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We need to talk about death

 In March 2022 I presented at the RGS-IGB PostGraduate midterm conference.

My title was the same as this blog post

"We need to talk about death"

This topic is of significant importance in understanding landscapes and landscape change, but also important for research and researchers more widely.

This is a thesis tangent that I haven't been able to include in depth, so I am including the conversation here (and adding it as an appendix!). Perhaps this is, as a blog post, a more useful place to begin this conversation anyway.

In the summer of 2020 I had already decided to change my research methodologies to account for (what was at the time the worst case scenario but quickly became the reality of 2021. This also meant an application for amendments to my original ethical review.

Part of the original review included both participant and researcher safety. Over the past year and partly due to my involvement in the farming communities the importance and dangers involved with mental health had become increasingly prevelant (CCRI study).

As an interdisciplinary researcher I have always sat on the edge of a number of researcher groups, but none of my research is conducted in a team environment. This became particularly evident during the Covid-19 pandemic. Having been correct in my surmise that further restrictions may be in place, the recruitment for the workshops also took place in a lockdown, which between English and Welsh restrictions was to effectively to extend until the workshops had completed. 

This meant that calling participants was done on my own and I was seriously concerned about both the participants well-being and my own mental health under the circumstances.

With participants being older and often isolated, the impacts of the lockdowns could affect both their physical and mental health, and I had no way of knowing in advance their position, how well they were, or if all my participants had survived the pandemic so far. I accepted this as I had already experience death twice, though not to do with Covid. One participant had told me on our first meeting, when I asked if he would be happy for me to contact him again, that he had a terminal illness and didn’t expect to survive beyond a further six months. Then in January 2021 my Grandmother passed away. I had seen her for a day in the December and was fortunate that she was living with my parents and did not die on her own. 

This was forefront with me as I went through my phone calls. Whilst I managed to engage with a few people by phone, and most were pleased to hear from me, most were either busy, unwilling to immediately commit, or unsure about how much they might be able to offer. I did not find that I was able to open up conversations as well on the phone as I had done in person, and most responded that they would think about it on receiving a follow up email.

I was finding the challenge of speaking to participants by phone (out of the blue after an unprecedented year) difficult, whether conversations were positive or negative. Then the phone was answered by one gentleman, who had been so welcoming when I had visited him on the farm. He was still polite and happy to hear from me, but he had only picked up the phone because he was waiting for the hospice to arrange transport so he could be taken into respite care.

This conversation affected me incredibly deeply in an environment where I had little recourse for support.

As a researcher I was able to reflect that I had put contingency plans in place to adapt methodologies if direct calling participants was ineffective, or had proved to demanding in comparison to its effectiveness. I reflected on the importance of the process of completing both the Ethical review and the HRA, and how this had put me in a stronger position, and wondered if my physical science colleagues (also engaging with the ‘public’ during fieldwork) had similar recourse.

As myself, I just sat on the flood of my kitchen and cried.

I encountered a further death during the time I was active conducting fieldwork – during the time the workshops were taking place. Not a participant, but someone well known and liked within the community and co-incidentally (I had not realised they lived within catchment when I started my work) a family friend. Prior to my research taking place two significant deaths of community members had taken place within catchment and I will explain in section ….. why this matters.

The lack of discussion of death in our society has long been recognised (Walter, 1991), the fact that this is reflected in research and academia should not be an accepted (even under the covers) or acceptable approach. Death has direct implications that reflect on precarity and uncertainty that must be part of environmental governance. Death and well-being demonstrate how entangled we as researchers are with our research. Death directly affects the well-being of the community and the research as a member or observer of that community.

Walter, T. (1991). Modern Death: Taboo or not Taboo? Sociology25(2), 293–310.