How do we communicate with the dead? How do we live with grief? How do we move forward with loss? How do we continue to have relationships with loved ones even after their death? Blake Paxton’s At Home with Grief: Continued Bonds with the Deceased explores these questions by providing an intimate, autoethnographic homage to his mother. Weaving his memories of his mother with others’ voices—his father’s, his grandmother’s, his aunts’, and his mother’s clients and close friends—Paxton calls us to remember his mother. Through the autoethnographic lens, he “investigates how continuing a bond with the deceased is a relational, communicative, and communal phenomenon.”1 In doing so, he asks us to reconsider our own relationship with death and loss.
Paxton’s strength lies in his storytelling. His narrative writing invites us into the life of his mother, Ann. At times, the stories are touching. It is in the small details that he shares with us—her high-pitched cackle, her swearing, and her love of snow—that allow us to feel her presence alive on the page. At other times, the stories are raw. We learn about the diagnosis of cancer with his mother’s words, “I have a tumor.”2 We vividly see the toll cancer has on the body, with his mother screaming in pain, “as if she’s being burned alive.”3 When Paxton, as a boy, finds his mother not breathing on the floor and his father frantically calling an ambulance, the image burns in the reader’s mind. Paxton’s writing is eloquent, vulnerable, and at times, visceral, offering readers vignettes that speak to the power of autoethnographic scholarship as a form of humanizing social scientific research that connects the personal with the cultural.
After more than ten years after his mother’s death, we journey with Paxton back to his hometown. Through the autoethnographic process that includes him recalling personal memories, engaging in self-reflexive practices, and interviewing others, we see Paxton try again and again to make meaning of his mother’s life and death. He speaks with Dr. Grayson, his mother’s neurosurgeon, in hopes of better understanding his mother’s rare medical condition. He interviews family and friends who recount stories of Ann. While skeptical, he even meets with Marguerite, a psychic, who allows him to recall details about his familial relationships and memories he had forgotten.
Paxton finds a way to connect to his past. As he states, “I don’t ask anyone to give me back my hometown. I reclaim it all on my own—one memory and one mile at a time.”4 We see that, sometimes, moving forward means going back home to face one’s fears, one’s memories, one’s hauntings. Autoethnography, then, provides a space for Paxton to not only explore his relationship with his mother, but also himself. It is through this process of remembering his mother that he confronts his sexuality. Returning home, he recalls his struggles with being gay in rural America. His fears of rejection from his family, his mother’s friends, and community resurface. But, the warmth he receives from his interviewees quells his doubts, for “as we re-member my mother, I re-member myself back into the community I left behind.”5 In fact, he is affirmed when he learns from Sarah, his mother’s friend, that his mother thought he was gay and said that when he “decided to come out, she’d fight for you.”6
At Home with Grief is more than just a story of a boy and the death of his mother. Extending the continuing bonds paradigm,7 Paxton asks us to reconsider how we think about grief, the process of grieving, and the sociocultural norms associated with bereavement. He argues that we can continue to have relationships with those who have died, that we can keep deceased family members alive through the stories we share with one another. In fact, storytelling becomes a form of remembering, a “re-membering ritual”8 in which we collectively, as families and communities, communicatively co-construct grief and retain continuous bonds with those we have lost. How do we make death (and life) meaningful?
For those interested in death, dying, and bereavement studies, At Home with Grief offers an intimate look at the ways we can grieve differently. Rather than a medical model of bereavement, Paxton takes up a communicative, transformative approach, one in which we can make those who have died present in our everyday lives. In many ways, his autoethnography becomes a way of resisting a “death-denying culture,”9 a medium for which to communicate about and with the dead. As Paxton writes, “Re-membering processes do not bring the dead back to life in a supernatural or spiritual sense, but, through storytelling and reflection, the dead regain membership in our lives—helping us understand others and ourselves better. What could be more divine?”10
Moreover, for autoethnographic scholars, Paxton provides an appendix on methodology, reflecting on the ethical challenges researchers face with interactive interviews and narrative representation. For example, he notes how crafting these stories and searching for narrative truth can affect the relationships he has with his family members. Even with informed consent, how does one cope with interviewees’ emotions? How will they respond to his narrative depictions of them? What stories will he include? And what are the emotional consequences for these shared stories? These are the delicate choices one must make when engaging in autoethnography.
Through autoethnographies like Paxton’s, researchers can break silences and voice painful, confusing, and uncertain experiences,11 providing us possibilities for re-envisioning how we talk about grief. In the end, Blake Paxton’s At Home with Grief is a son’s love letter to his mother, a way of honoring her life and the lives she touched. It is about the author’s journey and going back to the community he came from so that he can move forward. And it is an exploration of how we all can move through pain and learn how to let go of grief, while always holding on to the persons we love.
Blake Paxton, At Home with Grief: Continued Bonds with the Deceased (New York: Routledge, 2018), 8.
Paxton, At Home with Grief, 17.
Paxton, At Home with Grief, 21.
Paxton, At Home with Grief, 87.
Paxton, At Home with Grief, 81.
Paxton, At Home with Grief, 101.
Dennis Klass, Phyllis R. Silverman, and Steven L. Nickman, Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief (Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis, 1996).
Paxton, At Home with Grief, 79.
Paxton, At Home with Grief, 122.
Paxton, At Home with Grief, 143.
Stacy Holman Jones, Tony E. Adams, and Carolyn Ellis. “Coming to Know Autoethnography as More than a Method,” in Handbook of Autoethnography, edited by Stacy Holman Jones, Tony Adams, and Carolyn Ellis, 17–47. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2013.