Stoic perspectives on death and bereavement

New Year’s Eve 2020 was the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death. I have finally destroyed her personal papers (see my earlier post) but the memories, both happy and sad, remain. Many other relatives and friends of my husband and myself have also died in recent years, and we are getting old ourselves. I had a lot of professional exposure to death and bereavement during my medical career, but the personal experience is very different. I’ve been exploring what the ancient Stoic philosophers had to say about this subject, hoping it may prove helpful for coping in future. The Stoics believed in facing up to death as a natural process which is nothing to be afraid of.

A central tenet of Stoicism is that only our own judgments and voluntary actions are “up to us”. Other aspects of life are not, and although some of these “externals” are to be preferred over others, they are best regarded with indifference. Death, an external that is inevitable for all living things, is only bad if we consider it to be so and sometimes may be welcome.

Epictetus: Death is a release from and an end of all pains: beyond it our sufferings cannot extend: it restores us to the peaceful rest in which we lay before we were born.

The Stoics believed that the timing and manner of death, random and cruel as it may seem, is determined by fate and not up to us. This is less true now that advances in medical science have enabled more control over health and longevity than was available to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but much unpredictability remains. We and those close to us are all going to die one day – maybe tomorrow. Frequent contemplation of this prospect (the Stoic practice of memento mori), is not intended to promote morbid obsession, but to emphasise the importance of making the most of the “festival of life” every day, not wasting time, and appreciating our loved ones while they are still here.

When a loved one dies there will inevitably be distressing reactions such as shock, grief and anger. While negative emotions in the short term are natural, the Stoics advised aiming to move on as soon as possible towards a calm acceptance of the person’s death; continuing to remember them often, but with love and appreciation rather than with sorrow.

Seneca: Thinking of departed friends is to me something sweet and mellow. For when I had them with me it was with the feeling that I was going to lose them, and now that I have lost them I keep the feeling that I have them with me still.

This approach will appeal to some people, while striking others as unrealistic or heartless. It is rather different from today’s prevailing view of mourning as a gradual process of working through the “stages of grief” over many months, perhaps with the aid of bereavement counselling. Everyone is different, and the best way of coping depends on individual personality and circumstances. One idea I have found helpful myself is to think of the deceased as having been “reclaimed by nature”, as all living things will be one day, rather than “lost”.

Epictetus: Is your child dead? It has been given back. Is your wife dead? She has been returned.

What about the soul or spirit, and the question of an afterlife? As I understand it the Stoics believed that death is probably followed by the same oblivion that existed before birth, and that individual immortality is unlikely.

Marcus Aurelius: Just as on earth, with the passage of time, decaying and transmogrified corpses make way for the newly dead, so souls released into the heavens, after a season of flight, begin to break up, burn, and be absorbed back into the womb of reason, leaving room for souls just beginning to fly. This is the answer for those who believe that souls survive death.

What I’ve been reading (July – December 2020)

Continuing my bi-annual list of book recommendations, here’s a selection from my reading list of recent months.

Literary fiction: I presume it’s just coincidence that the two novels I’ve enjoyed the most are both about inhibited older Englishmen with links to former British colonies. Old Filth by Jane Gardam, in which an old judge takes stock of his complex past life, is a masterpiece. The Mission House by Carys Davies, a much shorter book, is an elegantly written story about a depressed librarian’s sojourn in the hills of India.

Stoic philosophy: Though I have yet to tackle any of the ancient texts, a recent interest in this topic has led me to read several modern ones. Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars gives an excellent short introduction. I have also enjoyed books by Donald Robertson, William Irvine and Massimo Pigliucci. Next year I intend to work through The Daily Stoic Book by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.

Psychological thrillers: I read a lot of novels in this genre, and here are three of the ones I’ve enjoyed most. I was interested in Stone Mothers by Erin Kelly because it is set in an old county mental asylum similar to those where I worked many years ago. Here to Stay by Mark Edwards is a gripping account of an in-laws’ visit which goes from bad to worse. Who Did You Tell by Lesley Kara is about a young woman in a seaside town struggling to maintain sobriety and come to terms with an event from her past.

Biography and memoir: A Bit of a Stretch, the diary kept by Chris Atkins during his spell in a London prison, describes the appalling conditions in a darkly humorous style. Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman, the book on which a recent Netflix hit was based, is about her repressed upbringing in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in New York. On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, set on the Lincolnshire coast, describes a different kind of unhappy childhood in gentle prose.

From my large pile of other books waiting to be read over the Christmas and New Year holidays, I’ve just started reading How to Walk a Dog by Mike White; a collection of entertaining though sometimes poignant true stories about the human-canine bond.

