Sociality in a time of grief and mourning

Liz Stanley

Following a near-death encounter some years back, I published a number of things about death and mourning which focused around the ‘simulacra of presence’ aspects of mourning on the one hand, and what Elias refers to as ‘the loneliness of the dying’ aspects on the other. This distinctive kind of loneliness involves the frequent sequestration of the old, the ill and those about to die in places out of place, so this is not just an interpersonal everyday kind of loneliness. And the idea of simulacra of presence involves such things as photographs, favourite objects and other memorabilia that conjure up some trace of a dead person, with the simulacra being the intangible trace of this person that they convey, rather than the objects in a literal sense.

This blog acts as a postscript. It is written slant-wise to the simulacra of presence argument, looking again at presence, the tangible and the visceral, and their part in relationality and sociality. In particular the focus is on how these may be changing in the ‘coronavirus normal’ context. More particularly still, it concerns how they have changed for me, exploring this not in any confessional vein but as a sociological inquiry – the social is, after all, our stock in trade.

Human interconnectedness is a truism for sociologists and ‘no man is an island’, as the line in John Donne’s poem goes. But what happens, as in the coronavirus lockdown period and what has followed it in terms of social distancing, when many of the components of sociality are bracketed, put in abeyance, or for some people need to be given up almost entirely because of particularly severe health conditions? Does the web of social connection remain intact, or if not then what?

Many comments about the coronavirus pandemic have emphasised ‘we’re all in this together‘ aspect, that strangers now recognise a common bond, that new ways of keeping in touch have increased exponentially, that people are kinder to each other, and so on. However, the examples most often mentioned mainly concern the civility or kindness of strangers in the in-passing encounters that occur when walking down streets, going into shops, using public transport and so on.

But what might be happening in that larger realm of sociality that lies between once-only encounters with strangers, and relationships with those we live and interact with on a daily basis? What is happening to relationships with the people who are close to us, our relatives and friends and close colleagues, those with whom we have a sustained bond, but do not necessarily see on a daily, weekly or longer basis? In particular what is happening to these kinds of relationships in circumstances of illness, death and what comes after in grief and mourning?

In contemplating this I have in mind the illnesses and deaths of people I am (still am, in the present tense, in spite of deaths) close to in an emotionally close but at the same time socially distanced way, each of whose illness/death has occurred recently. Also in mind are all those other illnesses and deaths, of the almost unimaginable number of people who have died in a short time-period and are still dying around the world. Worry and concern for people who are loved though living at a distance – either a geographical distance or the social distance that exists between in-passing strangers and those we live with – has for me taken place in the context of this more disembodied and in a strange sense greater worry and concern. That is, worry for myself and for those near and dear and mourning for those among them who are loved and lost has become a factor in a larger context, that of mourning for the tens and hundreds of thousands of people, strangers, who have died. There is a figure/ground affect, as well as effect, going on.

A text arrives, a loved friend, X, has contracted ‘it‘ within days of their small business reopening. But what to do other than text the mutual friend who has informed me back, for not even telephone, Skype or Zoom with X was a possibility because of the illness. The personal worry hangs in the air day after day of waiting. But its backcloth is the greater worry felt, and this personalised worry became absorbed into it. Then X’s recovery from the illness became absorbed in a similar way: ‘oh I hear [a text] X has recovered’, then a slow fade, X in my memory rather than renewed contact. Then eventually weekly texts and occasional phone calls resume with X, with the earlier presence of the possibility of X’s death becoming a generalised ‘new normal‘ thrum of concern. Yes the concern is for X, who keeps doing things that worry me, but it is also for all those other people doing the things they do as well. And the word worry is insufficient, because it’s mixed with grief, grief that all these other deaths are occurring and those of people I know might follow, including of course my own.

Y, once a close friend seen multiple times a week, moved continents. A plan to meet up for a holiday came to nothing because of the encroaching pandemic, so we agreed by phone that we would not meet again until ‘it‘ was over or a vaccine developed The following silence was not unexpected, the text message sent but no reply received was not unusual, in the context of this very long friendship. Into this usual absence came the different absence of Y’s coronavirus death, communicated by a third party. But what does death in the sense of the final absence of a person mean in a context in which no close communication had occurred for a long period and would not happen for a long time in the future as well? Indeed, Y and I might not have met again anyway, given the large geographical distance involved, so what is the difference between that kind of absence and the absence of death?

