Paper One: Academia, Emotion and ‘Lived-Experience Research’

Paper One: Academia, Emotion and ‘Lived-Experience Research’

I had hoped to make life a little easier and just post a video of my recent conference presentation. Unfortunately, being out of practice at this style of public speaking, I misjudged content length and ran out of time resulting in this:

When you get told to stop mid-point and prior to the big finish…

Argh. So, instead, I’m publishing the content below…..

The ‘Martin Effect’: reflections on ’emotional labor’ facets in qualitative suicide bereavement research.

Academia and ‘emotion’

The Academy has traditionally had a problem with emotion. The argument has been framed in a way that determines ‘visible emotion’ as causing lost legitimacy (of researcher and research) (Blackman 2007, cited in Jamieson, L., 2014: 2), primarily because “sharing personal stories can be seen as being self-centred and an act of ‘navel-gazing’” (Visser, 2016: 2). Essentially, in traditional circles (those adhering to the established notions of ‘scientific’ – or what constitutes ‘scientific’ – research), emotion has generally been perceived as not just problematic, but as something to be almost feared (and therefore avoided). As a result, researchers on the whole have learned (and to some extent still learn) to mould and manage feelings and associated actions to toe the non-emotion-line of academic preference.

The knock-on effect of “This holding of emotion” (Dickson-Swift 2009: 66) has been that researchers have often neglected the self. The implication that personal connection to research can instantly challenge the degree to which researchers can claim both themselves and their work are ‘professional’ (Kleinman and Copp in Dickson-Swift et al., 2009: 63) has in turn encouraged the moulding (if not outright suppression) of researcher emotion-work attached to projects academic in nature. Researchers, including social scientists, remain “‘trained [own emphasis] to suppress emotions’ (Bellas, 1999: 104)” (in Dickson-Swift et al., 2009: 66); and it is rare that such rules and ‘instructions’ of behaviour/attitude are questioned at the novice level. Yet, as Highet points out, these “Theoretical debates about ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’, ‘engagement’ and ‘social action’ do not prepare you for how it feels [own emphasis]” (cited Jamieson, L., 2014: 86)

Emotion enters all research. Particularly within the social sciences, personal experiences have a role in shaping research in that we all do come to research with preconceptions, indeed biases. Thus, as Grant and Zeeman argue, accusing researchers of self-indulgence if the personal is visible in research is only to assume that the researcher is “autonomous and culturally, dialogically and relationally disconnected from other people” (2012: 2), which is not, and cannot be, the reality. As Barbalet (2002) has pointed out,

“A well-developed appreciation of emotions is absolutely essential…because no action can occur in a society without emotional involvement.” (Barbalet, 2002: 2)

The question should become, then, not about whether or not emotion should come into play, but about how emotion that is naturally there is to be managed.

‘Expert by Experience’ – ‘Lived-Experience Researchers’

I am conducting my research because of ‘lived experience’ – losing my brother and only sibling, Martin, to suicide, when I was 30 and he was 27, led me back into the world of academic research, to explore and record the experiences of other adult siblings after this form of loss. I came into the project with a proposal that followed the traditional focus on topic-content and the participants of the project. At the outset, I thought of only what I wanted to compile and write after talking to other people. I failed to appreciate my role and position in the research, as someone directly affected by the subject under examination.

Perhaps the assumption was ‘experience makes this research workable’ – essentially, I viewed my experience as an advantage, as crude as that sounds, in that it implied “ease of access to the field…expediency of building rapport; nuanced and responsible data collection, taking into consideration community norms and values; and richness in the interpretation of the data in light of deep knowledge” (Ross, 2017: 2). However, delving closer into other (though not bountiful) accounts of ‘lived-experience researchers’, and drawing on some of my initial emotions, it has become clear that multiple obstacles/potential trip-ups do have to be navigated.

Firstly, there is no such thing as a ‘Total Insider’ – there are only insiders of own experience. I remain an outsider to others’ grief experiences, no matter the common factor of suicidal death. Secondly, self-disclosure can also distance (Pezalla et al., 2012: 167) as well as unite – Finlay for instance describes this issue as being about a “threatening [own emphasis] path of personal disclosure”, whereby “the researcher treads a cliff edge where it is all too easy to fall into an infinite regress of excessive self-analysis at the expense of focusing on the research participants” (2002: 532). Recognition of this leads to, thirdly, the highlighting of other emotional elements: for instance, there is much guilt that brings forward questions – am I exploiting the death of my own brother? Am I exploiting others’ pain? Will I result in providing an example of how, to cite Kvale and Brinkmann (2009), a lived-experience researcher’s “knowledge of how to create rapport and get through a participant’s defences may serve as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to get inside areas of a person’s life where they were not invited”? (75) None of these are pleasant to think on, yet they inevitably arise, demanding consideration.

Other researchers in a similar position to mine have cited emotional tolls manifesting in regret, feeling powerless to aid their respondents (Highet cited in Jamieson, L., 2014: 87) and high-levels of “frustration, physical and emotional exhaustion” (Ryan cited in Silverman, 2016: 41), due to the cumulative nature of the emotional impact of the research (Jackson et al. cited in Jamieson, L., 2014: 139-40). Indeed, the analytical and dissemination stages of a research endeavour can be just as taxing as the data collection phase. For instance, there are accounts of (re)traumatisation developing during qualitative data analysis (Frambach, 2015: 957), and it has been described that researchers can find it hard to make decisions as to what to keep in and leave out – all can appear important, leaving the researcher anxious, not wanting to misrepresent or exclude. This can also filter down into spoken presentations, even to “needing to manage emotions while talking.” (Jackson et al. in Jamieson, L., 2014: 140). Overall, there is strong potential for researchers with lived-experience to reach “saturation point”, leaving them “feeling ‘emotionally drained’” (McKenzie et al., 2016: 6).


