Saturday 8 July 2017

Bereavement and Belonging(s), Losses and Legacies | PART THREE

Bereavement and Belonging(s), Losses and Legacies: personal, academic and political reflections on the relationship between loss and stuff (PART THREE)

In recent years I have found particularly comforting the cards and gifts I have received both immediately following bereavement and later on. After both John’s and my mum’s deaths I received scores of cards, flowers and other small gifts in sympathy for me and in remembrance of them. In both situations friends, acquaintances, and in John’s case, a few folk he had taught or worked with that I had never met, wrote about events of which I have no memory or no knowledge. This evidence of their impact on the lives of others is very important to me. In addition to the presents bought for me by John and my mum I now also have gifts from close friends with my loved ones in mind: 

A  present from my friend Deb,
with an image of mum. I wear it often.
Old postcards of Coverack:
a special place for mum, dad and I. A gift
from my friend Nessa. 

It is very possible of course to grieve for ‘distant others’; people we have never met (16). This is clear from the outpouring of love for the survivors and deceased following the Grenfell Tower tragedy. 

The Grenfell Tower tribute wall
Alongside the ‘traditional’ messages of condolence and the emotional, practical, financial and political (from some) support there are many examples of creative solidarity and agency. Here is just one example from rapper Potent Whisper (aka Georgie Stephanou)

For many, including me, the continuation of rituals following the death of loved ones is both solacing and a way of reaffirming positive memories.  As I have written elsewhere:

Unbirthdays and Odd Socks

On the first of her birthdays following my dad’s death my mum bought me a present. ‘Happy unbirthday’ she said. After that we celebrated unbirthdays twice a year; mine was in July on her birthday and hers in January on mine. My dear friend Vanessa (Nessa) and I have continued the practice [at her suggestion]….

When his children were in their early teens John was never able to find a complete pair of socks. These and other items of his clothing would disappear and appear on occasion in the boys’ bedrooms or schoolbags. Wearing odd socks started as a necessity but became a trademark, and my mum in particular enjoyed finding interesting ‘matches’ when putting the washing away. Now the anniversary of John’s birthday [and the anniversary of his death] has become ‘odd sock day’ for me and a small number of close friends; I particularly like wearing a striped and a spotty one together [although not in this picture which I took in February this year]. (17) 

When I discovered sociology in the late 1980s I was aware of the auto/biographical power of the discipline although was unable to articulate this then as I am now, not least to agree with Irene Karpiak (18) who argues that auto/biographical writing is one way in which ‘adults can come to enlarge their perspective on themselves and others, and even to heal’. As such it represents, as Paul Eakin (19) suggests ‘the art of the future’: a prospect of what might still be ahead as possible and worthwhile. Laurel Richardson turned to life writing following a car accident. She wrote:

Although I could not bring into speech what was happening in my head, I found that I could write about it. If I could not find the word I wanted, I could write its first letter or leave a blank space. In writing, the pace and the issues were my own . . . Writing allowed me to record little thoughts, to revisit them and fill in the blanks, to piece them together, thought-by-thought. Writing gave me a feeling of control over time and space, and a faith that I would recover. Writing was the method through which I constituted the world and reconstituted myself. Writing became my principle tool through which I learned about myself and the world. I wrote so I would have a life. Writing was and is how I come to know. (20)

Absolutely. Me too.

Although I have always admired my dad’s memoir and fiction writing it wasn’t ever something I thought that I could do. How silly of me. We all have stories within in us, stories to reflect on on our own and collectively with others. Memoir and ‘fiction’ are just two ways to tell such stories. Others include poetry, music, drama, pictorial art (and more). Referring to his own poetic essays Ronald Pelias (20) notes:

They are fictions that never assert the truth but strive to be truthful. . . They are imaginative constructions whose truth lies not in the facticity but in their evocative potentiality’. . . .

William Tierney (21) adds to this suggesting that fictional accounts might portray a situation more clearly that standard forms of representation arguing that: ‘we rearrange facts, events and identities in order to draw the reader into the story in a way that enables a deeper understanding of individuals, organizations, or the events themselves’.