Put another way, the loving relationality between me and Y had come to be characterised by a large degree of absence and a small degree of sociality – little or no regular communication in a face-to-face and voice-to-voice sense. Then this was confirmed by the lockdown and health issues at both ends. The worth or value of the relationship had not lessened, but its character had changed. And ‘after Y’s death’ in these circumstances is to a large extent just like before when Y was hale and hearty but absent. Grief and worry have occurred here in the rather abstract and general way mentioned earlier in relation to X. That is, grief and mourning for Y has occurred in a ‘piece of the continent, part of the main’ sense, as the next line in John Donne’s poem continues, rather than the intense and utterly specific feelings of grief in missing someone that is associated with ‘normal’ death. Grief and mourning has been for all the hundreds of thousands, rather than ‘just’ for Y on their own.

Perhaps this odd combination of intensity, emotion on the surface, fellow-feeling and abstractIon is part of the ‘new normal’ so often invoked. Feeling such a combination of things is perhaps not surprising, but what is unexpected is just how visceral it is, how much it is felt, how raw these ‘abstract‘ emotions are, how grief sits only just beneath the surface and erupts in unexpected ways. Anything kind, upsetting, loving, moving, triggers it – and no matter how cheesy it might be. So I find myself holding back tears, or not holding them back, at the most unlikely things. It’s almost as though my body has constant grief in it, but which my conscious mind is not always aware of. It seems to be the sense of an ending, but what kind of an ending is it? And how is it that something so abstract and disembodied can be so visceral and raw?

These complicated feelings seem to hover all the time, catching me off guard when something not entirely connected but also not entirely disconnected happens. Something of this kind has involved a friend from many years back who got in touch again recently. Q to my certain knowledge – Q told me – flouted the lockdown on at least three occasions, with a passing stranger, with a relation, with a neighbour. I’m sure Q thought there were good reasons, not being a ‘bad person’. But there was no social distancing involved, hands were clasped, people stood well within spitting distance of each other and so on. I said nothing about this, but counted the possibilities for any one of those people being a carrier of the virus and how many others might catch it as a consequence. And instead of being angry, or saying something, which would have been more sensible, I felt an instant grief for all the possible deaths and misery that could have occurred. Something like this had happened when X had caught ‘it’ from someone, Y had got ‘it’ and died from someone spreading it, in both cases involving people doing what they did for what they presumably thought were good reasons. And a PS to this is that Q did get the virus, or at least was severely ill though was not actually tested, and survived.

Thinking now about X and Y and Q, I am struck that particular illnesses, deaths, grief and mourning here have lost much of their particularity. The constant omnipresence of the deaths of unknown strangers world-wide means that grief for a single death feels like fixing on one wave when it is part of a mighty ocean. My response starts with the particular feeling, but it almost immediately slips into the general and abstract – and in an odd way even more upsetting – sorrowful remembrance of the many.

The ‘hovering‘ aspect of the welter of emotion involved that was mentioned earlier is compounded because in the lockdown situation there was/is no chance of mourning in the public sense. This took a particular shape when a very elderly relative in a nursing home died. Whether U died of ‘it’ is not known, and nor will it be given the pressing circumstances in the nursing home when it occurred. But what was certain was that there will not, cannot, be the usual extended family gathering (two generations back there were ten brothers and sisters, of whom U was one, all with children and grandchildren) which had usually occurred at such occurrences as funerals, marriages and anniversaries. When U died, there was no social gathering, just a phone call, plus one-to-one communications for those who wanted to work their way round the family group by telephone. But even Facebook pages failed to register it beyond once.

There are different kinds of absences, and something is happening to my experience of them such that they are becoming overlaid and generalised rather than each being separate and specific. It is not distance alone, whether geographical or social, that is responsible; something more complicated is going on about relationality and sociality. There is the bubble of those we live with, if we are fortunate or sometimes unfortunate enough to do so. There are the many people we are not directly connected with, both strangers and others. And there is the large in-between of loved but not lived with people, which has become shunted to the distant end, except under such flat-pack circumstances as are permitted by computer screens and software such as Teams or Zoom or Skype. What the eye doesn’t see in these online meetings is almost everything, for these performative situations are both like and unlike actually and in the round seeing people and talking with them.

The simulacra of presence is somehow connected, those traces that conjure up the loved, now absent, now dead, other people. It’s as though all this in in abeyance, for such simulacra seem to have lost power or resonance in the face of the peculiar kind of distancing that has for many people become almost habitual. The usual kinds of feelings associated with the trace – like seeing U’s photograph and their kindness welling up in my remembrance, or glimpsing a present from the much loved Y and this sharply conjuring up their presence – don’t occur. There is a slip straight from Y and U to the countless hundreds of thousands.