Turning specifically, then, to my own project, realisation of the need to think about personal strategies to manage my emotional connectedness to the project began early on. Reflection and reflexivity are often put forward as crucial in an academic sense – as Finlay argues, “Ideally, the process of reflection and reflexive analysis should start from the moment the research is conceived.” (Finlay, 2002: 536) These aspects are certainly crucial to my study, but it also must be said that reflection and reflexion are not the be all and end all – indeed Pillow (2003) for instance, “problematizes the notion that self-reflexivity ‘provides a cure for the problem’” (cited in Ross, 2017: 3) – engaging in this R&R does not solve all the issues pertaining to lived-experience researchers, and clear articulation regarding specific decisions/strategies is also required.

Some of the key areas for my work are as thus follows:

1.My ‘Insider knowledge’ is to be recognised as useful for logistical decision-making, and is not something that always needs justifying through connection to already-published literature, particularly with regards to research questions. I will engage actively in “using emic understanding of the studied phenomenon to develop appropriate interview questions” (LaSala in Meezan and Martin 2003: 19). I know, for example, that loss by suicide can affect career choices, employment relationships etc.; I know that loss by suicide can encourage previously unconvinced people to seek out mediums and conversations with the dead – so why not use these insights to form questions? As LaSala points out,

“Qualitative researchers who are members of the groups or communities they study have a unique ability not only to elicit emic perspectives, but also to understand their importance…personal familiarity with issues affecting their respondents’ lives may enable them to formulate research questions” (LaSala in Meezan and Martin 2003: 17).

Furthermore, in terms of practicalities, I know the effect that ‘celebratory’ days (Christmas, Easter, even Hallowe’en and Mother’s/Father’s Days) (Omerov et al., 2014: 3412) can have on adult siblings specifically, so I will draw on that to plan interview timings. I know that restricting the length of time for an interview may be counter-productive, given that many siblings are in their lives often not afforded space to talk – I will therefore enter the interview scenario “prepared to listen for as long a time as…needed. (Dyregrov, 2004)” (Omerov et al., 2014: 3412). What will simply be important will be to explicitly outline and acknowledge where my ‘insider knowledge’ has been utilised, and how it has been incorporated.

2. ‘Researcher-participant’ friendships. As a suicide bereaved person, meeting those who ‘get it’ are worth their weight in gold. But then I am also a researcher. The usual academic advice is to ‘avoid dual relationships’ (LaSala in Meezan and Martin, 2003: 22) – they are often considered too blurry to be beneficial. Yet there is research to show that being open about the nature of the relationship with the interviewees can allow a form of friendship and research-relationship to co-exist relatively un-problematically. For instance, Ross has described how:

“I addressed them directly… ‘I feel the same way, about how great it is to be in touch with someone going through such a similar experience…Because of that I have to tell you I’m struggling a bit with figuring out what kind of relationship with you is ok considering I’m the principal researcher of a study you’re participating in, do you know what I mean? Just ethically in terms of making sure that you do not feel coerced to continue to participate, do not share information with the study you wouldn’t otherwise necessarily choose to share and so forth because of a relationship between us. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that it’s on my mind, that I’m juggling these roles, so that if you feel any distance on my part, you will know that’s where it is coming from, and definitely not from a lack of interest or connection.’” (Ross, 2017: 6-7)

This to me emphasises that ‘mutual agreement’ here is more than helpful. Being emotionally honest and open, making the tensions visible is important and, I believe, a best way to demonstrate respect for participants, allowing successful handling of relationships when the research topic is entangled with the personal life of the researcher.

3. Closely linked to this aspect is the issue of self-disclosure (Visser, 2016: 3). As a person affected by suicide loss, I can say that what you reveal to whom can depend very much even upon the day of the week, never-mind anything else. And sometimes things are said on the spur of the moment, just because a pertinent memory pops up, for example. For research purposes then, extra concentration needs to be given to thinking about the questions: a) what would I want to share/feel comfortable in sharing? and b) under what circumstances would I speak my memories/experiences? The care I wish to take is to not speak my thoughts in a manner that can be taken as advice – I am not a therapist; I am merely a peer. Therefore, I have decided to stick to factually-based comments, rather than offering interpretations of my own experience. It may also be beneficial with regards to self-disclosure to be interviewed using my own research questions/interview schedule, as a means of thinking about what information I would share if I were a respondent, (to help reduce possible impulses to speak within actual interviews (when I should concentrate on asking questions), and also to perhaps determine a protocol of own-information open for disclosure, should respondents seek out such information). I will also not offer, but only respond, if asked. In this respect, I aim to entirely engage with Finlay’s suggestion that “the self is exploited only while to do so remains purposeful” (Finlay, 2002: 542).