It was following John’s death that I first began to write a little differently and these various ways of expressing myself became even more appealing to me after my mum died. Since then I have including fictional pieces (sometimes based on my academic research, sometimes with reference to my own experience, sometimes prompted by issues that distress and/or anger me) and memoir in various academic pieces (e.g. 22). I have also published similar writings in non-academic outlets online and on paper (e.g. 23). More recently in a sister-blog to this one I have published political opinion pieces and political fiction

I wondered about attempting to write up this three part piece for an academic journal but decided on reflection that this mixture of memoir, fiction and academic material, supported as it is by images and internet links, was better suited to a blog piece. My hope is that others with similar and different experiences might find something of interest, even comfort, in it.

Before I conclude here are some examples of some of my auto/biographical fiction:  

This is a story written with my dad, and our relationship in mind. My mum’s in here too.

I wrote this soon after my mum died. Memories are woven in it explicitly and implicitly.

John’s life and experience was in my head (and heart) when I wrote Thank You For The Days. It’s quite short so I’m including it here: 

Thank You For The Days

The birth was hard, mirroring the effort to conceive. Reporters waited outside to take snaps of babies born on the first day of the year. They went away disgruntled. He was born 20 minutes after midnight on the 2nd. It was a Monday.

Although raised in the Jewish faith the boy’s parents were practicing atheists. Yet, they wanted to mark the birth of their longed for child, to share their joy. The baby naming took place on the second Tuesday in May.

The child grew happy and strong and weathered all of the usual childhood ailments and adventures. School and university a challenge he embraced. On a gap year, before full-time responsibilities began, his marriage took place on an Australian beach. Some called it a shotgun event but the bride and groom were blissfully happy. They exchanged rings at midday on a Wednesday in December. 

Years passed, the man worked hard, the next generation grew up and the usual ups and downs of a life-course took place. He was happy but sometimes tired. After a long day at work or an exhausting family outing he’d pour himself a beer or a whisky. They’d drink wine with their meal, followed by a nightcap. He never kicked the 20-a-day habit he picked up on his travels. First he noticed a change in his gum at the back of his mouth. Soon it became uncomfortable to chew. He told the dentist at a Thursday appointment. 

Radiotherapy lasted three months. He felt lucky he’d avoided an operation. There was only a 50/50 chance of survival to five years but he approached this as optimistically as he had the rest of his life. He dressed smartly for his first appointment and chatted and laughed with his wife on the way. She waited while he went for his treatment, glancing at, but not taking in, the news and gossip in Friday’s newspaper.

On his deathbed he reviewed his life. It had been a good one. He’d even got his five years following the cancer diagnosis but now it was his time. He squeezed his wife’s hand and smiled. Elsewhere in the ward a radio was playing, he could hear Big Ben chime in Saturday morning.  

The funeral celebrant was thorough. She captured the man and many tears were shed during the eulogy. An old friend and one of the man’s children retold anecdotes that made everyone laugh. Favourite songs were played. A cremation followed.  A smaller group – immediate family and close friends - assembled later to bury the ashes under the tree at the bottom of his beloved garden. A few words were said, a few more tears wiped away. His wife led the way back to the house for Sunday lunch.


63 Years Earlier: As the pregnancy is confirmed Rachel and Ethan Grundy wonder what their child’s life will be like. They’ve already chosen names. If it’s a girl Sarah and for a boy Solomon is a good, strong name. . . 


This writing represents an ongoing account for me. It’s where I am today, which might not necessarily be where I am tomorrow, next week, next month, next year... What I feel sure will not change, however else I tell my story(ies) is the lasting legacies of those I have written about here. As well as the belongings – both practical and decorous – that I have to remind me of them – there are also the many opportunities and experiences I have had and beliefs and values that I hold – that bear traces, and more, of the influence of my loved ones.

I accept that:

. . . story-telling is not an innocent activity. What is remembered is always selected: the reason a story is told relates specifically to the current context and the current audience (25).

And happily admit that my aim here has been to demonstrate how the ‘ordinary’ people in my life (both living and sadly not) are indeed ‘extraordinary’.

I am grateful to them all.

This piece is one small expression of my thanks. 