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Jennifer Barraclough, originally from England and now living in New Zealand, is a retired doctor and a writer of medical and fiction books. A list can be found on her author pages: https://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (US) and https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (UK).

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Wellbeing for Writers” revisited

Five years ago I wrote a short ebook called Wellbeing for Writers, based on my experience of having writers as clients in my life coaching and Bach flower practice, and on the rewards and challenges of my own writing career. It contains practical tips about technical and commercial aspects for those new to the field, but is mainly focused on psychological ones that may also be relevant for experienced authors. Why do you write, and is it primarily for yourself or for your readers? How to protect time for writing when working from home with family responsibilities? How to respond to rejection and criticism? How to overcome a phobia of marketing? How to avoid the physical and mental health problems that particularly affect writers? What personal qualities and values are relevant to fulfilment and success?

Wellbeing for Writers had sales and positive reviews to begin with, but then lapsed into obscurity like so many of the other books on Amazon (according to one unofficial estimate, there are over 48 million of them now). I had more or less forgotten about it myself until an email inquiry prompted me to read it again and make a few updates.

Revising an older book can be a rather tedious task and is often neglected, though with non-fiction topics for which new knowledge and information frequently become available, it really ought to be done every few years. The content of Wellbeing for Writers required little change apart from a few corrections. Some of the website links had become invalid and, to my embarrassment, I found that Virginia Woolf’s name had been wrongly spelled in the original version.

Wellbeing for Writers by Jennifer Barraclough, ASIN B00YWEK97Y, is available from your local Amazon store in Kindle format (if you don’t have a Kindle you can read it with the Kindle App on another device).

Stoicism for writers and healers

I’ve been reading some basic books about Stoic philosophy, which originated in Ancient Greece and Rome, and describes a path to a good and happy life lived in harmony with others and with nature. It has much in common with other systems and many of the ideas were already familiar to me from Buddhism, Christianity and modern psychological therapies, but it is refreshing to have them presented in clear practical terms. Here are a few thoughts from a novice student of Stoicism.

One of the principles stated by Epictetus (50-135 AD) resonates strongly with me. He wrote that “some things are up to us and some things are not up to us”, so it follows that we are well advised to focus only on what is within our control – which includes very little except our own judgements and behaviours. This may sound simple and obvious (and the “serenity prayer” of St Francis, which I have heard so many times, says something similar) and yet I am certainly not alone in having wasted much futile effort and distress over things which I have no power to change. Applying this principle would avoid many of the hassles of daily life, such as frustration in a traffic jam or irritation with an untidy workmate. It is also relevant to both the two fields – writing and medicine – in which I have spent my career.

As a writer it is up to me to make my books “the best they can be”, to choose whether to submit them to traditional publishers or to publish independently, and decide how much time and money to spend on marketing. But whether people want to buy my books, and whether readers like them, is not up to me. So there is no point in getting upset over rejection letters, lack of sales or negative reviews – in theory. In practice, overcoming the desire for external validation and becoming more tolerant of criticism requires mental discipline and training.

Turning to the medical field, again there is a dichotomy between what is “up to us” and what is not in relation to physical health. We can make choices about many aspects of our lifestyle and behaviour, such as diet and exercise, in the hope of preventing or recovering from disease. But there is no guarantee that our efforts will be successful, and nor can we change some of the other factors such as our genetic susceptibilities, exposure to pathogens in the environment, the inevitable deterioration of our bodies as they age. The dichotomy between what we can or cannot control is not always acknowledged. Some put all their faith in external treatments with drugs and surgery, and ignore what patients can do to help themselves. Others advocate total personal responsibility for health, and risk making patients feel guilty for being ill. Both extremes are potentially dangerous.

There is of course much more to Stoic philosophy than this and, having enrolled in the annual online event Stoic Week which is about to start, perhaps I will write more blog post(s) on this subject.

Why I still admire Agatha Christie

I loved Agatha Christie’s books when I was a teenager. I read most if not all of her 66 crime novels featuring the detective skills of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, and occasionally other characters such as Ariadne Oliver or Tommy and Tuppence. Many years later I still have a few dogeared paperback versions, passed down from my mother’s estate, and look at them occasionally.

Agatha Christie’s writing career spanned more than 50 years, from 1920 to 1974. The majority of her books are set between the two world wars, a period that has been called the Golden Age of detective fiction. They seem old-fashioned today, yet I still find them appealing, and am obviously not alone in this. Her novels are still widely read, and new dramatisations and pastiches of her work and biographies of her life continue to be produced.