4. It is also important to make explicit reference to the acceptance and appreciation of physical emotion as a feature of my decision-making. ‘Outward signs of emotion’ are largely overlooked in discussions regarding research interactions, although there are comments to be found where researchers have “reported holding on to emotion” (Dickson-Swift et al., 2009: 67) rather than displaying bodily reaction in interview contexts. This comes back to the idea that academic value rests on an idea of “being professional…involve[ing] not showing any outward signs of emotion.” (Dickson-Swift et al., 2009: 69) I highly anticipate that at some stage I will encounter a participant story that will prompt an emotional response – it would thus affect my professionalism and sense of stress as an interviewer to not allow crying, and therefore I will be explicitly mentioning crying as part of my methodological (and ethical) decision-making.

5. And lastly, self-care will be prioritised and built into my research design. Essentially, I “acknowledge[…] feelings as part of the research process” (Dickson-Swift et al., 2009: 62), as a means of self-empowerment. I have placed myself in the position of researching this topic; but I also have a duty to look after myself. The argument may be that “Universities (and research centres) have a duty of care to researchers” (Dickson-Swift et al., 2009: 74), but it is also the case that researchers should seek to care for themselves and express this so, without trepidation. As Highet comments, “We must be prepared to draw our own lines as we navigate our way through our work” (cited in Jamieson, L., 2014: 87). As this is a work in process, I’m not entirely sure what form this self-care will take, but I’m working on, and articulating the need for, it!


How then to sum up this very brief consideration of ‘emotion labor’ with regards to my researcher activity in examining that of which I have lived-experience? I would stress that emotional management is as much a research skill as any other, deserving of respect and recognition, especially when direct experience of the research topic is at the heart of an endeavour. In my (part time) case, I am currently a long way off fieldwork, yet focused consideration of the emotional connectedness and facets to my work have already come to the fore. I obviously do not know how I will react in interview situations, in relation to data analysis etc., but the point is to recognise, to anticipate possible impacts in as much detail as possible, in order to identify or design strategies to manage and combat should the need arise. Within academia the impression upon me is very much that “connections between…research and…private lives are not often publicly acknowledged because ‘the norms of scholarship do not require that researchers bare their souls, only their procedures’ (Lofland and Lofland, 1995)” (cited in Primeau, 2003: 11), so then my aim is to try and openly integrate the private life into the procedural process valued within academic communities. That, I hope, is a route to trust in me as a researcher, and in the work I produce.


Reference List:

Abell, J., Locke, A., Conder, S., Gibson, S. and Stevenson, C. (2006). ‘Trying similarity, doing difference: the role of interviewer self-disclosure in interview talk with young people’ in Qualitative Research, Vol. 6., No. 2., pp. 221-244.

Barbalet, J. (Ed). (2002). Emotions and Sociology. Blackwell Publishing.

Carmack, H.J. and DeGroot, J.M. (2014). ‘Exploiting Loss? ethical considerations, boundaries, and opportunities for the study of death and grief online’ in OMEGA, Vol. 68, No. 4, pp. 315-335.

Dickson-Swift, V., James, E.L., and Liamputtong, P. (2008). Undertaking Sensitive Research in the Health and Social Sciences: managing boundaries, emotions and risks. Cambridge.

Dickson-Swift, V., James, E.L., Kippen, S., and Liamputtong, P. (2009). ‘Researching sensitive topics: qualitative research as emotion work’ in Qualitative Research, Vol.9, No.1, pp.61-79.

Finlay, L. (2002). ‘ “Outing” the Researcher: The Provenance, Process and Practice of Reflexivity’ in Qualitative Health Research, Vol.12., No.2, pp.531-545.

Frambach, J.M. (2015). ‘Balancing Vulnerability and Narcissism: who dares to be an autoethnographer?’ in Medical Education, Vol. 49., pp. 952-958.

Grant, A.J., and Zeeman, L. (2012). ‘Whose Story Is It? An Autoethnography Concerning Narrative Identity’ in The Qualitative Report, Vol. 17., Article 72, pp.1-12.

Jamieson, L., Simpson, R., and Lewis, R. (2014). Researching Families and Relationships: Reflections on Process. Palgrave Macmillan.

Kvale, S. and Brinkmann, S. (2009). InterViews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing. Sage.

McKenzie, S.K., Li, C., Jenkin, G. and Collings, S. (2016). ‘Ethical Considerations in Sensitive Suicide Research Reliant on Non-Clinical Researchers’ in Research Ethics, pp. 1-11.

Meezan, W. and Martin, J.I. (2003). Research Methods with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Populations. Routledge.

Omerov, P., Steineck, G., Dyregrov, K., Runeson, B. and Nyberg, V. (2014). ‘The Ethics of Doing Nothing. Suicide-bereavement and research: ethical and methodological considerations’ in Psychological Medicine, 44, pp.3409-3420.

Pezalla, A.E., Pettigrew, J. and Miller Day, M. (2012). ‘Researching the Researcher-as-Instrument: an exercise in interviewer self-reflexivity’ in Qualitative Research. Vol.12, No.2, pp.165-85.’

Primeau, L.A. (2003). ‘Reflections on Self in Qualitative Research: Stories of Family’ in The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, Vol.57., No.1. pp.9-16.

Ross, L.E. (2017). ‘An account from the inside: examining the emotional impact of qualitative research through the lens of ‘Insider’ research’ in Qualitative Psychology, pp.1-12.

