Sunday, 9 December 2012

Off to Australia: in the mourning, we think of Jacintha.

It’s not a good time of the year to be a turkey. I mention this as today I am celebrating Christmas with my youngest son and his lady friend, my wife, my eldest daughter, her husband and my granddaughter. They are having roast turkey with all the trimmings; I'm having a mushroom and cashew nut roast, baked at Château Hoboken, This meal is no minor occurrence it is the first time I can remember my son cooking me anything let alone a full Christmas dinner. They are off to Australia and New Zealand next week and will spend Christmas out there with brothers and sisters from both families.

Australia has played a part in my thinking this week. The first was a piece I read in the Observer about grief and loss and how different people deal with this. The story used the Nicole Kidman’s 2008 film Australia as its starting point. At the beginning of this film there is an on screen warning that urges caution when watching the film as it may contain images or voices of deceased persons. The warning of course, is for the benefit of Aboriginal Australians, for whom it is a taboo to name or encounter representations of the dead.

The naming taboo is said to make people more aware of the person whose name is being avoided. As a form of remembering through non-remembrance, it is a psychological mirror image of more familiar UK traditions where creating and cherishing a representation of the deceased is considered necessary for healthy ‘normal’ mourning. Like so many others life events, mourning has been framed as a problem, pain as something to be cured.

The Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, is possibly best known for her ideas that mourners pass through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and eventually acceptance. The fact that Kübler-Ross was talking about adjusting to one’s own impending death, not to the death of someone else, seemed to pass most people by. Her so called theory doesn’t have an empirical evidence base.

In contrast, the psychologist George Bonanno has studied how people deal with grief. His research involved following people from before they were bereaved to months and in some cases, years afterwards. He was unable to evidence that there is some kind of movement or progression through specific stages of adjustment, and even the belief that most people are plunged into despair and gradually ‘get better’ appeared to be little more than a cliché.

This is not to say that sadness isn't a common response to loss. It is, however, only about 10% of people suffer what is sometimes called ‘complicated’ or ‘prolonged’ grief, where the feelings of loss are intense, long-lasting and cause significant impairment, potentially needing help from mental health professionals. However, the loss of a loved one is not the only ‘loss’ that people can experience deep sadness, and despair over. Loss might involve losing a job, a limb, or a reputation.

I don’t know what Jacintha Saldanha must have been feeling last week. Jacintha was the nurse who was found dead in her home on Friday. Her death followed her involvement in a hoax phone call made last Wednesday that involved two Australian radio presenters who were pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles. Jacintha was the person who accepted the call. During the call information was given on the condition of Kate Middleton who had been admitted with severe morning sickness. The radio station called it ‘the prank call the world is talking about’ before playing clips of news programmes reporting on the original call.

There was much support for all those involved and both the King Edward VII Hospital and the Royal Family were at pains to support the nursing staff involved. However, in contrast it was only after international condemnation following Jacintha’s death that the two presenters were suspended from the station. The Sydney based radio station, 2Day FM, is owned by Southern Cross Austereo.

In a somewhat bizarre coincidence, and although there is no actual connection, you might recall that Winterbourne House, whose vulnerable clients were the subject of much physical and emotional abuse by those who were there to care for them was owned by a company also called Southern Cross. We are still waiting for the Francis Report following the inquiry into the Winterbourne abuse. Let’s hope for Jacitha’s family sake that finding out what happened doesn’t take as long. They are in my thoughts and I am sure many others too.