Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

When a Respondent Dies: A Note on Mourning, Research and the Academy

Walking on a sunny afternoon, you would think the last thing to happen would be getting news of a death, let alone of someone you knew. But as I opened my phone to check a message and picture from one of the interlocuters at my research site, it was right there: Felipe [a pseudonym], one of my respondents, had died exactly three weeks after his interview for my project. I hurriedly texted back asking what I could do to provide support for him and the other workers as the static face of my now-deceased respondent stared back at me. “By doing what you already do…you create a space for them [the workers] to tell their stories,” he replied. I stuffed my phone in my pocket and trudged onward.

After getting home, I rushed to my room, grabbed my research folder, and dove onto my bed to haphazardly sift through all of the consent forms I had. The flutter of paper rang in my ears as the edges grazed my fingertips. No. No. No. None of the names matched the fuzzy title printed on his ID badge and the discard pile was only increasing. In that moment, I felt like I had not only lost him but also any record of a formerly-incarcerated man who had barely experienced freedom. Somehow, that had felt even worse than the news of his death because both he and his story might have been lost. A relieved sigh escaped my lips when his name finally popped up. I grabbed my recording device and thumbed through the audio files until I got to his. Still, the lingering reality of his death made me hesitate; my finger stiffly dangled over the play button. Was I actually ready to listen to a dead man? I swallowed the lump in my throat and pressed down.

Felipe’s voice would blast through my earbuds for hours as we ‘spoke’ well into the night, repeatedly asking and answering the same questions. Yet, every replay felt like an entirely new conversation as I found myself smiling and laughing at jokes I’ve already heard over and over. I could hear the din of the elevators outside the interview room, the whirring of large trucks as they drove by outside, and the dull scrape of chairs against the carpet beneath our feet. Every gesture and smile would briefly come into focus just as quickly as it left. But even these fleeting images made me feel like I was keeping some small part of him alive. More still, it made me realize how much detail I had taken for granted when we actually spoke.

At just 52, Felipe had been incarcerated for nearly 30 years on top of being in and out of the criminal justice system since he was 12. Pulled away from his family in Los Angeles, he had to serve his parole in San Francisco and was still a long way from coming home. But he still spoke with a self-assured calmness that his life was getting better and he even saw a lucrative future as a tattoo artist once things really got in motion; the intricate portraits carved into his arms spoke for themselves. I traced the contours of ink with my eyes as he continued talking on the recording. Eventually, the lump in my throat returned and I had to pause his punctuated monologue. That moment of silence is what actually compelled me to not only finally accept Felipe’s death but also reflect on what this death meant for my project and my role in it.

For many qualitative researchers conducting one-off studies, we never really have to confront the mortality of the people we engage. This is an odd stance given the ravages of the ongoing COVID pandemic but it does not seem to have much of an effect on research procedures. Recruitment happens. The data gets gathered and analyzed. Maybe a follow-up here and there to clarify some points. But ultimately, everyone is frozen in time for both the researcher and their audience. There is no before or after, just the content of the study, just data points. Recognizing the disconnect between life and what is documented is jarring and even alienating in some cases when that contradiction is brought into stark relief. We begin to recognize the limits of our agency and the sheer scale of things outside of our control once they pervade the lives of those we are creating knowledge with. What, then, is our responsibility to these people once these circumstances are aggravated or even prove fatal during the course of our study? What is to be done?

This isn’t the first time I have had to grapple with these questions in the academy. Indeed, they have haunted me for the better part of a year. A few months ago, a longtime undergraduate mentee of mine was incarcerated. And while an outpouring of community support demonstrated the power of solidarity at the time, the letter of support I sent to the defense attorney didn’t feel like enough. He is still in jail and correspondence with mutual friends revealed that his mental health is continuing to deteriorate. I was shaken and helpless but ultimately furious. Was I really just supposed to go back to business as usual? Someone’s life was essentially taken from them and I was supposed to just live out my own? Where was the time for mourning? Where was the time to process the grief I shared with his family and community members? To these questions, neither my department nor the university as a whole had an answer. And now I had to confront this same absence with someone who I had barely even known yet felt duty-bound to remember.