Visser, R.C. (2016) ‘‘Doing Death’: reflecting on the researcher’s subjectivity and emotions’ in Death Studies, pp.1-8.

3 Days in Summer

3 Days in Summer

How often it is that the unexpected triggers a return to memories. My daughter finishes school for the summer holidays in a week, her first year done and dusted. In the end-of term run up, though, she won’t be told to gather with the ‘other summer birthdays’ in front of a whole school assembly for a communal well-wishing. My brother and I, with August birthdays 3 days apart, were always given that dubious honour during our primary years together.

It was never so much the 3-year part of our age gap that bothered me; rather the 3-day element, Martin’s birthday inconveniently (I often perceived) following mine. I do, for instance, recall one occasion when, such was the level of my annoyance at seeing him playing with my birthday presents, coupled with being armed with knowledge of what exactly he was due to receive in 2-days-time, that I was unable to curb the jealousy and revealed the secret to him to get him to just buzz off. It worked – he was ecstatic, and I regained control over my toys. But my mother’s furious glare, prompted by his tattling on what I’d blurted out, was more than a little guilt inducing. Bad sister.

Fast forward to now, and I would be lying if I said that 3 days matters not at all. I’m not going to lie, the gap between our ‘big days’ has played its part in anger-periods post-his-suicide, simply because it is impossible to forget that 3 days after my birthday, we (especially my parents and I) are also called upon to mark another age that he has not reached. How can you fully celebrate your own still-being-here with a looming sense of such a sad-marker-date so close? How just not fair is it that parents are called upon to be happy for one child whilst in the build-up of a loss-reminder for another?

Even the approach to each birthday, as well as the day itself, since Martin’s passing in 2011 has become a little harder. Whilst I’m in no doubt the sands and waters of Cancún, where I intend to be for this year’s anniversary, will be an aid to happier senses of my advancing years, and whilst I also appreciate the continued care of friends and family in showing and sending love, there is still a part of me that finds my acquiring a larger-number-label difficult, just because the day inevitably prompts reflection on and visitation to ‘the past’. Most recently, I have found myself finally realising, as odd as that may sound, that my brother is not aging as I am, that he has already missed a great deal of my life (and I his) to the point of asking, “would we recognise or really know one another at all now?” A chief part of my brother’s ‘hilariously unique’ take on birthday wishes to me included reminders of ‘your body-clock’s ticking, better have a baby’ – I’m way past that point now, so I can’t help but wonder, what would his-age-related-ribbing reference now? I can comment ‘Martin would have said/done this’ or ‘loved/hated that’ all I like, but the truth is, had he lived, his life/experiences may have altered his shape and thought in a way I might not have expected. I don’t and can’t know who he’d be, what he’d think now, at his age. And I don’t really like the idea of putting words in a never-reached-but-still- nearly-34-year-old Martin’s mouth…

Oh, woe is me, etc. etc. As always, it’s remarkably easy to swiftly fall into sadness if there’s no challenge to think about things in a different light. It would be wrong of me to say that frustration at close birthdays was the prevailing emotion as we grew – we did have good ones. I did for instance have a rather excellent party, built on a posh dinner party theme, for which my brother performed the chief waiter role rather (surprisingly…) superbly. In return, I proper engaged myself at one of his, a full-on pirate-themed affair.

Mini Hadrian

Because of our birthdays being so close during the summer holidays, they have left me with some images to remember, like us having a Christmas Tree up in August at his request; him decked out as a roman soldier parading up and down Hadrian’s Wall; him not exactly taking the sport seriously whilst playing on the ‘very proper’ Brora Golf Club course and so on.

GolfMartin was the first person to greet me on my 18th, bucks fizz in hand, and some of my favourite photos are of us at my ensuing party, his hair spiked with blue, us dancing and sipping cocktails together. Happy, laughter-filled observances.


Maybe the task now then is simply to learn to accept that whilst Martin and I can no longer have more birthdays closely together, we did share some good ones, and it is the memories of these, rather than the regrets for future anniversaries, that should be remembered, clung to, and cherished as enablers of a sunnier tone for each year more of mine.


“Yet though the ocean with waves unending covers the earth

Yet is there loss after all?

For what e’er drifts from one place  is with the tide to another brought

And there’s naught lost beyond recall which cannot be found if sought.”

(Anne Dudley, taken from How the Tide Rushes In)

Theoretical Framework-ing with Lived Experience.

Theoretical Framework-ing with Lived Experience.

Given the nature of my PhD, my connectedness to the topic, it was always going to be the case that ‘care’ (in a broad sense) would be important. That’s really what going through the ethics approval process is ultimately for – to ensure precise steps are taken to ensure all who come into contact with the project are duly looked after so that, in the end, the research itself is cared for (in terms of it being conducted in a professionally-academic manner).

On the way to ethics though, there is the need to first ground the research, to, as they say, underpin and justify it with relevant concepts and theories, to ally it to a specific discipline.

I think it would be fair to say that the reading for and composing of this ‘core part of the thesis’ has taken me a bit by surprise. I have spent (Interruption of Studies aside) the best part of 12 months working on a particular area of this monolith, and I think I’ve just about worked out why. For a researcher with lived experience (particularly those involved with research topics highly sensitive in nature) the composing of the theoretical framework, long-before research design and decisions pertaining to data analysis fully come into play, can be a rather hard activity to tackle.

