Death, Sociology and the People

I am currently on week 3 of my month-long annual leave. I have fallen into a comforting pattern of lay-ins (I usually get up at 5am) long walks with the dogs, yoga, time with my husband, friends and family. I work all year looking forward to this summer break, and this slowness is what I need. I have listened to my body and health and cancelled when I need to rest.

I am a people-person, a product of my Northern working-class upbringing and town, and part of my faith. People are to be with people. Digital alternatives cannot replicate being with our loved ones and also the connections we make with new acquaintances and the comfort we being one another.

Throughout the pandemic, and the various lockdowns, I have been reminded how important it is to connect with people outside of our circle. From the most poignant political conversations with cashiers in shops, to the heartfelt outpourings from senior citizens on my dog walks, to the frustration and loneliness people have expressed in medical settings.

I’m frequently surprised on twitter when people express shock and even disbelief that people talk to strangers. I cannot imagine only conversing with people i know.

Much of my childhood was spent in the Royal Naval Association Club and the pubs of Seacombe and Birkenhead. Being the child of an alcoholic, and having my own mental illness, I have always been drawn to the melancholic and wanting to stop people feeling lonely. People need connection.

I have spent much of the pandemic angry at the disdain, gaslighting and contempt shown towards those struggling with serious mental health issues, addictions, trauma, eating disorders, and those trying to survive whilst living with abuse. I have watched callous remarks throw around online, “well at least they aren’t dead from covid” etc. I am sickened by those constructing lockdown as a cosy lifestyle choice.

I have written here about the phenomenology of anger and why it is such an important tool if we are to avoid spiritless scholarship that benefits nobody but ourselves.

Walking has been my pressure valve since childhood and I am grateful to have access to the outdoors and this hobby that sustains my health. Walking has also allowed me to meet so many interesting people and some of my closest friends.

I also use walking as a qualitative research methods and teaching tool.

I believe that so much of academic knowledge is sanitized. As a working class woman much of the ‘sociology of class’ is far removed and disjointed from any of my experiences.

Likewise, as somebody who has lived experience of most of the things I teach and research, I find this sanitization a form of epistemological violence. I do not think you have to have been a sex worker, or victim of sexual violence, or victim-survivor of OCG etc etc to research it. But good researchers will acknowledge their positionality.

I also make no secret of the fact that my most memorable sociological and criminological discussions have been with people in the street and friends, not academics. The gulf between theory and embodied knowledge is huge.

A few years ago I wrote a post called Maria with the Red Hair, about a brilliant chance encounter with a woman on the train.

Today on my dog walk in Port Sunlight I bumped into Ronnie, a gentleman I first met in the depths of lockdown 3.0. Ronnie’s reflections on how elderly people are being designed out of society through the push to digital payments and apps, was one I am hearing constantly from my loved ones and community. Far from feeling protected by being ‘shielded’ they feel patronised by a paternalistic approach of ‘shutting them indoors’ and taking away the joys of their life. Ronnie likes a morning cup of tea from a cafe on this walk, and will not patron establishments that are cashless-only.

I have tweeted about the Post Office #SaveOurCash campaign and continue to tell people about it. Our convenience cannot come at the expense of the most marginalized in society being pushed out. I am also supporting the #RightsForResidents campaign. I am disgusted by how care home residents and their families have been treated during this period. I was not allowed to visit my 92 year old friend Mr B for 18 months in sheltered housing.

Ronnie spoke about his late wife he visits daily, his family and the small joys we must hang onto. Ronnie’s throwaway phrase “We all go out in a box, love” is similar to what most of my older friends and family retort. They do not fear death, but they want a dignified death and they want their family around.

Currently my husband and I have a growing number of poorly friends, and friends who are caring for relatives with terminal illness. There is so much sadness and grief. Yet inbetween that thick blanket of sadness there are small moments of joy. We must never let people say goodbye via ipad ever again. We must never stop people from comforting their dying friends and family ever again.

As a society we need to do better regarding death. We all die. I touched my 34 year old brother’s face in the funeral home and saw my own mortality. Whilst impacting me deeply, it has taught me to abundantly live. He died from Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS). Each day is a blessing I am grateful for and I do not take it for granted.

I held my husband’s hand when he in a coma in ICU. I watched my mother place coins on the eyelids of my dead father.

Each year I celebrate All Souls’ Day and All Saint’s Day.

Talking with strangers reminds me that twitter is an echo-chamber. People I meet on walks have other worries and losses than simply Covid, they are nuanced, reasoned, and are determined to live in the time they have remaining.

The Sociology of the People is the one I am drawn to. The genuine commitment to social justice and widening participation and allowing people to talk about their pain and loss. The one that allows people to speak for themselves. We have a lot to learn from the Ronnies of the world.

This will all eventually pass, but whilst we wait, we need one another.

Gemma x