TEXT review

When the inconceivable occurs

review by Ruth Williams


Sandra Arnold
Sing No Sad Songs: Losing a Daughter to Cancer
Canterbury University Press, Christchurch, NZ 2011
ISBN 9781927145067
Pb 256pp NZD35


Sandra Arnold holds a ‘qualification’ that no other parent ever hopes to have to earn: in 2002, her daughter, Rebecca, died from a rare appendix cancer at twenty-three years of age. Sing No Sad Songs is a memoir that covers several years, beginning in 1995, the year Arnold and her family travelled to Brazil, and ending with Arnold reflecting on life without Rebecca, six years later.

When Rebecca was diagnosed, Arnold’s general practitioner, Peter Law, declared, ‘This should never have happened. This is the wrong age group. She should never have cancer in this age group’. Arnold replied, ‘But she did’ (86). It is through this prism that we are invited to share Arnold’s experience of the loss of her youngest child and the effect this has had on her life. In the foreword, Fiona Farrell states that she is ‘not a big fan of those disease-of-the-week TV specials’ that toss the word ‘grief’ around until it loses meaning, adding that she feels that this book reclaims the word (9). If you have a desire to gain some understanding of what it is to grieve the death of a loved one, immersing yourself in Sing No Sad Songs will provide you with an honest and intimate perspective on one of life’s greatest challenges.

Arnold’s reasons for publishing the book are commendable:

so that it would be accessible to others outside academia, as a way for other bereaved parents to recognise and give voice to their own stories, and for the non-bereaved to gain an understanding of what it feels like to be in the skin of a bereaved parent. (University of Canterbury 2011)

The book was originally written as the creative component of a Doctor of Philosophy in creative writing, so I decided to read the exegesis that accompanied it (Arnold 2011). I found myself very much drawn to the areas Arnold explored in the exegesis: ‘psychological and sociological theories of grief, how grief is dealt with in Western societies, the language of grief and how narrative can be used as a tool to help the bereaved’ (University of Canterbury 2011). It is a fascinating exploration of this often ignored and yet inevitable stage of our lives.

In the exegesis (Chapter 5, ‘Creative Non-fiction’) Arnold points out that she has consciously aimed to write a memoir that fits within the ‘creative non-fiction’ classification. She elaborates by citing Gutkind (2001):

… an important element of creative nonfiction is that through the personal voice, a universal viewpoint should be represented… In fiction, facts may be entirely made-up and snippets from the author’s memory may be embellished. In creative nonfiction, facts should not be falsified and the writer is not concealed behind a fictional character (Gutkind 2001)… The “creative” in creative nonfiction does not refer to the invention of facts, but to how those facts are presented. (Arnold 2011)

Sing No Sad Songs sits comfortably within this category, with Arnold’s incorporation of ‘creative nonfiction elements of scene-setting, dialogue, description, personal point of view and voice’ (Exegesis Chapter 2, ‘Theories of Grief’).

In the book’s introduction, Arnold is quick to point out that she is aware that ‘the experience of grief is different for each individual’ (12). She cites Arthur Frank, from The Wounded Storyteller (1995): ‘people tell stories … not to provide a map that can guide others – each must create his own – but rather to witness the experience of reconstructing one’s own map’ (17). This idea of bearing witness to the experience of a fellow human being appeals to me and is an important aspect of this memoir.

Arnold goes on to acknowledge that one of her concerns writing the memoir was to ensure that Rebecca would not be defined by her suffering and death. It is for this reason that Arnold decides to spend around forty pages of the book relating the story of a year spent in Brazil in 1995 with Rebecca and her husband, Chris. We join the family in Brazil in the first chapter. It wasn’t long before I found myself losing interest in the trip to Brazil. This section read like a travelogue and detracted from the focus of the memoir on the experience of ‘losing a daughter to cancer’, as expressed in the book’s subtitle. Considering the content of the book, it may sound heartless to respond in this way. I understand why Arnold wanted to include this section; in it we witness a Rebecca who is a ‘vibrant, multi-talented young woman’ (12). But I think that Arnold is underestimating her readers and her own writing. It seems to me that readers will pick up this sense of Rebecca very clearly elsewhere.