Cole, (2014) talk about how the handling of data in research projects referring to sensitive topics has the potential to produce secondary trauma effects for the researchers, that “Repeated exposure to text describing traumatic events…can be distressing” (97). I don’t wish to say reading for the theoretical framework is traumatising, (though I am sure there would be some students who would agree with that description), but I do wish to highlight an apparent underestimation of the way in which this component of a thesis can be an emotionally affecting element of the work (particularly for researchers with lived experience).

Let me explain. My work so far has largely focused on the realm of ‘The Sociology of the Family’, most recently sociological work with specific reference to siblings. Having never really read this way about sibling relationships before, it is perhaps not surprising that the topic would lead me to think of my own sibship. The problem with this however is that this prompted various assessments of my relationship in light of the fact that my brother took his own life. In effect, reviewing theories and concepts has led me to apply them in the light of the personal experience.

So, for instance, I read:
“siblings can be quite honest with each other in relation to their emotions; not having to pretend to hide their feelings.” (Punch, 2008: 336) 

And following reading, I wonder:
Did he think he couldn’t be honest with me? Did we have a ‘wrong’ relationship? Why did he not…? Should I have….?

Furthermore, the academic discussions of sibship create exposure to regret.

So for instance, I read:
“siblings…tend to be permanent members of people’s social networks throughout the life course, as the sibling bond is potentially the longest relationship people have.” (Voorpostel, et. al., 2007: 1027) 

“the presence of a new generation tends to open up the family, intensifying bonds with kin such as siblings.” (Voorpostel,, 2007: 1034)

And I relate – I now have a future life without the person I’d assumed would be in it always, and I don’t get to see how he would have been an uncle with my daughter.

The way in which this conceptual element of the literature review and thesis process is discussed is relatively neutral – just do it, you just have to ground the research, justify ‘the problem’; in essence it’s an academic formality. But from my experience (and I would argue for those researchers coming to a project as a result of their own personal experiences) I would suggest it can rather catch you out – and this leads me to view working on this section as rather more that ‘just a part of the process’, almost to thinking about it in terms of/drawing on ideas of ‘emotion work’ (Hochschild, 1979). In many respects, for me, reading on this subject was harder than thinking about dealing with interviews/ees and the suicide-grief stories of others (which is where the academic-institution concern principally lies), simply because it shoved a matter-of-fact theoretical spotlight on a very sensitive part of my lived experience.

Obviously this raises the question of researcher attachment and positioning, how to be both with the research and without it, in a way that does not skew the grounding of the research, leading to a research design derived from my lens alone. It is important to say that I didn’t identify with all the conceptual and theoretical elements of my reading – there were circumstances described that didn’t relate, and it was indeed this that first drew attention to when I was becoming affected. Consequently, as with managing data collection and analysis, it’s a matter of developing and having ‘steps to take’, and allowing space for reflexivity, acknowledging both personal and researcher heads exist and recognising when the former is at play more than the latter.

So here’s my list:
1. Accept and acknowledge that even though the reading may be about theoretical and conceptual ideas, there is a likelihood that elements of your lived experience may be triggered, (and it doesn’t make you a bad academic researcher for this to happen).

2. Adopt a stepped process to reading (this might take a little longer to do, but it may also help ensure the well-being of both self and the work):
a)  If you notice you’ve become affected by something you’ve read, note it, think it through, write about it and take a break. Get it out of your system.
b) Return to the article/chapter/paper/book having made a conscious decision to read as a researcher. Arm yourself with the questions ‘what does this have to do with THE RESEARCH?’, ‘how can I use this for THE RESEARCH?’. Remind yourself of the overall research purpose.

3. Manage your reading time in a way that allows for breaks, that allows you to close on one article/chapter etc., and what you think about it (both in terms of your experience and the connection of the content to your research overall), before moving on to the next.

4. Know who you can call on in terms of a support network, people/someone who will let you tell them about what you’ve read and how you felt about it personally. (Supervisors may not always be the ones for this, given the existing view of the framework as ‘just an essential part of the thesis’).

Honestly, after all this, just the opening to the project, the rest of it should be a doddle…. 😉

PhD, Interrupted.

PhD, Interrupted.

On 1st May 2018, I return to doctoral student-dom. I’ve ‘been off’ for 6 months, since my supervisors gently pointed out I *might* be heading for burnout and I should really (REALLY) consider interrupting my studies to ‘get sorted’.

If you take a moment to look around the inter-web, there are very few references or sources that give the student perspective on Interruption of Studies. Information is largely formal, process- and bureaucracy- focused, and, importantly, negative in tone, with references to things like ‘academic consequences’, phrasing that frankly sends a pretty unpleasant chill through the spine. One article I’ve seen was entitled ‘The Gamble of a PhD Hiatus’. Gamble? Hiatus? How to make you feel bad if you’re considering time away or what?! An Interruption is a risk, it’s damaging to reputation, it means a loss of momentum… You can maybe understand the negativity at a basic level – think about it: “Don’t interrupt me when I’m talking!” we may say/shout, the action considered most impertinent, not at all a good thing to do. In academic circles, Interruption, despite being sold as something to help nonetheless cannot help but push forward such associated ideas as, ‘you’ll fall behind’; ‘someone may well overtake you, cover your research topic and usurp your expertise whilst you’re off’; basically, ‘you can’t cope or hack the pressure, so really should you even be in academia at all?’.

