Wednesday 10 April 2024

Experiences of Loss conference report

In this post, Kathleen reports from the 'Experiences of Loss' Conference which took place on the 26th and 27th October 2023, at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. The conference was organised and ran by Sabrina Coninx (VU Amsterdam). The selection of talks over two days all spoke to the theme of loss in different contexts, addressing self, illness, and memory. 

Day 1

Regina Fabry

Regina Fabry (Macquarie University): Sharing experiences of loss through self-narration: possibilities and limitations. (online)

Regina first clarified the concept of a self-narrative. Individuals might also draw on master narratives, which are widely shared in a socio-cultural community or society. These are value-laden, usually reflecting systems of power and oppression in play. Individuals might push back against these master narratives with alternative narratives, as a form of resistance. In cases of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), there is a sense of loss or absence which is very much felt by the individual. This is a loss of possibility of change, of interactions with one’s environment, and of interpersonal connection. This affects one’s capacities for crafting one’s own self-narrative, but the practice of writing a memoir of one’s experience can help regain these capacities. However, given that there are master narratives and literary genre expectations in play when writing a memoir, this sets limits on how these experiences can be shared in this form.

Eleanor Byrne

Eleanor Byrne (University of Birmingham): Narrative Deference

Eleanor talked about how distributed memory can affect one’s self-narratives. Group memory enables greater recall than individual memory, this might happen amongst married couples, for instance. Sometimes, an individual has no memory of an event at all, and in these cases, they might defer to another who can remember. This means that their self-narrative is also significantly deferred to another. This narrative deference demonstrates how intimate others not only can play this role for us, but this affects our experience of them. We experience them as people who have the possibility of ‘taking hold’ of our self-narratives when it comes to matters we cannot directly remember ourselves. One way of understanding this is to see these people as affective scaffolds. They are trusted over time to reliably make possible an understanding (through narrative) of phenomena which could be otherwise missed or overlooked. They can help make sense of quite difficult and unarticulated phenomena.


Lilith Lee (VU Amsterdam): Love and Friendship: Daoist Partnership and Zhuangzi’s two losses

Lilith talked about various possible losses in cases of death. One is the loss of a life partnership, and the second is the loss of intellectual partnership. In the Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi grieves the loss of his wife and Huizi, despite death being seen otherwise as simply one of the many transformations that take place in the world. There are couple of ways that scholars try to make sense of this, but Lilith emphasised the depth of loss of an intellectual partner or foil. Given the loss of a fundamentally discursive skill here which may be integral to one’s life and livelihood, one arguably loses a part of oneself as well. These friendships and partnerships themselves also help individuals make sense of loss.

Peter Stilwell

Peter Stilwell (McGill University): The Self and Suffering: From Theory to Pain Practice. (online)

Peter discussed the difference between pain and suffering, and explored a newer concept of ‘pain-related suffering’, and this draws on experiences of loss. One difference seems to be that people can coherently say that their pain doesn’t bother them too much, but cannot say that their suffering doesn’t bother them too much. From qualitative interviews on pain-related suffering, it was found that people experienced disruption to the minimal self insofar as they experienced alteration or loss of perceived agency and ownership over their actions and experiences, and disruption to the narrative self insofar as they experienced loss or threat to valued life roles, relationships and aspirations.

Leon DeBruin

Leon DeBruin (Radboud University): Neurodiversity and Identity Formation.

Leon discussed the possible sources of harm when it comes to mental health conditions, which are teased apart in Wakefield’s hybrid account of disorder. One source of harm is the dysfunction itself, within some underlying psychological, biological or developmental process. But another source of harm is still deviating from socio-cultural norms, and the reactions which come from that. Many struggle with self-illness ambiguity; distinguishing between oneself and between what is often referred to as one’s mental illness. There may be spectrum, wherein some identify fully with their illness, whereas others do not identify at all. Individuals may ask themselves whether their own desires, actions and emotions can be attributed to themselves or to their illness. But many proponents of neurodiversity see their mental illness as actually a manifestation of natural variation and integral to their selfhood.

Day 2

Gerrit Glas

Gerrit Glas (Amsterdam UMC): Experiences of Loss in Mental Illness

Gerrit discussed the many links and interrelations to pay attention to between the patient as a person, the patient with an illness, and the patient in a context, whether that be individual, institutional, or societal. Senses of loss could appear in any of these dimensions. In particular, individuals also have a fundamental I-Self relation - one’s ‘self-referential pole’ in relating to the world. This relation is not explicitly felt by people but it is not an illusion either, and senses of loss here are very deeply felt and sometimes referred to as ‘disorders of ipseity’.

Lucy Osler

Lucy Osler (Cardiff University): Losses and Loneliness in Anorexia Nervosa

In Lucy’s talk, she emphasised the experiences of social loss, particularly of recognition and understanding, which can underlie cases of anorexia nervosa. There can be a somewhat cyclical relationship between experiences of social loss and anorexia nervosa, where each can contribute to the continuation of the other. In particular, feelings of loneliness can bring individuals to enter and remain embedded in communities based around the condition, such as pro-anorexia forums online. Lucy described these place as ‘affectively sticky’, in that they are very difficult to leave even when they cannot offer any new information or insights. These communities can give a sense of control, connection, purpose, emotional regulation and so on, but they also provide affective scaffolding for the condition itself.


Lieke Schrijvers

Lieke Schrijvers (VU Amsterdam): ‘Loss’ and ‘Gain’ Amongst Women Becoming Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

Lieke discussed her PhD study which looked at women who converted to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam in the Netherlands. The traditional conception of these conversions are strongly characterised by associated ‘losses’– loss in autonomy, in freedom, and of the emancipation that the women would otherwise have. Lieke emphasised that the real picture of conversation is more complicated, and involves transformation of their identity, daily lives, emotions, agency, and social circumstances. These processes of transformation mean that convert women themselves were less likely to have a clear sense of ‘before’ and ‘after’ their conversion, with their sense-making of the process contributing to the process itself. All of this means that using a framework of losses and gains is inadequate.


Marta Carava

Marta Carava (Purdue University): Norm-Induced Forgetting

Marta suggested that there are some cases of forgetting which take place despite agents having the cognitive resources required to retrieve the information, and so cognitive explanations of this forgetting are not adequate. She suggests that norm-induced forgetting helps explain these cases instead. In these cases, forgetting is caused and underpinned by some relevant social norms. This captures that there are normative elements to the mechanism of forgetting, which we can see in cases such as the tendency for women’s contributions to conversations to be forgotten. Culturally shared biases about the social group, ‘women’, can be triggered by the content of the memory (i.e., what the woman said) when the agent tries to access it.