Working with loss: Beyond re-membering by Jill Freedman

Welcome to this Friday Afternoon discussion with Jill Freedman. This afternoon we welcome you into Jill’s kitchen in Evanston, USA! After a quick introduction from Lily Freedman (thanks Lily!), Jill offers a wide range of suggestions about different narrative responses to loss.

We thought this was an appropriate follow-up to last month’s discussion about re-membering conversations. While Jill treasures re-membering conversations, in this presentation she offers a range of supplementary ideas about ways of using narrative practices with those who are grieving.

You might like to download Jill’s notes and refer to these as you are watching the video presentation.

Jill’s notes for this presentation:

Working with loss: Beyond re-membering by Jill Freedman

Published on January 24, 2013

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Jill Freedman

    Dear Audrey,
    I’m sorry I haven’t been to this cite since I recorded my Friday afternoon, so I didn’t see your message. It has me very curious about how your counseling practice has developed. And you have also reminded me of the relief that sometimes feel when a loved one dies. Thank you for these descriptions of your experience.

  2. Ukeye Marie-Josée

    Hi Jill,
    In Ibuka we worked with people who lost their loved ones, but as you talked about it, listening to them attentively and carefully helped them build themselves. It wasn’t easy though especially for young women who lost theirs and also were raped during the Genocide.
    Working with women who were raped and had children from rape, showed me that each one of them had her own way of living with what happened to her. Some wanted abortion and even tried but failed. Others after giving birth they didn’t want to breastfeed their babies. Some others wanted to abandon their kids but later would go back and take their children back. There are some who also didn’t want to get their kids vaccinated believing that the kids will get sick and die. For most of them, these children were a daily reminder of the terrible things that happened to them. Additionaly, these kids were a reason why they couldn’t get married. It is also important to recognize how hard it was for the children as well. They were stuck between love and hatred from their own mothers. However, after receiving help, these kids are now valuable to their parents and the very meaning of their mothers lives. And the kids have also come to understand their mothers and their behaviors towards them. Now, mothers act like true mothers to their children.
    Thank you for your presentation!

    1. Jill Freedman

      Dear Ukeye Marie-Josee,
      It is so beautiful how you describe the complexity of the situation these mothers deal with. And you recognize that each one had their own way. It makes me very happy to hear that now these children are valued and understand their mothers and that the mothers have been able to step into their roles as mothers!

  3. FrancisOsure

    Hi all,
    This is a very interesting topic because in a society, people experience different lossess and they respond to them differently. In my country Kenya, the post election violence in 2007 after the general election left the country so much divided. People have gone through counselling to overcome this but some are still exhibiting hunger since they loss the life of their loved ones and lifetime property investments.

    This will help me as a narrative therapist to help a number of people i know to overcome this.

    Francis Osure

    1. Jill Freedman

      Dear Francis,
      Thank you for bringing up how different experiences are in different cultures. One thing that I love about narrative therapy is its insistence that therapy has to fit with the culture. And we learn from the practices developed in different contexts.

  4. Ruth Thorne

    Hi Jill,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and well presented ideas on this broad topic.

    It’s a long time since we meet in Queensland at a workshop, and during a bush walk afterwards with Jane Hutton. Thanks for your advice since for my research, which is continuing apace.

    As I listened to your talk I found myself ranging widely in my thoughts from my own experiences of loss to the losses of my friends and clients, and to the current dramatic loss experiences of my family as they have recently moved overseas.

    What stood out for me was the vast range of emotions and experiences that come under the umbrella of responses to loss; each valid and needing expression and an audience, without judgment and presumption.

    As a counsellor and companion to those experiencing loss, this teaching has reinforced to me the important role of listening carefully for the specific worry, concern or “embarrassing” thoughts that need a safe place for expression.

    I thought the challenge for a less individual practice in Rwanda was interesting. I wonder how you have responded to the need for a more collective “re-membering” practice in Rwanda?

    On the humour note, I saw a poster recently “Don’t take life so seriously. It’s not like you’re going to get out alive!”

    More seriously I think the identity concerns around loss can be considerable for many, and I would be interested to hear more on this.

    Great to be in touch in this way, to “meet” Lily (Thanks for the intro Lily!), and to engage over such a profound topic that touches every one of us in some way.

    Ruth Thorne

    1. Dulwich Centre

      Dear Ruth,

      In relation to your question of how counsellors in Rwanda have created more collective forms of re-membering practice, I thought you might be interested in this extract from ‘Working with memory in the shadow of genocide: the narrative practices of Ibuka trauma counsellors’ (see:

      Please excuse the long post … but it is pretty interesting!

      David Denborough

      Personal memory / social memory

      On a number of occasions during workshops in Rwanda, Ibuka counsellors have spoken about the importance of ensuring that engagements with memory are not too intense, too personal, or too private. They have been describing what could be called an orientation to history that emphasises social memory as much as, if not more than, personal memory.