When my supervisors brought up the possibility of inserting a ‘break’, I was to put it bluntly not happy. I was working my damned-hardest, and it felt like a kick in teeth. As a part-time student, balancing research with an exceedingly busy home-life and another job in a thoroughly unpleasant working environment, I thought I deserved a bit more credit. I pretty much knee-jerk-reacted and created my own interpretation of their words as being ‘you’re simply not good enough’. My PhD days in the week were the ones I looked forward to and they were telling me to give them up (admittedly they weren’t saying forever, but I occasionally have a tendency to dramatize…).

Suffice it to say, after almost running out of the supervision meeting room, my reaction to the proposal of Interruption developed into anger, based and focused on a number of aspects – I would instantly suffer the unanticipated loss of the needed income from my stipend (not helping but adding to existing stresses) and, most importantly, I was being told to put a passion I’d been working really hard on aside. Tantrumming thoughts arose: “maybe, for instance, if I hadn’t had to spend so much time doing ‘program-required’ training courses and writing essays on using the library or qualitative research methods, given I already have a qualitative-research-based PhD, perhaps I could have used time more productively?”; “maybe I should just pack it in, I don’t NEED a PhD, I could just do a book myself – I don’t need all that academic tick-boxing and red-tape-processing fencing me in” etc. ad infinitum. It took a few days to calm down and be able to think rationally about the situation, to realise that my supervisors had in fact done me a favour – this project is supremely important to me and I really wasn’t producing my best work, ‘doing it right’. Over a Thai dinner during a rare child-free weekend away in Edinburgh, it was my husband who eventually pushed me into recognising I was *perhaps* overreacting, and, actually, I really ought to continue with the project.

Having now almost had the six months I took, here are the two BIG THINGS I would say about an Interruption of Studies at PhD level:

  1. There is no break, there is no absence, there is no ‘being off’ – Interruption by no means whatsoever causes you to ‘leave’ your research (topic). In my case, I can’t really do that anyway, it being so intertwined with my daily life and all. Even if that weren’t the case though, a form saying ‘you have interrupted your studies’ does not automatically bring with it an interruption of your thinking. You’re already committed. Ideas remain and arrive, and interest remains and develops. The ‘world outside’ sometimes prompts a thought that connects in a way that you feel you must record. Once you’ve embarked on a PhD, there really is no way to fully detach from your subject, regardless of what the paperwork says. During your supposed break, you may still find yourself reassessing the topic, developing a new way of looking at it, or identifying a new angle that you want to approach it from – this is still working on your doctorate. You may also engage in activities or do bits and pieces of your own writing as they come to you, which you may (or may not) draw on later down the line. I, for instance, have had some personal writing on my bereavement accepted for a publication (without intending to do anything of the sort 6 months ago), and in this final week of ‘the break’ I will train as a Mental Health First Aider – not directly associated with my research subject, but definitely relevant in terms of knowledge and skills I can use for the PhD later on. I suppose my point is, during a study-break you don’t have to do anything, but it is likely you won’t be able to help yourself from doing something. Thus, Interruption doesn’t just equal increased viewing of daytime TV and, woo hoo, a holiday where you laze about (at home) – it does not remotely deserve to be thought of as being of this character.
  2. An Interruption of Studies is not a 100%-guaranteed cure for stress, and that should not even, I think, be the goal of one. Yes, it offers a bit of extra time to address (some of the) circumstances that led to the need for some form of break in the first place; but the end of an Interruption doesn’t mean, ‘Right, all is now PERFECT. Got over it. Done, dusted. Now, where was I?’. I’ve used my time to go back to counselling, which I didn’t really realise I needed at the start, and it has been good to have the space to talk through the various life aspects impinging on my studies. But I am not cured – I have learned new things about myself, how to manage myself in relation to others, how to recognise and not give in to Imposter Syndrome symptoms etc., but I have not banished all difficulties for good. Do we return to study at ‘full strength’? No… but maybe we do so at fullER strength, which is enough. I’m a little anxious/apprehensive about returning to the project, about how smoothly the transition back into both the role and topic will occur, but I think it would be a bit odd if that wasn’t the case, if I were entirely, 100% confident. The value of an Interruption, I would say, is actually becoming more aware of yourself, especially of how to work with yourself, not just with your research topic and/or your supervisors, in managing the intense process that doctoral study is and will continue to be, once the formal time-off period has officially ended.

If I were to briefly summarise then, my Interruption, rather than an unfavourable loss of ‘work time’, can be seen and described as the insertion of self-care, -reflection and -development time that can only benefit my future working processes once I formally re-enrol as a doctoral student.

Now that can’t be a negative thing really, can it?

The Clef and The Hummingbird

The Clef and The Hummingbird

At the foot of the Penglais Road hill in the Welsh town of Aberystwyth, there is a small, almost shack-looking, one-storey beige building that is the West Coast tattoo parlour. I passed it almost daily, during my commute to the lectures and seminars and Union Bar nights-out of my undergraduate-student days, each time tempted to investigate more. A friend of mine had had a large red rose with green splayed-out thorns and leaves printed into her lower back and I thought it was lovely, graceful. At the age of 19/20ish, though I never voiced the thought, I really wanted my own tattoo, something ‘little and pretty’ was my thinking. Then I heard a rumour story about another friend who’d fainted and fallen off a chair due to the pain whilst having one done – I never found out the truth basis of the tale, but nonetheless even the slightest idea that such a needle response could happen kind of put me off. I moved on to other desires.
Now, however, a little over six years on from my little brother and only sibling taking his own life, I have two tattoos.


