Saturday 8 July 2017

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

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