Lessons from Loss

wake/weɪk/ – (noun)

  1. A watch or vigil held beside the body of someone who has died, sometimes accompanied by ritual observances.
  2. A trail of disturbed water or air, left by the passage of a ship or aircraft.

Inevitably, quite a few crew have been curious about my work and how I got involved in it, so I think it’s time I wrote a post about it given it has had a HUGE impact on my decision to apply and subsequently act on the opportunity provided by the Clipper Crew contract arriving through my door one autumnal morning in 2017.

If you’re only reading my blog because of a shared interest in sailing/ocean racing and you don’t like dwelling on mortality then you might not want to read on… Just a warning.

I am jokingly referred to as ‘Dr Death’ by family, friends, work colleagues and acquaintances. It is not a nickname I gave myself, but one that regularly comes to other peoples’ minds when they find out what I do for work, so rather inevitably this nickname is one that has often been used for me during race training by other crew. I suppose humour is one of the ways we humans like to circumvent difficult topics, suppress uncomfortable realities and face shocking or difficult moments. I am no longer appalled by this nickname when someone jokingly suggests it is how I should be known – like I haven’t heard it a thousand times before! I get it. Not that I try to kill people nor work as a coroner, funeral director or embalmer. Rather, as a social anthropologist, I treat death as a human universal experience and fact of life, but a cultural phenomenon worth exploring and understanding in its own right. We do not all identify, mark, understand nor process mortality, death, dying and bereavement in the same way. As an anthropologist I am fascinated by how a shared universal human experience can be so varied and I am both interested in the cultural and social particulars, as well as the shared experiences, values and beliefs.

I did not wake up one day and decide the death industry was going to be the future I aspired to focus on as an academic, rather, a series of small, but far from insignificant moments in my life, led me to working as an academic scholar specialising in ‘death studies’. Yes, it’s a thing. Google it. In fact, I am very proud to sit on the editorial board of an interdisciplinary journal called Mortality and that my colleagues’ work was featured in Times Higher Education recently, regarding their important research at the Centre for Death and Society (University of Bath), where I also work as a Research Fellow. But even the Times Higher Education journalist picked up on calling me and my colleagues “the death squad”! You can read the full article here.

As my dear colleague and friend, Dr Kate Woodthorpe, is reported to say in the article: ‘When you work in this area, you see death everywhere and realise how life is on a knife edge at any point. You become hyper aware of it.” She’s absolutely right!

Sometimes when I have interviewed people who are bereaved or dealing with terminal illness or suicide, their words can stay in my head for days and weeks. They can profoundly affect me, as can the fieldwork I have undertaken at funeral directors, crematoria, cemeteries, hospices and hospitals. I have a hyper sensitivity to suffering, loss and pain. I have had it all my life, but I have unconsciously found myself in a career that professionalises it. I have to empathise, form rapport and build trust with a myriad of research participants if I am to be a good ethnographer or social researcher and do justice to their experiences. Sometimes I do interviews with people in acute medical settings, sometimes on a funeral directors premises and at other times in the intimacy of peoples’ homes.

I recognise that my acute awareness of the fragility of life means that for a person of my age I probably dwell on death far too regularly. Nevertheless, many people say I am gregarious and full of warmth and humour, but I would say I am full of warmth and humour precisely because of what I do. I try to live with gratitude and that has been massively informed by those individuals who have generously shared their experiences of illness, loss and grief with me over the years.

An influential academic figure in ‘death studies’ is Professor Robert Neimeyer, an American psychologist who espouses the philosophy that life challenges, even the most painful or uncertain, contain the seeds of new possibility and that a serious engagement with them can open the door to a life of renewed purpose and pursuit of valued goals. In one of his influential books, he writes:

“As we sift through the lessons of loss, we can come to approach life with renewed priorities, with a clearer sense of what is important, and what is not worthy of concern. As we revise the philosophies by which we live, we also “re-vision” ourselves, perhaps opening ourselves to possibilities that once seemed foreclosed, developing skills and interests that previously have lain dormant within us, or cultivating relationships with others that previously had been neglected or unexplored. In this sense, while loss diminishes us, it can also lead to our renewal. Although the loss of familiar forms of work, work roles, and relationships can be unsettling and even threatening, it also can challenge us to enlarge our identities and integrate the hard won wisdom that comes with survivorship.”

Robert Neimeyer, ‘Lessons of Loss: A guide to coping’

Neimeyer’s words resonate with me as I have lived through the processes of change that come with loss many times over in my life. I have supported family, friends and colleagues through loss and bereavement many times over too. We’re all survivors in one way or another.

I am very privileged and blessed to have been taught by all those I have interviewed over the years to value LIFE; to see it as a momentary blessing, rather than a right, and honour it by living it as fully as I can. My research participants gave me the wisdom to appreciate that all change involves loss, just as all losses require change.

…And today my professional, personal and Clipper race worlds collide in a way I could not have anticipated…

I am sat writing this having found out this morning that a national funeral directing company are prepared to give me some generous sponsorship towards my race stop-over expenses, for which I am incredibly thankful.

Not more than half an hour later, I received a phone-call from my mother-in-law announcing that my husband’s only surviving aunt died yesterday, leaving him and his father as the only Miles’s in the family line. Ironically, my mother-in-law, in the process of seeking reassurance from me about the intended funeral arrangements disclosed that the same funeral directing company who are offering me some Clipper race sponsorship, will be the same company she’s intending on making the necessary funeral arrangements with!

Needless to say, it has put us both in a reflective mood and has probably influenced the tone of this post. Thank you for reading it, if you have got this far!