There is no end: these are ruminations rather than an attempt at conclusions. What we think of as the social is undergoing change of some kind, and where it will take us in the longer term none of us knows. And X, Y, Q and U are amalgams, not distinct people.

This post is in the way of swansong, as my time inhabiting the Decameron has come to a natural end. Bon chance.

Armchair sociology 5, Experts, science & pandemic sociology

The fifth in the Armchair Sociology series of informal conversations facilitated by Liz Stanley is with Gil Viry and explores themes concerning experts, science & pandemic sociology. In the UK coronavirus context, ‘expertise’ is closely associated with people who produce ‘the numbers’, and these constitute ‘the science’ that politicians say they are following. And are there differences when compared with Switzerland and other countries? Also, what kind of experts are they, and what issues exist concerning ‘the facts’ produced, the assumptions they rest on, the kind of discourse they are located in, the claims they make about certainties? And how does this pan out regarding such things as vulnerability and shielding? 

The video of this conversation can be accessed on The Armchair Sociologist YouTube channel here.

Gil Viry is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the role of space and spatial mobilities on family and personal relationships, social inclusion and the life course. His approach to family life in space and time includes the spatiality of personal networks and mobility biographies using social network and sequence analysis. He is currently working on some interdisciplinary projects using advanced methods of social network analysis for analysing the geography of personal networks. Since 2013, he has been leading the Social Network Analysis in Scotland (SNAS) Research Group.

Armchair Sociology 4, The pandemic state & its curious UK contradictions

The fourth in the Armchair Sociology series of informal conversations facilitated by Liz Stanley is with Eve Livingston, and focuses on different aspects of the state in relation to caring work, homelessness, poverty, and structural inequalities of different kinds. There are curious contradictions, witnessed by the UK Conservative government’s initiatives with regard to homelessness, unemployment and related matters. Whether these will persist is also discussed, including in relation to migrant labour of different kinds and also coronavirus tracking and surveillance technologies.

The video of the conversation can be accessed on The Armchair Sociologist YouTube channel here.

Eve Livingston is a freelance journalist specialising in social affairs, inequalities and politics. She writes for The Guardian, The Independent, VICE, OpenDemocracy and more, and is currently working on a book for Pluto Press about trade unions and young workers. For her website, go to everebeccalivingston.com. 

Armchair Sociology 3, the before and possible futures of Covid-19

The third in the Armchair Sociology series of informal conversations facilitated by Liz Stanley is with Nicolas Zehner and is concerned with terms in frequent use, such as before and after and what will happen in the future, and which have taken on a very different resonance in the wake of Covid-19. Do these things pan out very differently between Germany, where he is presently located, and the UK? What about other national contexts and their histories? And does social theory on the future still stand-up or might changes in emphasis and approach be required?

The video of this conversation will be found on The Armchair Sociologist YouTube channel here.

Nicolas Zehner is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Nicolas is researching the intersection of the sociology of imagination and urban assemblage thinking by investigating how urban planning agents imagine data-driven futures. Twitter: @Nicolas_Zehner

YouTube ‘The Armchair Sociologist’

‘The Armchair Sociologist’ YouTube channel has just been launched. This is part of the Edinburgh Decameron project, and links to it are provided via the Armchair Sociology tab on the homepage. It features very informal ‘warts and all‘ conversations concerned with the process of rethinking sociological imaginations in progress. The first three videos have been uploaded and within just a day or two are already achieving a good number of views. These and the conversations to come are all concerned with how sociological imaginations of different kinds might respond to the fundamental issues that varied experiences of the coronavirus pandemic and all that goes with it are raising.

Armchair Sociology 2, Sociality and relationship in and after the pandemic

Armchair Sociology is a series of informal ‘in progress’ conversations on key challenges either brought into being or raised to consciousness because of the coronavirus pandemic and which sociological imaginations need to get to grips with. For more information, visit the post on What’s happening to sociological imaginations?. Facilitated by Liz Stanley, this conversation with Orla Murray is concerned with the ways in which sociality and relationship are being remade, including in relation to teaching and researching, as we enter a ‘social bubble’ context.

The video on YouTube can be accessed here.

Dr. Órla Meadhbh Murray is a feminist sociologist who completed her PhD in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh (2018). Her PhD used Dorothy Smith’s work on institutional ethnography to explore UK university audit processes. Órla is currently working at Imperial College London on SIDUS, alongside developing methodological resources and writing a monograph based on her PhD (forthcoming 2022, Bristol University Press).