16.  Brennan M and Letherby G (2017) ‘Auto/Biographical Approaches to Researching Death and Bereavement: connections, continuums, contrasts’ for Morality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 22(2)
17.  Letherby, G. (2015) He, Himself and I: reflections on inter/connected lives  Durham: British Sociological Association
18.  Karpiak, I. (2010). After life review: Autobiography as ‘art of the future’. Studies in Continuing Education, 32(1), 47-60. pp47
19.  Eakin, P. J. (2008). Living autobiographically. How we create identity in narrative. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp148
20.   Richardson, L. (2001) ‘Getting Personal: writing-stories’ International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 14(1): 33-38. pp33
21.   Pelias, R, (1999) Writing Performance Carbondale Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. Ppxiv
22.  Tierney, William (1998) ‘Life History’s History’ Qualitative Inquiry 4(1): 49-70. pp313
23.  Letherby, G. (2015) ‘Bathwater, Babies and Other Losses: A Personal and Academic Story’ Mortality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 20:2
Davidson, D. and Letherby, G. (2015) ‘Embodied Storytelling: loss and bereavement, creative practices and support’ Illness, Crisis and Loss 23:4
Letherby, G. (forthcoming) ‘To Be or Not to Be (a mother): thinking about mothers and others through literature and social science’ in Browne, V. Giorgio, A. Jeremiah, E. Six, A. L. and Rye. G. (eds.) Motherhood in Literature and Culture: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Europe  London: Routledge
Letherby, G. (2015) ‘Temper and Tenacity’ Flash500
Letherby, G. (2015) ‘He Loves Me, Not’ in Parkinson-Hardman, L. (eds.) Hysteria 4 (Hysteria Anthologies) London: The Hysteria Association
Letherby, G. ‘Natural Selection’ in To Carry Her Home: Bath Flash Fiction, Volume One: a complication of very short fiction Bath: Bath Flash Fiction Award
25.  Smart, C. (2007) Personal Life: new directions in sociological thinking, Cambridge: Polity.

Bereavement and Belonging(s), Losses and Legacies | PART TWO

Bereavement and Belonging(s), Losses and Legacies: personal, academic and political reflections on the relationship between loss and stuff (PART TWO)

Amongst some of my most treasured possessions are the small number of letters that my dad wrote me the summer before his death in January 1979. I was 19 years old and spent July and August in London with my boyfriend (who I married a year later). Whilst I was away dad wrote to me every week in between his kitchen porter duties at the hotel in Coverack, Cornwall where my mum worked also. His personality and humour, and, I think, his love for me, shines through every word. Here is one example, which includes a gentle reminder of my need to keep in touch with my parents during my time away:  

My Dear Darling Daughter,
Each week you really ‘oughter,
Send a letter or a card,
Which can’t be very hard,
To Mum and Dad the Waitress and the Porter.

Latest Financial Report:
A further £10 deposited to day which makes £40 deposited in all. This consists of £20 pocket money and £20 . . . which your Nan gave us. . . .

I had hoped to put the travel money from the grant people into your account . . . but nothing has come yet. I’m beginning to wonder if the college sent on the form.

Will you let us know how you stand for money later on when this £30 has been deposited and we will try to keep sending some so that you will be ok for ice-cream and sweets.

After some detail about their week he concluded:

That’s about all for now, keep well and look after yourself; a big kiss for M.

P.S. Don’t forget to send your Nan a birthday card –August 9th.

My dad was a hard worker and, perhaps unusually for a man of his class, an adventurer. His taste for exploration led to our small family – dad, mum and I - all leaving Liverpool, the place of all our births, in the mid-1960's and we lived in north and south Wales, Sheffield, Blackburn, London, Edinburgh and, for a most memorable nine months, in the Bahamas before settling in Cornwall four years later. In part, I think, it was this travelling, along with his spell abroad with the army at the end of World War II, that stimulated him to write (short stories, a memoir, poems and more) when he wasn’t at work (his first job at age 14 was as a trainee industrial diamond polisher and others paid work included hotel porter, restaurant manager, handyman, toilet roll packer). His love of books, interest in faith and religion, the world, its environment and its peoples with a strong concern for the life chances and challenges of all were likely influences also. A few lines from one of his pieces expresses some of this:

Who can … look upon the smile of a baby without gentleness touching the heart? 

Or stand at the edge of the sea, and seeing the horizon, feel solitude?

Or cry when sorrow bites deep, or happiness sweeps everything else away? 

Or fail to live a full life with joy, experiencing every moment as well as every day?

Only a man who is not yet awake,
A zombie! 
(untitled and written sometime in the 1970s).