However, the tension between remembrance and confidentiality started chafing against, and augmented, my frustration. This was not ‘my data.’ It was someone’s last testament. But did I really have any right to share this story as a researcher given the constraints of my Institutional Review Board proposal? Was I even in a position to share his name in any public forum? Did his family have a right to his file? How was I supposed to get in contact with them? Did he want his family to even hear what he had said? There was that question again: what is to be done? I resumed the recording and tried my best to look for an answer but every replay came up short no matter how many times I skipped around, fast-forwarded, or slowed down. All I could hear was Felipe talking about the life he was prepared to live. Perhaps what I was looking for wasn’t there.

I finally pulled my earbuds out and pressed pause for the final time, allowing the silence to wash over the ringing of Felipe’s voice. I sat in that silence for a while once it had fully taken hold. Ironically, my attempts to process my grief — and its echoes — forced me to sit with everything that I had collected just like my research advisor encouraged me to do the week before. I began scrolling through the list of other recordings. Would I soon have to repeat this process given that all of my respondents are formerly-incarcerated? Findings on the deleterious effects of prison on one’s life expectancy are not new. Indeed, many of my respondents have faced similar, or longer, sentences than Felipe himself and were around the same age. Of course, while I knew that similarities in circumstances didn’t necessarily mean similarities in outcomes, I couldn’t help but feel like Felipe wouldn’t be the only death. I might have to grapple with the same announcement in the coming months of transcription and analysis. What a sobering realization.

Was I really just supposed to go back to business as usual?

In processing this likelihood, I had to make a few things clear to myself with the data I had. First, I was not some sort of insider that was uniquely posed to share Felipe’s — or anyone’s — story. I just had recordings and transcripts that contained only a sliver of their lives. Second, how I processed death could not fetishize the grieving process and thus decenter their lived experiences. Third, anything that I ended up doing had to avoid turning them into an object of contemplation; I had to retain their humanity. Fourth and finally, posthumous consent was not possible so any approval I hoped to garner had to be painstakingly triangulated among those they trusted. All of these considerations made for a tall order when constructing an agenda of some sort, one that would encourage remembrance while also holding me accountable. Whether it could be achieved or not was beside the point. I had to hold my efforts to a standard that could be easily defined and recognized.

This line of thinking is not new in the broader tradition of qualitative research but it is something that is often overlooked. On one hand, one-off studies of people rarely have to deal with respondents’ mortality because they are alive during data collection. What happens beyond that time period is comparatively of little consequence if we make no attempts to stay in contact. On the other hand, longitudinal studies often keep this reality in mind but it may sometimes be rendered as a question of contextualized attrition when carrying out analyses. Essentially, data points — not people — are lost and that loss influences the findings in ways that cannot be recovered.

In all fairness to the enterprise itself, attempting to deal with the full complexity of people in our studies would be insurmountably exhausting and tools are needed to mitigate what we do end up engaging with. Moreover, there is the chance it will undercut our own personhood in the process as we attend to everyone’s lives but our own. Self-effacement is equally violent and a huge disservice to knowledge production as well as our emotional and mental health. Still, the extent to which researchers are able to take emotional entanglements seriously has drawbacks if implemented uncritically. The gendered and racial division of emotional labor would likely put more pressure on certain populations of researchers than others. Unequal standards for assessing care and empathy vis-à-vis research subjects and the project itself are then able to emerge with little institutional pushback and we inevitably fall back to square one. What is to be done?

There is no one right answer to the problem of grief in qualitative research — nor the mourning that accompanies it — when a respondent dies. But taking the time to hold their passing is at least one way that is worth considering. Without that space, we are denied the opportunity to construct the tools we need to actually process it. Highlighting this limitation goes beyond research and offers a mirror to academia as a whole that is less a condemnation and more an invitation to discuss when, where, and how we affirm that humanity of others that we come into contact with. And in the case of death, what do we do to preserve their memory and honor the time we had together? What processes of institutional boundary making prevent these connections from being cultivated and are they even worth preserving?

Without that space, we are denied the opportunity to construct the tools we need to actually process it.

As I sit staring at the play button glowing beneath my fingers, the questions pinging around my head continue to make me uncomfortable. Felipe’s death was not just a fissure in my project, it was a fissure that laid bare the shortcomings of how we as researchers fail to hold death. I still choose to sit with this discomfort, though, because his life was far more than the portion I recorded. He was on his way towards freedom and his family. He had dreams that were well within his grasp. Those are the memories I choose to hold as I continue to search for answers.

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