Armchair Sociology 1, Time and the Covid-19 Lockdown

Armchair Sociology is a series of informal ‘in progress’ conversations on key challenges either brought into being or raised to consciousness because of the coronavirus pandemic and which sociological imaginations need to get to grips with. The conversations are facilitated by Liz Stanley, with the first with Jennifer Morris and Derek Morris on time and the oddities of how it is being experienced under lockdown ‘social bubble’ circumstances by differently situated people.

This first conversation was something of a try-out, not so much of the topic, as we had email exchanged about this previously, but how best to record it. Skype was the preference because likely to be on people’s machines in different parts of the world, and Zoom and Teams among others less so. But there were some problems with two people sharing one laptop not visible when recording – in going for the midpoint, the software cut off bits of Jen and Derek in playback. We did it again – but the spontaneity and fun went. So we present here something technically flawed, but really enjoyable to have been part of. And we’ll know better next time.

The recording we made can be accessed on YouTube here.

Derek Morris is a PhD student in Socio-cultural Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is a US Iraq War veteran with research interests in soldiers and their relation to society through autoethnography, narrative inquiry, and the Documents of Life approach. He has worked as a research assistant in GIS on a NASA Space Grant, taught ESL in Istanbul, Turkey, and received an MPhil in Race, Ethnicity, Conflict at Trinity College, Dublin.

Jennifer Morris is a freelance writer, designer, and editor in online language exam development. She is a founding member of the Communicative English Proficiency Assessment (CEPA®) and its associated research and development group in Turkey, though she lives with her partner who is a PhD candidate in Edinburgh. She is in the final phase of publishing a study in her field on the praxis of Evidence Centered Design (ECD) framework. She holds a MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Massachusetts and her research interests include foreign language pedagogy and testing development, language policy, sociolinguistics, and institutes of higher education.

Armchair Sociology

A series of short podcasts feature informal conversations on what kind of sociological imaginations might result during the course of these troubling times. ‘Armchair Sociology’ is of course becoming the name of the game, as we all cling to our computers and tablets and wear out our chairs. The idea of an ‘armchair expert’ is often used in a dismissive way of people who don’t do the real thing. But telling apart what is ’real’ sociology and what is armchair sociology has already been under considerable process of reconstruction, and present circumstances are multiplying the changes. See the blog post on ‘What’s happening to sociological imaginations?’ for the kind of topics covered in these conversations.

What’s happening to sociological imaginations?

Liz Stanley

What’s happening to sociological imaginations in present circumstances? Having been to lots of other university sociology websites recently, the dominant trend appears to be that sociology folk have fallen into research mode, and research mode of a fairly standard kind. Nothing wrong in that, of course, and in a sense it is what sociology is for. At least there is a response to present circumstances. But it is interesting that there is little highlighting or consideration in any depth of the kind of things friends, colleagues and I have been communicating about over the last few weeks. What is happening is not standard, so sociological responses should hopefully become far wider. Brainstorming on this, and rereading emails and thinking about conversations in Skype, Zoom and Teams meetings, the kinds of things that have come up in discussions I’ve been party to include, for starters:

  • The oddities of how time is being experienced and some stark differences in this between differently situated people
  • Reconfigurations of outside and inside, both outside and inside the lockdown location, and outside and inside the body
  • ‘Shielding’ and, when some people are defined as inherently vulnerable, what that does to ideas of autonomy, independence and agency
  • The changing relationship between mind and emotions, between rationality and emotional responses to the powerful feelings that the deaths of so many people are engendering
  • The rush of many social scientists as well as medics and others to claim expertise and control, in the face of something so far not amendable to anything other than being entirely cut-off from human hosts
  • The different ways in which sociality and relationship are being remade and how this might continue, including in relation to teaching and researching, as we enter a ‘social bubble’ context
  • The increased proactive role of the state and extension of its powers and responsibilities, and possible new conceptions of the citizen and theirs, including migrants and other non-citizens within
  • The loss of a sense of a definite ‘after’ and what this is doing to conceptions of both the future and before
  • [added 16 May] The work/leisure/domestic relationship is undergoing potentially seismic change. Is employment and the relationship between workplace and home-place for some more privileged sectors of the workforce experiencing an accelerated reconfiguration, but with a more traditional separation remaining for the majority?
  • [added 21 May] What an organisation is, because of stetches in its formal boundaries, is undergoing accelerated change, with many more people working remotely – and working more than when ‘at work’.

What are other sociologically-minded people feeling, thinking, talking about? Contributions on any of these or other aspects are welcomed and can be as brief as you like and take the form of a paragraph, short essay, photograph, poem…