Some writings by dad, his pen holder and that Valentine Card 
In this picture you can see the final draft of his 60,000 words memoir (finished just a few weeks before he died); two magazines in which he published short stories; his (and now my) pen holder and the Valentine’s Day Card he sent me the year after the girl I walked to school with got 13 and I got none. My mum told me it was from him years later when I was well into my forties. 

It is increasingly acknowledged by grief counsellors, therapists and scholars concerned with death and bereavement that there is a place for creativity – including the production and presentations of music, visual arts, stories and poems, drama and so on - within bereavement. Such activity is thought to be one result of and to assist individuals through the grieving process. The production of online memorials is a fairly recent way of collecting together and displaying such materials although grief related creations have been produced and documented throughout history. Some examples of the artefacts, images and other outputs produced and the value of such production are considered by the authors in a special edition of the journal Illness, Crisis and Loss that my friend Deborah Davidson and I edited (2015) (12). The fruits of such activity can be useful not only for the person who produces the piece(s) but also for those who read, watch and view the work. We know, for example, that music and fiction enables listeners and readers to experience emotions — their own and those of others — and understand them in relation to the contexts in which the emotions arise. Similar can be said about art and drama. For many grief is a long process and the making of ‘things’ in memory of those who have died and/or as a way of expressing emotions along the way is helpful for some.

Painted with love
Here is the painting I completed after the death of my baby before his/her birth. Not much skill or even originality displayed here as this artwork is in fact the result of a ‘painting by numbers’ kit but important to me nevertheless.  And there are other creations that I credit to this loss - I have been lucky that my career has taken place at a time where there has been a space for the ‘auto/biographical I’ (13) and much of my work (but not all) on reproductive and non/parental identity, on working and learning in higher education, on travel and transport mobility has been auto/biographical. I feel privileged to have been able to spend so much paid time on issues that are so important to me and to others especially in relation to reproduction, reproductive identity and the experience and non/parenthood (I have undertaken research on (amongst other issues) miscarriage and other perinatal loss; infertility and involuntary childlessness; teenage pregnancy and young parenthood and pregnancies complication by long-term health conditions). I feel a responsibility too, both in terms of ‘fair representation’ of my respondents’ experiences and it terms of research accountability, making it clear what I did, how I came to the conclusions I have. Personal experience is sometimes the motivation for research and connections and relationships are made between researchers and respondents. But, it is not always possible or desirable to research issues close to us. An autobiographical connection should not be seen as a prerequisite to ‘good’ research and researchers do not always identify with respondents and visa-versa even when they share an experience and/or identity. Thus, researchers do not have to draw on their own life experiences to do good work but our life experiences/identity are present at some level in all that we do and it is important to acknowledge this (14).

Now a piece of ‘fiction’ I wrote about three years ago:

A Wonderful Life

Conceived in love and born to celebration the child is a beauty, healthy too. Quick to smile and sleep through the night; record breaking in potty training, walking and talking. School days are happy. As popular as she is clever success is achieved across the board. University follows and ends with a piece of paper confirming what her parents already knew: Best in Class. She dates. Has one or two semi-serious relationships, all learning experiences, no broken hearts. Then she meets her soul mate and marries the same year as her promotion to partner in the practice (much earlier than anyone in the history of the firm). Three children follow and the growing family years are full of laughter and fun, of holidays in the sunshine and more certificates than the walls of her beautiful home can take.  The children leave home, happy partnerships and good jobs secured. Alone with her partner (both in name and experience) their mother does not suffer from any empty nest symptoms. Applauded for her charity work, well known in the community and beyond; an accolade from the reigning monarch the crowning glory to a glittering career.  Retirement is full, supported not only by well-earned pensions but also a not so small win on the lottery. Ten happy years follow until her husband dies in his sleep. She lives for almost another decade amply fulfilling the roles of doting grandmother and faithful friend. Content with her lot she dies gently, as her husband did. Her funeral is a celebration of a life well lived.