What is the secret of their enduring popularity? For me, there are several reasons:

The plots, mostly following a classic “whodunnit” formula, are extremely ingenious. Although there are clues scattered throughout the books, the solutions cannot easily be guessed before the end. It is said that the author herself often did not know the identity of the murderer until she had written the first draft, which seems amazing if it is true.

The books provide an authentic picture of an England that no longer exists – a time when life was simpler and more slowly paced, comfortable middle class families in quaint villages or country houses were supported by domestic servants who knew their place, and male and female roles were clearly defined. Whether you feel some sense of nostalgia for those days, or are thankful they are gone, it is interesting to read about a relatively recent period of English history so different from today.

Agatha Christie’s style is highly readable. She had a remarkable gift for writing with a light and sometimes humorous touch, but without trivialising the serious subject of murder. Her characters, if somewhat stereotyped, are mostly sympathetic. There is no graphic sex or violence or sex in her books, and they are often categorised today as belonging to the “cozy crime” genre – a term which seems to me to devalue them. They are quite short, I think around 60,000 words. Many modern crime novels are twice that length, but personally I find the more concise format more satisfying.

As you can see from its cover image, there are references to Agatha Christie’s work in my own recent novel You Yet Shall Die. Set in rural England between the 1950s and early 2000s, it is a story of family secrets and discovery of a long-ago crime. If you haven’t had a chance yet, please have a look on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

Author profile pictures

During the interval between lockdowns I decided to have some professional portrait photos taken, for use on my website and elsewhere. I was quite nervous before my session at headshotstudio.co.nz in central Auckland, but the afternoon with photographer Richard and makeup artist Ruth turned out a very enjoyable experience. 

I had previously been using some amateur photos on my social media. The snaps of me holding cats or kittens were nice but maybe too informal. I rather liked another which showed me drinking wine at a cafe but perhaps this gave the wrong impression.

Like book covers, which I wrote about in my last post, author photos are a marketing tool which should ideally convey an impression appropriate for their genre. A crime writer might want to look slightly sinister or mysterious, a romance writer attractive and glamorous, a writer of medical books serious and academic. When I read a book I always hope to see a photo in the About the Author section at the back, though sometimes there isn’t one.

As I have written in several different genres myself, I aimed for nothing more specific than having a nice picture taken before the ravages of time affect my appearance any more than they have already. Here are the two of the best ones from my recent shoot.

Changing covers

As a self-published author I really enjoy choosing the covers for my books, but have learned that it’s not just about finding a pretty picture. The cover image is very important for marketing purposes, so it can be worth employing a professional designer rather than relying on stock photos. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” may be good advice in theory but, in practice, our first impressions about both objects and people are usually based on their appearance. A split-second glance at the cover often determines whether or not a potential reader will look inside.

What makes a good cover for a novel? Ideally the image, in combination with the title, will “capture the essence of the book” so as to appeal to its target audience – a tall order. Experts advise that the image should be relevant to the genre, but distinctive enough to stand out from other titles in the field. It should convey something about the story in a way that excites readers’ curiosity. The design is best kept fairly simple, with a single focal point to draw the eye, and needs to look good in thumbnail view. Personally I think the colour scheme is also very important.

A highly skilled artist may be able to ignore these rules, and create a cover image which looks so stunning that it attracts potential readers even if it bears no obvious relation to what the book is about.

Revamping a book’s cover from time to time can stimulate sales by attracting a fresh group of readers, and I recently changed the image for my novel You Yet Shall Die. The original version showed a photo of the North Kent marshes, where much of the story is set. I really liked the appearance of that one, but it gave little indication of the genre or content. The new version, featuring an old-fashioned dressing table strewn with books, is more relevant to the plot and more likely to appeal to the mature women who are the main target audience – hopefully without putting off all the men, considering that several of my male friends have enjoyed it.

Original cover on the left, new one on the right.

You Yet Shall Die is a gentle mystery novel set in Kent and Sussex. Who is the woman who claims to be Dr Harper’s “love child”? What was the true cause of his wife’s early death? As Hilda Harper researches her parents’ early lives in postwar Oxford and Swinging London’s nightclub scene, she discovers some shocking secrets but also finds new hope for her own future. You Yet Shall Die is available in paperback or ebook format from Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk and other Amazon marketplaces.

What I’ve been reading (January – June 2020)

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

A positive aspect of my lockdown experience was having more time to read, which enabled me to finish a very long book – The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. This is the final volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy set in England during the reign of Henry VIII, the first two books in the series being Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. Although I would have enjoyed it even more if it had not been quite so detailed, the trilogy – a product of extensive historical research and vivid imagination – is a monumental achievement.

