Throughout The 7 Stages of Grieving, the Woman tells stories of how the various members of her family have been affected by trauma. This trauma has its roots in Australia’s colonial history and the ongoing subjugation of its indigenous peoples. The Woman’s stories highlight cyclical issues of poverty, isolation, violence, and shame that affect generation after generation of her family, and she explores how collective memory—while a source of joy and resilience—can also be a burden, since remembering her family’s history involves grappling with extreme suffering. Overall, the play shows that one legacy of colonialism is inherited trauma: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families pass down their experiences of suffering, which can magnify the trauma of the present, creating a vicious cycle of pain.
Throughout the play, Enoch and Mailman explore the complexity of family memories. This first occurs when the Woman tells the story of her grandmother’s passing. The Woman, her family, and their community are devastated by this loss, in part because they’ll miss Nana and in part because they mourn the memories of their community’s history that have been lost with her. They value these memories because they help keep traditions alive and anchor their identities in the stories of generations past, but such memories are undeniably also painful and difficult to carry because of the profound suffering they entail.
This duality between the joy and pain of memory is clearest in the symbol of the family’s suitcase, which holds photographs of all of the members of their family who have either died or become estranged. On the one hand, putting mementoes of the dead safely in the suitcase helps preserve their memories and importance—but, on the other hand, the suitcase has become so physically heavy with the memories of the dead that it becomes difficult to carry. Family memory, then, becomes both a burden and a source of joy: a way of keeping a connection with ancestors, but also a mandate to carry memories of suffering that are often too heavy to bear. In the end, after packing and unpacking this suitcase several times—symbolizing the Woman’s difficult choice about whether to try to escape bad memories or preserve her connection to her heritage—the Woman chooses to free her family members’ memories from the suitcase in which they’ve been kept for so long, attempting to free herself from the family’s devastating history of trauma, poverty, and violence. While this is perhaps hopeful, it’s a horrific choice that itself demonstrates the violence of colonialism: colonizers have inflicted so much suffering on generations of the Woman’s family that she evidently believes that remaining connected to her heritage requires too much suffering to be worthwhile.
While the symbol of the suitcase embodies the traumas of the family’s past, their current suffering reflects the trauma of their present. The Woman uses stories about her father, her brother, and her Aunty Grace to demonstrate how her family, unable or unwilling to cope with their grief, tries (and fails) to outrun cycles of pain and loss. First, the Woman describes her fears about her father’s death. Though he’s only forty-five, the Woman implies that his health is so poor that he will soon die. This illuminates how a life of poverty and suffering takes a physical toll and robs indigenous peoples of years of their lives. Next, the Woman tells the story of her Aunty Grace—a woman who married a white Englishman and moved to London. Aunty Grace’s family believes that she betrayed them by leaving and assimilating into the colonial society responsible for so much of their people’s suffering. Aunty Grace, meanwhile, seeks to remove herself from her family and her home country in order to escape the cycles of grief and suffering in which she was raised, suggesting that perhaps she tragically saw no other escape from trauma than to physical leave her family behind. Finally, the Woman tells the story of her brother, a young man who’s recently gotten in minor trouble with the law. For some people, a court summons and a small fine would not derail her life, but for her brother, this leads to a cycle of fear, shame, financial hardship, and substance abuse that he seems unable to escape. He perhaps feels that trauma and pain are inescapable, and so he decides to submit to his difficult circumstances rather than try to escape.
By the end of the play, the Woman has no answers to the problem of the generational trauma that the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people of Australia experience—all she knows is that somehow these cycles must be broken. Otherwise, as Enoch and Mailman show, grief for the loss of land, of family, and of tradition has the power to overwhelm a life, trapping present and future generations in the same patterns of sorrow and struggle.
Memory and Family Trauma ThemeTracker
Memory and Family Trauma Quotes in The 7 Stages of Grieving
A large block of ice is suspended by seven strong ropes. It is melting, dripping on to a freshly turned grave of red earth. The performance area is covered in a thin layer of black powder framed by a scrape of white.
The Woman lights up a wad of eucalypt leaves and watches them burn. She blows out the flame and as the embers smoke she sings a song for the spirits of those that have gone before her and asks permission to tell the story of her grief.
I miss my grandmother. She took so many stories with her to the grave. Stories of her life, our traditions, our heritage from her now gone. I resent that.
But this suitcase, which resides under the old stereo tightly fastened, lies flat on the floor comfortably out of reach. Safe from inquisitive hands or an accidental glance. In the suitcase lies the photos of those who are dead, the nameless ones. With an unspoken gesture we remove the photo of my nana from her commanding position on the wall and quietly slip her beneath the walnut finish. And without a sound push her into the shadow.
The Woman walks over to the grave and embraces the block of ice. Springing away, she turns to the audience and clutches her breast.
THE WOMAN: Oh my sousou.
The Woman sits on the edge of the grave.
I’m trying to deal with Dad’s death. He hasn’t died yet, but the time is coming soon when he’ll be taken away.
I never saw her cry the whole time she was with us.
Dad said she was stuck-up and wasn’t really family. She married this Englishman after World War II. There was a photo of her on a ship waving with this white fella, his arm around her. For some reason she didn’t stay, which in my family is strange.
I drive Aunty Grace out to the cemetery on our way to the airport. She doesn't have much luggage, there is plenty of room but no one from the family comes to see her off. I wait in the car while she goes out to the freshly turned soil of Nana’s grave. She is there for such a long time, I think we are going to be late. Finally she returns to the car, opens the back door and removes a suitcase. She opens it and proceeds to throw the contents all over the ground, everything. […] Crying, at last, crying.
The Woman gathers up the smaller piles and relocates them on the white fringing that defines the black performing area.
Now imagine when the children are taken away from this. Are you with me?
The Woman flays her arm through the remaining large pile and circle, destroying it.
This is how it starts. This is how it starts, the cycle. The cycle. […]
You see. . .
No matter how clean our clothes are,
No matter how tidy we keep our house,
Or how well we speak the language,
How promptly we pay our bills,
How hard we work,
How often we pray,
No matter how much we smile and nod,
We are black, and we are here, and that will never change.
The Woman paints herself as if preparing for war. Though her movements are restricted her voice assails the audience with a sense of all-encompassing sorrow. She takes the suitcase, opens it, throwing the red earth and family photos it contains all over the floor. The Woman grieves over the photographs.
You know there has always been this grieving,
Grieving for our land, our families.
Our cultures that have been denied us.
But we have been taught to cry quietly
Where only our eyes betray us with tears.
But now, we can no longer wait,
I am scared my heart is hardening.
I fear I can no longer grieve
I am so full and know my capacity for grief