‘What are you studying?’, ‘Well….’

‘What are you studying?’, ‘Well….’

It’s always interesting noting the reaction of people to my answer to the question, ‘What are you studying?’ I find the initial, mostly-instantaneous, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them, probably-involuntary responses fascinating; indeed, I think they are pretty indicative of the wide spectrum of general views regarding the subject of suicide bereavement.

Take for instance, last week. The joy of SCONUL that allows access to academic libraries outside of the home option meant I recently had the chance to broaden my source-searching locations. I filled in the requisite paperwork, provided the necessary face-to-camera pose for the access-card photo, and listened to the spoken guide covering access times and borrowing rights. Then the person on the help-desk asked, ‘So is there anything particular you are looking for? What are you studying?’, ‘Suicide bereavement and siblings’. Their eyes widened and they puffed out their cheeks hamster-style, before releasing a big blow-out of air and stating, ‘Right…well….I don’t know about that’. There was a lengthy, take-stock pause before they guided me to possible Dewey ranges where relevant texts might be. On a separate occasion, the reply (after a rather lengthy pause) was ‘That’s not what I was expecting.’ Why? What would a person be ‘expected’ to study? Is that a comment on the subject, or on the female researcher stating that this is her research topic? Unfortunately, ‘ice-breaker’ chat times don’t really provide the right kind of scenarios for me to explore such responses further… In general, comments that have been directed at my response have ranged from (referring to actual words) ‘Oh…well…that’s not a laugh a minute, is it?!’ (What research is?), to ‘Really?! That’s fascinating. How are you going with that?’, which is obviously a response I thoroughly appreciate and engage with, one that leads to rather brilliant conversations.

Dickson-Swift et.al. (2008: ix), talking from experience, have mentioned that there is possibility of researchers being “not immune from the stigma” of the topics they pursue, with people in the vicinity of the projects, (especially those involving ‘sensitive topics’), prone to speculating about the reasons for researchers’ engagement with such subject matters. Before starting my research, I hadn’t really appreciated that a mere mention of the words ‘suicide bereavement’ would provoke such polarised, instant reactions. Not only that, the range of negative/judgemental to positive/interested responses has really highlighted to me the depth of feelings that the topic can evoke – I knew it was a controversial, sensitive topic but not one THAT strong across the board. I would like responses to my answer to be predominantly of the latter-mentioned tone, the former sometimes inducing personal feelings of awkwardness, but I fear society simply is not in ‘that place’ yet with regard to its relationships with either suicide or bereavement, never-mind the two together. Obviously, it is not for me to address that alone; there are thousands of admirable people working hard to boost this need to not view ‘suicide’ and ‘suicide bereavement’ as ‘taboo’ subjects. For me, regardless of any perceptions of stigma being attached to my person, in monitoring these reactions as my research continues, I think I will maintain part of the fuel needed to drive the project, and contribute to building that open discussion.