Social contexts of a family death

Making sense of family deaths: diversities, contexts and comparisons

Jane Ribbens McCarthy, the Open University and University of Reading

Despite calls for cross-cultural research, Minority world perspectives still dominate death and bereavement studies, emphasising individualised emotions and neglecting contextual diversities. In research concerned with contemporary African societies, on the other hand, death and loss are generally subsumed within concerns about AIDS or poverty, with little attention paid to the emotional and personal significance of a death. Here we draw on interactionist sociology to present major themes from our qualitative study of family deaths in urban Senegal, drawing on our in-depth interviews with people who have experienced the death of an adult family member, interviewing two people from different generations in each family. The interviews set out to explore both the practical and emotional significance of the deaths. We also held focus groups and interviewed local, religious and government leaders (as described elsewhere on this website). As discussed in our article on translation issues, this research sought to prioritise listening to people’s experiences on their own terms, as a way of moving beyond dominant post-colonial, Anglophone perspectives.

In our most recent article we try to understand how people made sense of the deaths in the circumstances of their lives. We theorise this in terms of ‘meanings-in-context’, since meanings and contexts are inextricably bound up together and cannot be separated out: meanings are shaped by particular – local and global – contexts, but contexts are also shaped by the meanings through which people experience their life circumstances. We discuss how people made sense of the family death in relation to three main contexts: family, religion, and materiality. In relation to family and religion particularly, the death was understood very much as a communal experience.

A street in the low-income neighbourhood of Guédiawaye on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal

Our interviewees’ families followed very much the pattern one expects to find in Senegal, of large, fluid households and family networks, with people sometimes living and moving between different households. Families are considered to be absolutely central to people’s lives, being the major source of support and security in precarious life circumstances. After a death, then, families were a key source of support and also of motivation, for the future of the family as a whole. Their significance could also mean, however, that people were unwilling to fall out with other family members even if they felt somewhat aggrieved by some particular issue. When a family member died, it was the role they played in family life that was central to the sense of loss, and they were often described as ‘irreplaceable’ in these terms.

Additionally, living in urban areas with some family members residing in distant villages, local neighbours and friends were also crucial in the early days after a death, generally ensuring that people were not left alone at any time in the immediate aftermath. However, the ability to provide support clearly varied according to the level of resources in different neighbourhoods, and such support could sometimes be quite short lived.

Religion (primarily Sufi Islam along with a minority identifying themselves as Christians or animists) was another key communal context for making sense of the death. It was only a minority of people who gave a medical cause of death, although others might refer to physical symptoms. Rather, detailed holistic accounts were often given, of events leading up to the death, and the idea that the death was ‘God’s Will’ was frequently mentioned. Additionally, religion was the overwhelming framework for dealing with the death in terms of burial and funeral customs, and for on-going practices such as making offerings in remembrance of the dead. At the same time, the idea that it was God’s Will provided many people with a significant basis for accepting the death, although sometimes this might also mean that ‘too many tears’ might be frowned upon as indicating an inability to accept God’s Will.

The third context that we discuss is materiality, and in particular we consider how emotions were bound up with the material consequences of the death, which could be severe. This particularly contrasts with ideas of affluent Minority worlds, where emotions are generally understood as something separate from material life. Consequently it is a theoretical challenge to understand how far emotions may be expressed through statements about material circumstances in these Senegalese interviews. It was very notable how emotions were otherwise discussed very little in direct terms, sometimes through such brief phrases as ‘it’s hard’.

Throughout the article we consider how these Senegalese interviews compare with experiences of ‘bereavement’ in the UK and other countries, in line with Klass’ call for cross-cultural understandings of grief. In conclusion, then, we also summarise some overall comparisons between Senegalese and UK responses to death, considering how the points of divergence between them offer different strengths and limitations in terms of how people dealt with the deaths, rather than considering them according to some idea of what constitutes a ‘healthy’ response (see for example, Paul Rosenblatt’s 2015 chapter, ‘Grief in Small-scale Societies’ in Death and Bereavement Across Cultures). For example, in Senegal people had a strong basis for accepting the death, and strong social support in the immediate aftermath of the death, but they might have less basis of support for expressing on-going emotions and ensuring material needs were met. In the UK, there may be less of a framework for accepting the death, but more of a view of ‘grief’ as an on-going ‘emotional journey’ over time.

This study provides the opportunity to try to understand how differently death may be experienced in different parts of the world, as well as what may be shared. We also turn the spotlight on the UK to ask what light these interviews shed on the accepted ways of doing things in affluent societies, and the ways in which this challenges dominant taken-for-granted assumptions in the bereavement literature. The interviews threw up many surprises and challenges about how to understand them. We believe such work is absolutely crucial in helping to challenge dominant assumptions, and provide insights that may help to start to make us think twice about the limitations of dominant Minority world ways of thinking.

Jane Ribbens McCarthy is a Visiting Fellow at the Open University and a Visiting Professor at the University of Reading and was Co-Investigator for the Leverhulme Trust research project, Death in the Family in Urban Senegal: bereavement, care and family relations.

This blog post is a brief summary of the article: Ribbens McCarthy, J., Evans, R., Bowlby, S., Wouango, J. (2018) Making sense of family deaths in urban Senegal: diversities, contexts and comparisons. Omega Journal of Death and Dying. DOI: 10.1177/0030222818805351.

Full text available on request from here or from Jane Ribbens McCarthy: or Ruth Evans:; @DrRuth_Evans.  A complete copy of the text can also be downloaded from here.