A familiar ache and tugging feeling disturbs my daydream and prompts me to go to the loo. My knickers are wet, there is blood. My dreams of my child’s wonderful life dashed for yet another month. (15)

Having left school at 18 to train to be a nursery nurse, I took A Level Sociology at my local FE college whilst in my mid twenties and began studying for a Sociology degree aged 28. I met John, the first year tutor at that time, on my first day. Although it wasn’t until five years later when we were teaching together that we became a couple. Although I began to think about the world in very different ways in the earlier evening class, John, and the other women and men who taught me across my three year undergraduate course, plus my fellow students, were significant in my flourishing adult political development. As this was happening I wondered often about the conversations I might have been having with my father. Various incidents during our travels (for another day, another set of reflections…) led me to feel sure that his politics were more Left than Right but I had no concrete memories of us discussing personal or party politics. More than 30 years after his death I reread my dad’s memoir (last looked during the first couple of weeks of raw grief) which led me to other writings and notes: poems, short stories, daily thoughts and jottings for a novel, plus the first couple of chapters. All this convinced me that, had he lived, we would have continued to discuss and debate, and that he would have been another person in whose company I would have been able to find and refine my personal, political voice. 

John’s influence on my political identity was always clear. Throughout my relationship he taught me stuff and I know he would agree with me that the learning was reciprocal. Here is a picture of the Royal Doulton figure we bought with some money we received when we married. And these are just some of the many, many bracelets he bought me, and one book from his huge collection (academic texts, crime and comedy novels, cooking books, song books etc. etc.).

A friend once told me I had the worst singing voice he had ever heard. John, who himself had a beautiful speaking and singing voice, encouraged me to carry on regardless, praising my attempts and joining in with me. Our relationship was a second chance for both of us and was complicated at times by John’s experiences of mental and physical illness (more of that elsewhere). John’s voice stays with me I hear him in my head teaching, debating, joking, swearing, singing. Through good times and not so good we never ran out of things to talk about, whether arguing about politics or literature or about music or the football (which he loved and I didn’t). We smugly felt sorry for couples who shared a restaurant table but no conversation. Once in a pub we were amused when a woman looked towards us and whispered to her male companion, who she hadn't exchanged a word with for quite a while, ‘they're having an affair.’ We weren't being especially physically affectionate. No snogging or cuddling, just eating together, interrupting each other with stories and responses and laughing. At John’s funeral two of the three good friends that I asked to speak in celebration of his life mentioned his voice, The first, like me, remembered the loveliness of his tone and the passion of his arguments, the second recounted the tale of the two of them being evicted from their local Conservation Club for belting out The Red Flag. This is just one version available on YouTube

This is the triptych (panel painting in three pieces) that my mum bought me for my birthday just a few weeks before she died. 

Another piece of memoir now:

Invisible Mending

My mother (Dorothy Thornton) died early in 2012 and since then I’ve begun to write (amongst other things) about my memories of her. One particular strong recollection is of a Saturday morning in July 1990.

'Don't cry, don't cry I'll mend them don't worry.'

My mum and I were on our way to the railway station in Northwich to catch a train to Chester, the day after I received and celebrated the final results of my undergraduate Sociology degree (studied for as a mature student). We were off to celebrate again; to shop.

Four months before I'd left my husband and the martial home and mum and I had been sleeping together in her single bed ever since. Years later I found out she had one foot on the floor the whole time. So when I fell, ripping my favourite brightly patterned trousers, I wasn't crying simply in pain or for my torn and dirty clothes but in happy relief for my academic success and in sadness for my marriage and the losses I'd experienced within it.

Now I’m thinking back further to the day, a few years earlier, when my mum thought I meant to kill myself.

No babies for me, it seemed. A realisation I felt painfully emotionally and physically. Not just a reaction to an externally defined feminine script but also a complete challenge to all my hopes and expectations. On the day in question I ran from my mum towards the river. ‘Don’t, don’t,’ she shouted running after me. But I never intended to jump and I wasn’t running from her but from myself, from the useless body that I felt had let me down.

I have adapted. I have been fulfilled in other ways. The following 30 years have been busy. I feel privileged to have been able to spend so much time researching and writing about issues such as pregnancy loss, infertility and childlessness, and grief. Issues that I and others feel are important, yet often misunderstood and/or misrepresented. I am grateful for the meaningful relationships I have with the children, and more recently, grandchildren of others. But I feel sure that I would not have survived intact, reformed as whole without my mother’s support and unconditional love. For her it was all about me, always about me and it was not until after her death that I realised she never, ever, spoke of her own loss, no babies for me, no grandbabies for her.