Another “faction” book (that is, a book based on a historical figure or events interwoven with fictitious elements) is The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester. The surgeon in question, WC Minor, murdered a man under the influence of paranoid delusions and was committed to Broadmoor Hospital in 1872. During the long years of his confinement there he devoted himself to researching the origin of words, contributing over 12,000 quotations to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. This book was recently made into a film called The Professor and the Madman.

Having spent my professional life in general hospital psychiatry I am interested in popular books based on real-life case histories. Writers in this genre face a challenge; they must alter the details enough to preserve patients’ confidentiality, but not so much as to sacrifice medical accuracy. Three such books I have read this year are Love’s Executioner by Irvin Yalom, an American psychotherapist; Into the Abyss by Anthony David, a British neuropsychiatrist; and The Prison Doctor by Amanda Brown, a British GP.

I enjoyed autobiographies by two very different women. Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner is an engaging description of the life of a socialite who was born and married into the British aristocracy and had close connections to royalty, especially Princess Margaret. Her family’s privileged and hedonistic lifestyle was no protection against a series of tragedies, and after reading this book I felt glad that my own social background was more ordinary. Becoming by Michelle Obama is a longer book written in a more serious style. Born into a modest, hardworking black family in Chicago, she qualified as a lawyer and could have pursued a high-flying corporate career, but elected to focus instead on community and social issues, and as the wife of Barack Obama spent the years 2009-17 as First Lady of the United States.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel You Yet Shall Die is a mystery about family secrets and a long-ago crime. 

Older books: renounce or revive?

Today I donated the last box of my book Focus on Healing to the church fair. It was published just before print-on-demand paperbacks and ebooks became widespread, and although it was well received by readers, more copies were printed than were sold. I didn’t want to be like the author I once heard about whose garage was full of his own books when he died, and whose heirs gave the books away at his funeral.

Just as new cars start losing value as soon as they are sold, books on medical and healthcare topics start going out of date as soon as they are published. The content of Focus on Healing is still valid, and the ebook version is still available, but there is new information that could be added if I wrote a second edition. I’m not intending to do that, because I no longer work in the healthcare field.

Novels do not go out of date in the same way, although most sales usually occur in the first few months after publication. My own latest You Yet Shall Die is certainly selling better than my earlier ones, the Dr Peabody series which provide a somewhat cynical picture of medical practice in the 1980s, and the Three Novellas which are mystery/romances set between England and New Zealand. Some readers dislike older novels simply because their content seems out of fashion, or because they convey racist or sexist views, intolerance of minority groups, or other attitudes that would be indefensible today. Other readers accept these things as representative of the time the novels were written, and find that the historical aspect adds to the interest of the story.

A few older books become classics. Most of them fade into obscurity unless, rather sadly I think, they only become popular after being mentioned in the author’s obituary.

For details on the books mentioned here, please visit my Amazon author page.

Expat blues

Even though I’ve been very happy living in New Zealand for the past twenty years, I expect England will always feel like home. I’ve been fortunate to be able to return for a short visit every summer – until now. I had booked to fly to London next week but my trip has been cancelled due to Covid-related restrictions.

Earlier visits involved a joyful, if exhausting, whirlwind of activity – travelling round the British Isles by train and plane, staying a night or two in several different places, often having lunch, tea and dinner engagements with different people on the same day. The itinerary has gradually become less demanding, as I realise I can’t see everyone every time, so recently I’ve just stayed in London and done day trips. I always try to see my closest friends and relatives, and visit some favourite places – Oxford, Malvern, the countryside of Kent and Sussex – which hold special memories or are featured in my novels. I also like to visit one or two tourist attractions such as Blenheim Palace or the Tower of London. And I always buy something from Marks and Spencer.

The change to a less hectic pace is partly my own choice, as I don’t have so much energy as I used to, but partly because my circle of friends – mostly in their 70s and 80s – is shrinking. Six of those I knew and loved have died in recent years. I was able to visit all of them in the last months of their lives, but because of being back in New Zealand was unable to attend any of their funerals. Several of my surviving friends are unwell at present, and one of the hardest things about being unable to travel this year is not knowing when and if I will see them again.

Apart from that, I don’t mind staying home. I have my memories and photos of England, and the internet has made it easy to keep in contact with people at the other side of the world, even if not all of them can accesss Zoom. I’m glad not to be parted from Brian, the cats and the dog. And Auckland is a lovely place to be, even in winter, with the weather reasonably warm and many flowers in bloom.

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Jennifer Barraclough’s latest novel You Yet Shall Die, set in Kent and Sussex, is available from Amazon.