Death instead of life: The ambiguity of managing the life-death boundary

Komaromy, Carol (2007). Death instead of life: The ambiguity of managing the life-death boundary. In: 8th International Conference on the Social Context of Death, Dying and Disposal, 12-15 Sep 2007, Bath, UK.



Stillbirth and neonatal death can cause great emotional suffering to family and friends. Midwives are charged with offering support to parents at this very difficult time of loss and yet they are often traumatised by the shock of an unexpected stillbirth or neonatal death. The professional demeanour of the midwife at this time is central to this exploration. Based on the work of Hochschild (1983) and Goffman’s theory of perfomativity, the paper draws on the need for everyone to manage these feelings through emotional labour. Over the past thirty years there has been a normative shift (in the UK at least) from concealing dead babies to encouraging bereaved parents to hold and handle the body of the deceased baby as an important part of the grieving process. This shift requires careful management and the paper raises questions about the role of emotion for parents and professionals in this situation. The event of stillbirth takes place at a time when birth is often (though not always) anticipated. The difficulty that is associated with making sense of this type of event creates ambiguity for everyone involved. In this paper, I argue that this difficulty is the same regardless of the practice. Indeed, at a time of a greater recognition of the range of individual diversity of need in bereavement and the academic shift to post-modern grief theories, using a one-size-fits-all doctrinal approach imposes an expectation on parents to want to see their dead baby. This has become the norm and responding to that norm requires what Goffman calls impression management. In other words, the scope for hidden feelings can be just as great whatever the institutional or social framing of the response to death. This paper explores some of the ways in which this ambiguity, as part of the pain of loss, is managed and draws on data from one midwife’s experiences of stillbirth in a labour ward and an interview with a woman whose grandson, called Elliot, died just three hours after birth. Elliot’s death was totally unexpected and I explore the extent to which his body was used as a form of comfort and its central role in helping everyone to negotiate his identity. The data highlights how one of the consequences of the collision between life and death results in ambiguity with a fragile script with which to negotiate this performance.

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