She was, on that day in 1990, true to her word. I wore those trousers for several more years and I swear no one ever saw the patching. The invisible mending not only an expression of her selfless care for me but also representative of her constant and continuing presence in my life.

And a small section from another piece of memoir that I wrote following a burst ear drum in 2013:

My mum
Having rested up in bed and on the sofa my first walk takes place three days after the ear popping episode. It's late February and very cold and I pack my ear with cotton wool and don a close fitting hat. I go into the bathroom for a wee and look in the mirror and there she is, my mum  - my Dorothy - looking back at me. I am shocked but pleased and I take of my glasses (which I need for long but not short distance vision) to get a better look. It's the way the hat frames my face that highlights the features I've inherited from my mother. I'm usually compared to my father in looks. She's always with me, in my head and my heart but on that day, and from then on, I see her in my face as well.


12. Davidson, D. and Letherby. G. (Editors) (2015) Special Edition of Illness, Crisis and Loss 23(4):  ‘Loss and Creativity'
13.  Stanley, L. (1993) ‘On Auto/Biography in Sociology’ Sociology 27(1): 41-52
14. Letherby, G. (2003) Feminist Research in Theory and Practice Buckingham: Open University;  Letherby, G. (2014) ‘Feminist Auto/Biography’ in Evans, M. Hemmings, C. Henry, M. Johnstone, H. Madhok, S. Plomien, A. Wearing, S.  (eds.) Handbook on Feminist Theory London: Sage
15.  A slightly different version of ‘A Wonderful Life’ is published in Parkinson-Hardman, L. (2014) Hysteria 3 (Hysteria Anthologies) London: The Hysteria Association 

Bereavement and Belonging(s), Losses and Legacies | PART ONE

I haven't posted anything here for quite a while ... apologies. This post is one part of a three part piece. Although it's a write-up of an academic paper it's relevant here I think in terms of the things and the legacies that the bereaved are left with when someone close to them dies. What follows then is an auto/biographical piece focusing on bereavement and loss with reference to material and other 'stuff'.

Bereavement and Belonging(s), Losses and Legacies: personal, academic and political reflections on the relationship between loss and stuff (PART ONE)

This post, along with the following two, is the write-up of a paper I presented at ‘Thinking Through Things’, a day conference organised and facilitated by Carly Guest and Magali Peynefitte at Middlesex University. In it I reflect on some of the losses in my own life and write about some of the things (both material and not) I have been with. As such I am concerned with the relationship between loss and belongings and the relationship between my the losses I have experienced and my sense of belonging in the world. 

In 2015 I published an article in the journal Mortality entitled ‘Bathwater, Babies and Other Losses: A Personal and Academic Story’ (1). In it I argued that it was an experience of loss that brought me to Sociology – a miscarriage in the mid 1980’s – and that in turn Sociology has affected the way I do grief. I began my own research journey studying loss and alongside other concerns have returned to this issue throughout my career. In addition, alongside my substantive interests I have always been interested in methodological issues – how what we do affects what we get – and have always argued for the significance of auto/biography in research. Three sets of quotes are particularly relevant here:

Charles Wright Mills (2) argued for a sociological attention to the real and symbolic places within which people live and work and within which meanings are constructed. With reference to the work that sociologists do he wrote:

learn to use your life experience in your intellectual workcontinually to examine ...
In writing another's life we also write or rewrite our own lives.

More recently David Morgan (3) writing about auto/biographical practice within Sociology rightly insists:
[auto/biography is not] . . . simply a shorthand representation of autobiography and/or biography but also [a] recognition of the inter-dependence of the two own lives; in writing about ourselves we also construct ourselves as somebody different from the person who  routinely and unproblematically inhabits and moves through social space and time.

Following this I have argued:
In essence every text we produce is an auto/biographical endeavour involving intersections of the lives of those who write and those who are written about (Stanley 1992). So the use of ‘I’, (Stanley, 1993: 49-50), explicitly recognises that knowledge is contextual, situational and specific, and that it will differ systematically according to the social location (as a gendered, race, classed, sexualized person) of the particular knowledge-producer (4).

Recently, I have also become particularly interested in creative approaches to both collecting and presenting data in the social sciences and the humanities and as such value the work of both Katherine Frank and Roger Pelias respectively:  

That there are truths to be found in stories is inarguable. Similarly, there is always an element of interpretation in research, and every written text is a product or particular social, political, technical, economic and personal events (5).