My first tattoo is my ‘reminder of him’. I chose to have it done to tie in with my brother’s birthday, three days after my own in August. I decided on a treble clef design that incorporates a semi-colon, tattooed on the inside of my left wrist – the sign of music to symbolize my brother’s love and talents, and the semi-colon to signify his struggle and passing, and my nod to Project Semicolon, which focuses on the prevention of suicide through raising awareness and fighting the stigma that exists in talking about suicide. The inking experience was more emotional than I had thought it would be, despite how swiftly and efficiently it was carried out. I asked an already-tattooed friend to accompany me – just because I decided to have it done, does not mean I forgot the ‘friend-fainting-and-falling’ story. She held my hand and told me to wiggle my toes to give myself a different bodily area to concentrate on whilst the needle pierced my wrist. I was surprised at how much that tip worked, but it didn’t stop me from thinking about my brother. I welled up. And then it was all over, and I fell more in love with the image on my skin than I had expected I would.


My second tattoo is my ‘reminder to self’. The timing chosen for having it done, lunchtime in the middle of an average week, tied this one into daily, continuing life. The experience was a bit more surreal than the first – I went on my own, listened to the artists debate the merits of tinned peaches and carrots immediately prior to the inking, and it hurt much, much more. For this image, I chose an outline of a hummingbird positioned on the front of my right ankle, a very visible location for myself every day (especially in the morning). The image was not a random choice – having lived in Mexico for almost two years I’ve seen a few of these tiny, most beautiful of birds; my husband and I even visited a local café called El Colibri (The Hummingbird) every week. But these coincidences aside, it is what the hummingbird means that led me to choose the image –  this animal is about overcoming challenges, being mini yet full of strength and courage to handle the troubles and pains it encounters. The feathered-friend also symbolises love and looking for the nectar in life always, despite the traumas that present – even its wings adopt the ‘eternity’, figure-of-eight shape.

It is so easy after losing a sibling to suicide to get stuck. It can feel like you’re in some kind of existence-time-warp because no matter how many new things you do, experiences you have, that one day that changed everything can repeat in your mind at any moment of its choosing, pulling you backwards and demanding your attention over and over again. There is a want to remember and a want to move forward that live in tandem, that are experienced like the rise and fall of sea waves as ‘the days/months/years since’ accumulate. Bad intersects with the good, and sometimes things can feel so inter-tangled with one another that it is hard to suss out where and who exactly you are, especially on an emotional level.

Karen Leader writes about tattoos as being ‘Stories on the Skin’, that they can represent ‘layers of meaning’ and be empowering for the person who has them – far from the derogatory connotations they often have, tattoos can be used to creatively symbolise key events and moments in your life, as a means of helping you tell your story. Dickson et. al. adds to this by referencing Atkinson’s 2003 analysis that tattoos can be a means of self/identity expression, especially where there have been “role transitions, changes in life that have important impacts on identity.” (108). I relate to that very much, and I also take a lot from Leader’s comment that:

“Tattoo narratives…tell a story from the past, but have a unique presentness to them. They do not record a frozen moment in history, but a continual process of becoming” (Leader, 2016: 190)

For me this is how my images work. Skin holds and shows its natural stories through things like aging-caused wrinkles, spots or scars; my tattoos are the special editions I’ve added to my library. Their permanency on my skin entirely reflects my relationship with my brother, the very marking nature of ‘the day the world changed’ and the continued learning-to-live-with my loss. I want to remember my brother, his person and life; I want to remember, as strange as it sounds, that his death was self-inflicted, as a reminder to talk and raise awareness about suicide (as my tattoos can be really helpful as conversation starters), to do my bit in combatting the stigma that it has; but I also want the loss to not take over my whole being and life, wishing to live with and despite it. My tattoos help me do all these things. And at a very basic level, sometimes it is simply useful to have externalities to prompt the self when there is a ‘rough day’ going on – my clef gives me something physical to run my finger over, to trace the line and and remember, something to grant permission to indulge and wallow a little; my hummingbird is something physical to help in giving myself comfort (as well as sometimes a good talking to) in terms of ‘this is just one bad day; remember all the rest and keep going’.

Getting my tattoos was not an impulsive act – they were carefully thought out and reasoned in relation to the events and emotions I have lived, and continue to live, through. I’m ever so glad I have them.

*This post will also appear in upcoming US book publication ‘Surviving Sibling Suicide’, being compiled by Lena Heilmann Ph.D.*

At Where You’re At – An Anniversary Plea

At Where You’re At – An Anniversary Plea

Mrs Higson was a fearsome woman to behold. At least to me. With Margaret-Thatcher hair, heels and handbag (and a personal vendetta against the word ‘nice’ because “it is a word that means absolutely nothing”), she was an English teacher and a half. I don’t remember the specifics of the task set, but when I was fourteen or so, for homework I had pilfered the characters of Pride and Prejudice to write ‘a next chapter’. I also don’t remember the specifics of the text I produced; but I do recall that after hearing the work of others in my class, during an unexpected ‘read your work aloud’ session, I panicked. I subsequently didn’t read mine out as written because, basically, it to me sounded nothing short of diabolical. Consequently, I stumbled all over my words and all I really remember is mumbling something about Mr Darcy getting run over by a horse-and-cart, and standing isolated as my classmates, leaning back in their chairs behind their individual, wood-scratched, ink-welled desks, laughed raucously for longer than I really would have liked. And to top it off, I actually made Mrs H smile. Arms were still crossed, but she failed to stop the upward-curl of mouth-corner. I was dying inside, felt utterly humiliated. I struggled with the production of my own words from that day on.

