily disempowered, to speak yourself or to object to what’s spoken about you, and as a result it calls for very particular either tact or chutzpah in terms of being willing to make the other person say these things and present them that way. And they may not even be dying. John Bayley’s Elegy for Iris, writing about the spouse deep in dementia, has the same responsibility–that they can’t come back and speak differently of what you’re saying about them. The voice that’s excluded is quite clearly the voice that is still alive but is beyond speaking. It isn’t just in Hamlet’s famous line “being dead, that’s the territory from which no traveler returns” – there’s also in most deaths this period where the person may still give considerable indications of being quite aware, but they’re no longer articulate, they’re no longer able to speak clearly. And in that period, we are dependent on the voices of others to represent us. There’s a time that may be hours or may be days when we’re here but we’re no longer communicatively participating, and in that sense we hope we’re lucky in having those who represent us. But then that can cause reflection on all of our moments of our lives, the ways in which we’re always being represented by others, and the ways in which we always hope to have good luck in those representations.


KC: Well, thank you so much for agreeing to be on this podcast, Dr. Frank. I really appreciate it.


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