On reflection, I consider the most useful role this book can play is to fulfil Arnold’s desire to provide an example to other bereaved parents as a way for them to recognise and give voice to their stories. I’m not completely convinced that it will also ‘generate discussion in this country about our “death denying culture” and the way people react to the bereaved’, which is another of her objectives (University of Canterbury 2011). In Chapter 2 of the exegesis, ‘Theories of Grief’, Arnold refers to Prof Tony Walter’s rejection of ‘the idea of modern society being death-denying’. She goes on to say that he ‘points to influences that have encouraged a more open attitude towards discussing death.’ This is certainly my experience. I think the phrase ‘death-denying culture’ is about ready to be laid to rest.

Arnold’s intention of generating discussion about the way people react to the bereaved is elaborated upon when she says, ‘The non-bereaved sometimes have difficulty in empathising with bereaved parents. In Western societies language often fails when talking to the bereaved and euphemisms, platitudes and clichés are used to express condolence because many people do not know what to say’ (University of Canterbury 2011). My concern is that these observations come across as criticisms of ‘the non-bereaved’. My sense is that this kind of response to the non-bereaved will only make them feel worse, and less likely to want to be around a newly bereaved person in case they say the wrong thing, or for fear of not wanting to upset a friend or family member. In a perfect world, we would all know exactly what to say or do, or what not to say or do. While it may seem unfair to expect more of the recently bereaved, it seems to me that they are, albeit most likely unwillingly, placed in the role of educators for those of us who have not experienced such a devastating event in their lives. At least this is the opportunity.

I admire Arnold’s willingness to share all aspects of her experiences, including the seeking out of alternative therapies in the hope of finding a cure or at least a way of extending her daughter’s life. This is not the kind of information many would be eager to reveal, especially as it is an area about which many people hold strong views. To me, it was really just another example of her love for her daughter, the fact that she would try anything that could possibly turn around this terrible experience. Another time she exhibits such a willingness is where she writes of having felt comforted by information she received from two ‘channels’: the first Blair, who channeled Tabaash, whom she met at a seminar on death and dying, and the second Yasmeen, a resident of Christchurch who channelled an entity called Raman. I admire Arnold’s decision to include this aspect of her journey, especially the way in which she acknowledges how beneficial these interactions were.

Reviewing a book that is of such a personal nature is not an easy task. One is tempted to only say ‘nice things’ because the author has already been through so much. My sense is that to do this would be following the same behaviour that Arnold found upsetting in the days and weeks after Rebecca’s death: that such a profound experience and the response to that experience deserve more than mere platitudes. Just as Arnold declares that the experience of grief is different for each individual, I assert that the experience of reading such a memoir is different for each individual, and for that reason, I recommend that if you have had a similar experience, or wish to understand what it might be like, Sing No Sad Songs is a very good place to start.


Works cited

Arnold, S 2011 Sing No Sad Songs: Exegesis: Grieving the Death of a Young Adult Child from Cancer’, http://www.cup.canterbury.ac.nz/releases/2011/110609a.shtml (accessed 6 April 2012) return to text

Gutkind, L 2001, ‘Becoming the Godfather of Creative Nonfiction’, in C Forche & P Gerard (eds) Writing Creative Nonfiction. Cincinnati: Story Press: 170-80 return to text

University of Canterbury 2011 Memoir Aims to Encourage Discussion about Dying and Bereavement [press release] 9 June 2011 http://www.comsdev.canterbury.ac.nz/rss/news/index.php?feed=news&articleId=140 (accessed 6 April 2012) return to text



Ruth Williams has a BEd (Creative Arts) and an Advanced Diploma in Screenwriting. Six years ago, her husband was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow. She is currently writing a book with her husband about the experience of living with a cancer that is currently deemed incurable. The book is called ‘Personal Chemistry’.


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Vol 16 No 1 April 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Enza Gandolfo