It’s such a clear school memory for me that I can’t help thinking that it contributed to my need to find the words of others to express what I’ve really wanted to say since the death of my brother. Rather than writing them for myself, I’ve gone looking for those ‘meaningful quotes’ that people like to post on Facebook – someone else can always sum it up better than I. I’ve cried at the work of others as they’ve ‘really nailed it’, ‘it’ being the account of the emotions of losing a sibling to suicide, of grief, of living with loss etc. I’ve never felt capable of ‘really nailing it’ for myself.

Today marks the sixth anniversary of my brother’s death, and I’ve decided this year that instead of seeking some kind of spokesperson, or minimal quote, I would quite like to try and use some of my own words to express what that means.

The thing about anniversaries is that in the common mindset they consist of just one day. Birthdays, Christmases, wedding anniversaries – the focus is on the one-day nature of the occasion each year. With loss, the same is true. There is certainly that one day where the person who was becomes gone. And the related assumption can then be ‘well it’s just one day that you need to ‘get through’’. But here’s where I think a loss anniversary is different – often it can be the build up to the anniversary that is the hardest part, not the ‘day of death’ itself.

Imagine the build up to Christmas, the exciting, warm, mulled-wine and citrusy-smelling, glittery and shiny, event-filled, family and friend-loving month, (maybe two), that culminates in that one day labelled ‘Christmas Day’. Despite the willingness to partake and enjoyment experienced, think of the energy needed to keep up with the to-do list, decorating, event schedules etc.

Now imagine this; the memory-revisiting, visual-recalling, nightmare-enduring, question-re-asking, emotion-resurfacing, photograph-gazing, social-avoiding, circumstance-analysing, guilt-reminding, confidence-and-concentration-inhibiting, restlessness-feeling, and overall person-missing month, (or maybe two, or three, or four…), that culminates in the day that is labelled ‘the day [my loved one] died by suicide’. Despite not wanting any of these aspects, think of the energy required to just juggle (even hide) them alongside everyday ‘normal’ life demands.

What ‘Martin’s anniversary’ on 15th December means for me is a series of rumblings, and then explosions, of emotions and memories relating to his (and our) entire lives that begins in (according to a now recognisable pattern) late October. I recall him as ‘baby-unreasonable-and-downright-annoying-brother’ all the way through to ‘man-decent-to-converse-and-drink-with-brother’ before dwelling, as the date approaches, on the truly awful manner of his death. I don’t specifically devote time to look for the memories to recall – they pop up when they do. No warning, no asking. Welcome, sometimes worth a laugh, but simultaneously just so very, very sad.

And then what this ‘anniversary’ also means is an accumulation of time minus him, another mark of a year of ‘a different me’, the one ‘after him’; another year of his being frozen in time while more memories (that can’t be shared) have been made in his absence.

There is a broad sense that ‘the first anniversary is the hardest’. It is. But so is the second, third, fourth, fifth, to infinity. Each anniversary is ‘the hardest’ for different reasons because emotions endure beyond the immediate aftermath (especially in the case of traumatic losses) into the longer term. A person has to continue to live but forever has that pull to the past that the loss exhibits to them. With a loss as tragic as suicide, it is hard not to have every day as a form of anniversary given the weight of it on mind. And having said I want to not use the words of others, I kind of need to…. Rosenblatt noted in 2008 that, “bereaved people rarely say that they have recovered” (cited in Gibson, J., 2010: 525) – it often appears it is ‘outsiders’ who seem to use the number of anniversaries passed as a means of judging ‘where the bereaved is (or should) be at’ in relation to the loss they’ve experienced.

So rather than mumbling through my words for shame in them, I would like to this year make a clear plea from what I’ve learned from Martin’s death:

People after bereavement are simply at where they are at, regardless of anniversary number. If you know someone who has experienced a major loss or difficult/traumatic day (in any form that matters to them, not just through suicide), please be aware of how they are called upon to live with it beyond that one day each year. Be wise to how their bereavement may affect them, often in waves, across different times and years, and that their grief will continue as long as it does. Ask how they are and (if they want to tell you), listen to them. Don’t judge. They don’t need someone to fix anything; they just want some compassion and openness to be able to grieve and remember as they feel is necessary for them.

Can’t help wondering what Mrs H would have made of this….


Martin Andrew Sutherland, 11th August 1984 – 15th December 2011.

15th December 2017:

Hi little bro, I am still mad at you, I still love you, I’m still so very, very sorry, and I will always, always miss you. Me xx

Source mentioned:

Gibson, J., Gallagher, M. and Jenkins, M. (2010). ‘The Experiences of Parents Readjusting to the Workplace Following the Death of a Child by Suicide’ in Death Studies, 34:6, 500-528.