      During the first narrative training workshop in Rwanda6, a ‘re-membering’ conversation (White, 2007) was conducted with one of the Ibuka counsellors. Re-membering conversations honour how our identities are formed through the relationships we share with others and the mutual contributions implicit in these relationships. The process of ‘re-membering’ involves re-configuring the memberships of those who make up our identities. They can also involve inviting people to ‘say hullo again’ to loved-ones who have passed away, in addition to the more common metaphor of ‘saying goodbye’. When the Ibuka counsellor was interviewed, she was asked a series of questions about a lost loved one (her father), about the contributions he had made to her life and, in turn, the contributions she had made to his life.

      The counsellors of Ibuka showed considerable interest in this process and the ideas that inform it. The discussion afterwards was vitally interesting. While the Ibuka counsellors were clear that they were very interested in this concept of re-membering, they said it would require some adaptation for the Rwandan context. They asked, ‘Couldn’t there be a more collective way to do this? How could we do this without asking these very personal, private questions?’

      There are many different ways to understand this request. First, our colleagues have spoken to us about how Rwandan culture has historically been more a culture of ‘concealment’ than a culture of ‘confession’. We had heard on previous trips that, ‘It is a trait for many Rwandans not to talk openly about our problems’. This has implications for counselling. Second, Rwandan culture does not place the same focus or emphasis on relationships between individuals as do cultures in the West. In less individualistic cultures, a relationship between a daughter and father is always seen in context of a range of other relationships, so to focus questions only on this isolated relationship does not make sense. Third, while collective respect and honouring of ancestry is a central cultural practice, prior to the genocide Rwandans did not traditionally speak of individuals who had died. Perhaps those who had died were seen to have joined a collective of ancestry and were no longer related to as distinct individuals in quite the same way as the living. Of course, culture is always changing. Due to the effects of the genocide, Ibuka counsellors are now seeking new ways of sharing problems and addressing them. New ways of speaking about the dead are coming into being. This, however, involves complex cultural negotiations.

      As we consider ways of speaking about those who have died, apart from considerations of culture, there are also specific implications in relation to genocide. To ask someone to speak individually about a lost loved-one risks evoking the specific circumstances of their death. It risks an ‘intense’ engagement with memory.

      So how can Ibuka counsellors respond to survivors’ ‘problems of memory’ without risking these intense engagements with personal memory? How can the ‘problems of memory’ be addressed in ways that fit with Rwandan culture?

      In partnership with the counsellors of Ibuka, we are now exploring how multiple storylines of loss and legacy can be acknowledged through both personal and social memory. Some of the stories of the counsellors’ work that were included above involve personal forms of re-membering, while much of the work of Ibuka focuses more on social memory.

      What do we mean by ‘social memory’? The work of Ibuka counsellors demonstrates how memory does not only reside in the minds of individuals. Memory can be conceived of as both interior and exterior7. Exterior memory resides, or is performed, in memorial sites, in rituals, in conversations, in photographs, in documents, in relationships, and so on. It is therefore possible to understand memory as not only something that is experienced by an individual, but something that people do together.

      We can consider the work of Ibuka counsellors as involving ‘commemorative practices’ of memory (Jedlowski, 2001, p. 34). The conversations they engage in with survivors involve certain practices of memory. When survivors share their stories, in particular ways, and when counsellors in turn share aspects of their past, together, they are involved in the performance of shared or social memory.

      These commemorative practices occur in conversations with individuals, families, in groups, in villages, and in larger rituals during the 100 days of remembrance each year. In fact, Ibuka works with personal memory, social memory, and national memory.

      During our first visit to Rwanda, Ibuka speculated about how the narrative therapy concept of double-stories (White, 2003) and stories of ‘resistance’ could be relevant to the national project of remembering the genocide. Kaboyi Benoit expressed his concern that, during the 100 days of memory each year, sometimes the spirit of the nation would sink. How could this commemorative period take place in ways that would honour the dead and also enliven and strengthen the spirit of the nation? We spoke together about how ‘multi-storied remembrance’ could be relevant to this challenge.

      During the 100 days of memory that followed our first visit, the Ibuka counsellors encouraged other survivors to remember and honour those who had been lost, and also to remember positive memories of lost loved-ones, the legacies they have bequeathed, and stories of resistance and resilience. The counsellors also had conversations with survivors, including young people, about what sustains them through difficult times. In doing so, they heard about various survival skills and survival knowledge, many of which had not been spoken about before. Some counsellors also shared with other survivors the document ‘Living in the shadow of genocide: How we respond to hard times – Stories of sustenance from the workers of Ibuka’. The Ibuka workers reported that these were very positive developments and that these new aspects of their work decreased the rate of crises during the 100 days.

