Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

Grieving Together: The Value of Public Ritual for Family Members of Executed Persons

Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

Grieving Together: The Value of Public Ritual for Family Members of Executed Persons

Article excerpt

Editor's note

Here in Australia, many people are talking about the looming executions of two Australians, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, in Indonesia. It seems a highly appropriate time to be considering the experiences of family members of executed persons. In this context, we particularly appreciate the following paper on this topic by Susannah Sheffer from Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. It has been written in a US context which is quite different than the context of current conversations in Australia. Firstly, executions in the USA are far more widely accepted than here in Australia and more than 30 executions take place there each year (see http://deathpenaltyinfo.org). Secondly, Susannah, is writing about executions undertaken in response to murder (in contrast to the executions for drug smuggling that are currently the focus of attention here in Australia). And thirdly, the overwhelming media focus on the plight of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran is including, to some degree, an acknowledgement of their families' suffering, whereas in the situations Susannah is describing, this rarely occurs. Despite these differences of context, we hope this article will spark conversation in our field about responses to families ofthose who are executed.

Dulwich Centre has a long history of publishing articles and books questioning and challenging the existence of prisons, and the real effects of the criminal 'justice' system on marginalised communities. We are profoundly opposed to the death penalty and relieved that Australian families do not usually have to fear or endure the experience of their loved ones being executed. We are deeply saddened for the families of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

An execution is a death that no-one is expected to mourn. An inventory of criminal justice protocols or even best practices in bereavement counselling would suggest that executed persons have no families;; their needs are that unrecognised and unimagined. A newspaper editorial said of such families, 'We hardly give them a second thought - if we notice them at all (The families left behind, 2005).' If families of the executed do seek notice by trying to articulate or demonstrate their grief, they are often met with a response that disavows their emotional experience. Speaking almost three years after her father's execution, Brandie told an interviewer:

His execution is something I have to deal with emotionally by myself. There's nobody out there who wants to help me and talk to me about what happened. People don't have any sympathy or empathy for me. They say, 'It doesn't matter - he got what he deserved'. They don't think about the people who have to live afterwards. If you try to tell somebody about your story, people say, 'I don't even understand why you feel bad'. (Gardner, 2013, p. 4)

As Brandie's comment begins to suggest, families of the executed are isolated in at least two ways: in their emotional experience and in their social experience of bereavement. They suspect and too often discover that other people do not understand, sympathise with, or confirm their grief and the other feelings that accompany their family member's death sentence and execution. Meanwhile, they receive no public acknowledgement of their loss, no community witnessing of their attempts to mourn and to remember.

In the following pages I describe a small but significant effort to create an opportunity for a communal experience and a publicly witnessed grieving ritual for families of the executed. In addition to highlighting the suffering of family members of executed persons, the story of this ceremony and its impact may suggest a model for using ritual to address trauma, particularly trauma that has not been widely acknowledged.

The need for pu blic acknowledgement

One could argue that most individual deaths go by without public notice or ceremony, and that lack of public acknowledgement for families of the executed is therefore not unusual. …

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