Everyday Sociology Diary: Death and Emotional Labour

Everyday Sociology Diary: Death and Emotional Labour
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Karen Sternheimer

Since the pandemic began in 2020, I have “attended” three funerals online: two for elderly relatives with cancer and one for the father of an elderly friend with Alzheimer’s. Being thousands of miles away, online options have saved the time and expense of making last-minute travel arrangements. I appreciated the privacy of watching a funeral alone because I can get emotionally overwhelmed Other people appears emotionally overwhelmed.

Of course, this is part of what the funeral ritual is for: to comfort the bereaved and to be in a place where grief can be openly expressed. In most social settings, there are unwritten rules that encourage us to suppress any impulse to cry uncontrollably. We usually try to hold back crying and tears whenever possible. At funerals, such rules are relaxed, but they still exist. This echoes Erving Goffman’s point that we try to “regulate…direct interaction” in his book. Behavior in public places (p. 8).

Being alone meant I didn’t have to manage my emotions, which could include being quite sad, or dress the way I expected to at a funeral. As Goffman elaborates in his discussion of appearance, “failure to present oneself to a gathering … is likely to be taken as a sign of some sort of disregard for the environment and its participants” (pp. 25-26). Simply put, I could be sad without doing a lot of emotional work. Managing emotions is a form of emotional work that we often do in social situations and at work in order to behave in a socially appropriate way.

Death requires emotional labor, labor that is often invisible and varies from relationship to relationship. A surviving elderly spouse may need a lot of emotional support from their children, if they have any. In turn, they also have to manage their own grief and can get support from their spouses and children if they have them. Friends and more distant relatives still play different roles in this process, and it is sometimes difficult to know how best to fulfill these roles.

I remember the first funeral I attended when I was a teenager and one of my grandparents died. The family sat apart from the rest of the attendees, perhaps to grieve in private. We were all quiet and sullen, trying to hold back. My grandmother’s friend entered the space wailing and crying, which was very disturbing. Family members were then tasked with helping this woman cope her grief, not the other way around.

Also, when a person appears to be in their last days, some people may hope to come and say goodbye, but this can be overwhelming for those who come and go in and out of consciousness. Close family members may be reluctant to receive guests, even if these “guests” are family members or friends. It can be extremely difficult to help visitors deal with emotions and increase the emotional labor of the dying person and their family members.

This work begins when a man is told that he is terminally ill, and Peter Kaufman so eloquently described his death:

People in my situation know that death and dying make for awkward social interactions that most of us, myself included, would rather avoid. If the tables were turned and I had to chat with an acquaintance who was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I can’t say I would do it any differently. Most of us have never been taught the language of how to communicate comfortably with a dying person. Small talk can be hard enough – coming up with innocuous comments to someone you know is about to die is downright unnerving.

What to say is difficult, so we often fall back on clichés or try to think of something to say that will comfort the family. But words are almost always missing.

I admit to being somewhat relieved when offers to visit a dying relative were politely declined. Not knowing what to say to the person and their immediate family was worrying, but I wanted to show my concern and support. The offer to bring food to the cousins ​​seemed to be enough. Texting a heart emoji seemed like such a small thing, but a cousin told me how much it meant to know I was thinking of them during a difficult time. Heart texts didn’t ask questions or seek anything in return, not even an answer.

Conversely, someone who might insist on dating a person might put their immediate family in an awkward position. In the case of one family member, the hospital allowed only a few guests at a time, and she had several children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. A distant relative demanded to see her one last time and politely declined, as it would have precluded the opportunity for a nearer relative to be with her. For the last few days, she was unconscious, and the only visitors were her children, who wanted to personally experience their mother’s passing.

Because relationships between people are often complex, dealing with loss creates ongoing emotional labor. Guilt over things done or not done, anger over past hurts, and ongoing grief can create ongoing work for both the bereaved and their support system. And because people deal with loss differently, what brings comfort to one person may not comfort another.

More than one million Americans have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) COVID Tracker. That leaves many more millions dealing with the emotional labor of grief, bereavement and the support of friends and family left behind. And yet we hardly talk about this social process.

Understanding death through the lens of emotional labor helps us understand that the process takes place and affects not only survivors, but also friends, family, and acquaintances who try to provide comfort to the living.

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