      On our most recent visit, we heard about multi-storied rituals which Ibuka counsellors are now facilitating during the commemorative period:

      During commemorative ceremonies, we bring survivors together. Last year, we held a ritual for survivors at a particular university. We asked everyone who was there to remember a lost loved-one, or their family members, and something they used to do that was significant to them. We were not just remembering the person, but something they treasured, something they valued. One person remembered his father and how he used to care for cattle. Another person remembered how his parents would sing. We then wrote down what everyone was saying. We made a collective list of who and what was being remembered. Then we all performed the memory in some way. For instance, we would sing a song to remember the parents who used to sing. This is a special sort of commemorative ceremony that we have developed. It was very meaningful to people.

      This is a double-storied ritual. It is a ritual that creates a ‘usable past’, a past that can be the basis of action in the present and future10. These are forms of remembrance that are linked to action. They are rituals and ceremonies that acknowledge how legacies from those who have died are now being carried through the present and into the future.

      Once survivors are considering and honouring legacies of those who have passed away, a further perspective is possible. Trauma counsellors are able to speculate about what the ancestors would say if they could witness the ways in which their legacies were being continued. The following exchange took place during the recent workshop:

      Facilitator: It sounds like many survivors are finding ways to carry on the values of their ancestors. What do you think the ancestors would say about this?

      Ibuka Counsellors: If they can hear, if they can see, then this will be something that our ancestors are proud of. As survivors, we are continuing where the ancestors left off. We are proud of them. And they would be proud of us. This is a two-way pride. It is mutual encouragement.

      In this way, the re-membering concept within narrative therapy has found a form that is relevant and resonant within a Rwandan context. This is an example of collective narrative practice (Denborough, 2008). These forms of practices do not require people to speak in an individual voice for themselves.

      They do not require intense, private, individual engagements with history. Instead, they involve the creation and performance of social memory in many different forms. These forms of social memory acknowledge both loss and legacy.

      1. Ruth Thorne

        Hi David, and other Friday afternooners,

        Sorry for the time delay in my reply to your intriguing post. Thank you so much for posting the extract – it was a full answer to my query in one specific culture, and as such, very helpful.

        I think social memory within families and communities is quite a significant concept to take account of in our culture also. I think of events like the massacre at Port Arthur and the community response and memory, or those in the communities affected by Black Saturday or the Brisbane flood survivors. In this case, we can take the notion of social memory and how it has been developed in a place like Rwanda, because personal memory is less significant, and in hindsight, and with a little change in perspective, see its significance here in Australian culture too. Fascinating!!

        Thanks for the posting.


    2. Jill Freedman

      Dear Ruth,
      I regret that I didn’t see any of this strand until now, 5 years later! I think David responded very fully. Maybe you and I can share the memory of the bush walk.

  5. Audrey de Witte

    Dear Jill and Forum members

    Firstly, thank you Jill for allowing me into your kitchen. I believe that kitchens are wonderful places to have great discussions. When I was a student working toward my Diploma I wrote a paper about ‘theology around the kitchen table’.

    Much of what you talked about resonated with me, and there is also much that you have given me to think about further. Your 3 points are very helpful and I think that I will find myself weaving them into my way of counselling.

    I particularly connected with the point about ‘transitioning well’. I find that here in Australia we don’t really ‘do dying’ well. Perhaps it has something to do with the medical profession who do everything to prolong life. Sometimes this is fantastic, at other times it only enhances the pain and suffering. I agree that death is often seen as a failure, rather than a fact of life. We should be more accepting of death and even plan for it better.

    I have been working with a fella for the last 3 months whose daughter suicided. During one session he became very upset because he didn’t know if his daughter was in heaven and he may never see her again. We talked about this and when I saw him next he was very eager to tell me about an early morning vision he had had where he saw God with his daughter and God saying to her, “my precious child, what have you done?” I asked him how this made him feel, he replied that it have given him peace and joy. It is right when you say Jill that listening to someone is very important and also that it is important to not try and impose one’s own interpretation onto things.

    I also resonated with what Janet had to say about feeling relief, even joy, when a loved one dies, especially when they have been in terrible pain. Over the years I have witnessed some terrible deaths and seen how it has effected those sitting around the person’s bed, and in the hospital room. It is like their souls are being almost destroyed. I also regularly conduct funeral services and often acknowledge the mixture of emotions that people are feeling, including relief and joy that the pain is over for the one who has died.

    I plan to develop my counselling practice more into the field of loss, grief, death, and dying well. I am a Chaplain/Counsellor with the local Hospice and have begun formulating some plans and ideas that I want to implement in the coming year. Your words and your work have helped me Jill, and hopefully I will continue to learn from the wisdom of many others, including those who are dying and grieving.


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