. . . performance itself is a way of knowing. This claim, axiomatic for performers, rests upon a faith in embodiment, in the power of giving voice and physicality to words, in the body as a site of knowledge . . . it insists upon a working artists who engages in aesthetic performances as a methodological starting point (6).

Here I draw on sociological auto/biography and utilise creative approaches in order to present a memory box of ‘stuff’ that is both personal (and thus political) and academic.

My adult life has been peppered by experiences that following Michael Bury (7) we might call ‘biographical disruption’. Bury’s analysis was related to chronic ill-health which others have engaged with and extended to include bereavement, unemployment and other losses. Biographical disruption results in ‘the structures of everyday life and the forms of knowledge which underpin them’ being disrupted, if only for a time.

My father Ron died when I was 20 years old, I miscarried my only (to my knowledge) biological child in my mid twenties and was divorced from my first husband in my early thirties. My relationship with my second husband John was happy but hard work given his many years of illness and when he died seven years ago (February 2010) when I was in my very early fifties he was estranged from his two sons who remain estranged (their choice) from me, even though John had sole custody and they lived with and were cared for by the two of us during their teenage years and into early adulthood. Five years ago (January 2012) the person who was my main support and source of comfort throughout all of these experiences – my mum, Dorothy – died. In addition, other extended family members and close friends have died over the years and as such I feel that I have had my fair share of loss and that I have become something of an expert in bereavement and grief, which includes, but is not limited to, what Robert Howell (8) describes as the ‘significant reorganisation of one’s sense of self, for better or worse’ following the death of a significant other(s). 

Making sandcastles with dad

Off on holiday with John

Mum and I having a cuppa

A piece of memoir now.

Death and Stuff

One day last week I lifted the garage door, took a look, and quickly retreated. A couple of months ago the last of my furniture and boxed up goods from storage, following a house move in 2014, were delivered to my flat. My fairly large three bed-roomed home and my garage are now, despite at least a once a month trip to a charity shop, and three or four recent trips to the dump, full of ‘stuff’. For the last five years of his life my husband John and I were what is often now referred to as ‘living apart together’ (i.e. in different places) and my mum Dorothy lived alone, a widow since my dad’s death in 1979.

So, the household objects and other material goods of three people, the contents of three lots of kitchen cupboards, innumerable bookcases and boxes of personal chattels are now all mine. I have given away/thrown away much of the furniture and most of their clothes (but not all; as used clothes bear traces, hold memories of their wearer). Yet, I still have most of John’s collection of musical instruments and many of the small mum-related gifts I bought for birthday, Christmas and Mothering Sunday. My mum and my husband were both generous present givers themselves so many of the pictures on my wall, the books on my shelves, the ornaments in my cabinets and the jewellery I wear were gifts from them. Amongst John’s possessions were a small number of pieces that belonged to his parents and my mum had kept a few bits following the death of her sister more than 15 years before her own, along with some possessions belonging to, and writings, by my dad.

Recently I read a couple of articles (9 and 10) suggesting that downsizing, even minimalist living, is both an acceptance of mortality and a recognition of the fact that descendants and friends are unlikely to feel the same about the particular bits and bobs that are especially precious to us. I accept this and as a childless widow with no siblings I am conscious of the need not to physically and emotionally burden my dearest friends with the responsibility of sorting out and disposing of my belongings.
And yet, there is a need, I think, to reflect on the issue of privilege when thinking of the relationship between death and stuff. The pleasure I experience on re-reading a letter my dad wrote to me in 1978; listening to a favourite CD of my husband’s; or looking at the painting my mum bought me for my birthday a few weeks before she died; warms me and enriches the memories I have of them. And whilst I accept that a significant amount of what I own is destined for landfill I hope that close friends and various charities might find use for, and experience pleasure from, some of it.

Although I have been thinking about the personal politics of material goods for a while now I have found myself revisiting this issue in the weeks since the Grenfell Tower fire and again in National Refugee Week (19-25th June). I have written elsewhere about how, despite some commentaries to the contrary, the fire and the response to it is inevitably political (11). Further to this I believe that any discussion of the negative aspects of materialism needs to balanced by a consideration of what it must feel like to be left with nothing, to lose all or almost all of everything one owns. Many of those personally affected by the tragedy in West London (and also others who have to flee their homes for whatever reason) are bereaved and having also lost their belongings have no personal, particular, things to remember their family members and friends by. I have no intention here of denying the huge significance and power of memories and of the emotional and spiritual legacies of those who have died but to not be able to hold a loved one’s favourite book or trinket and to have no photographs to smile at can only add to the sense and scale of loss. That many of us leave behind us an online presence might mitigate against this loss for some but again the issue of privilege is at play here. With all this in mind I am grateful for the clutter that I am left with.

I first posted this piece of memoir a couple of weeks ago on Facebook and along with some 'likes' and 'loves' a few friends commented with information about some to the stuff that’s particularly precious to them; either following bereavement or in memory of important times in their lives.

To end PART ONE of this piece of writing here is a short story I wrote last year. Its focus is the presence and impact of one life. 

Man of Substance

On the 15th of December 2015 Peter Arnold (damn his great uncle) Williams receives 63 emails (11 trying to sell him something, five invitations, the rest work related); five texts and two calls to his mobile (mostly personal communications but including one charity donation request) and three friends and four tele-salespeople ring his home number and leave messages. Thirty-five of his Facebook friends post or share prose and/or pictures (the likes too numerous to count); his Twitter account acquires two new followers in addition to multiple tweets and his online dating profile is viewed half a dozen times. A parcel from Amazon - ordered three days previously – arrives, as does another purchase made via EBay. Eight Christmas cards, all containing best wishes or declarations of love with a number of hopes for sooner rather than later face-to-face meetings, also fall on the hall mat mixed up with that day's quota of junk post and a final demand MBNA credit card statement.

Pete's presence at the workplace is equally noticeable with his most recent report being read or referred to 16 times and his name put forward for three new projects due to start early in the new year. Preparations for the office party are well underway and both his 'Secret Santa' personal gift and purchase are placed in a sack along with the others. Pete is favourite for a DJ stint on the night, his witty, slightly risqué banter having been a big hit last year. At least a couple of his female colleagues and Liam from accounts dream of an encounter with him under the mistletoe.

Elsewhere across the country three presents are bought with Pete in mind and two more are wrapped and completed with festive stickers bearing his name. A previous girlfriend who lives nearby passes his flat feeling a shadow of regret, another long ago ex smiles in remembrance as she dresses her Christmas tree with a box of decorations he brought her in 1999, and in the next town's Sainsbury’s the friend he is due to spend the 31st of December with is stocking up early on booze and freezeable munchies.

At 18.50 pm on the 14th of December 2015 Peter Arnold Williams steps off a bus and walks towards the nearest zebra crossing. Along with his briefcase he carries a bag boasting an M&S logo which contains a healthy meal for one and a good bottle of red. He has the day off tomorrow to finish his Christmas shopping and so can afford an extra glass or two without fear of a foggy head at work. His mind on what he might find on Netflix to watch whilst he eats his supper Pete steps out into the road and is hit by the bus he just got off.

By the morning of the 15th December 2015 Peter Arnold Williams is dead.



1.    Letherby, G. (2015) ‘Bathwater, Babies and Other Losses: A Personal and Academic Story’ Mortality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 20(2): 128-144
2.    Mills, C. W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination London: Penguin p204
3.    Morgan, D. (1998) ‘Sociological Imaginations and imagining sociologies: bodies, auto/biographies and other mysteries’ Sociology, 32(4): 647-63 p655
4.    Letherby, G. (2014) He, Himself and I: reflections on inter/connected lives Durham: BSA Auto/Biography Study Group
5.    Frank, K. (2000) ‘”The Management of Hunger”: Using Fiction in Writing Anthropology’ Qualitative Inquiry 6(4): 474-488 p484-485
6.    Pelias, R. (2008) Performative inquiry: Embodiment and its challenges. In J. Knowles and A. Cole (Eds.) Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research, (pp. 185-193). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage p186
7.    Bury, M. (1982) ‘Chronic Illness as Biographical Disruption’ Sociology of Health and Illness 13: 451-468
8.    Howell, R. (2013) ‘I’m Not the Man I was: reflections on becoming a widower’ Illness, Crisis and Loss 21(1): 3-13