Remaining with death

Khyati Tripathi with a personal journey into death studies.

30 September 2019

There is a window. Whenever I walk past that window, it reminds me of all the deaths that have been part of my life. Of a best friend at the age of 14, of the floormate in uni halls in London who was found dead in her room. Of a classmate who died all of a sudden. Of my uncle who died and I couldn’t even see his body because we were continents apart. It reminds me of the touch of my grandfather’s cold body at the age of seven. It even conjures all the deaths I dread witnessing in the future. Welcome to the world of an interdisciplinary death researcher. 

I have been trying to understand ‘death’ in different ways for ten years now. I started when I was just 19. I had lost a dear friend, and I was always conscious of death, in every moment. Of its certainty and permanence. I wanted to know what happens when you make death conscious for people; when they are reminded of its certainty. There was something about imminent death that had me hooked, and so I designed a study to work with terminally ill patients. 

I wanted to talk to them, but I didn’t know if they would want to talk to me. To my surprise, my first interview went on for six hours. People had so much to share, to speak, to ask. I pursued my study, reading widely. I studied scriptures in Hinduism, Christianity and Islam to understand how death is defined in these religious writings. In a later study, I immersed myself in the narratives of MahaBrahmins, the Hindu death priests who are perceived to have a close relationship with death. I undertook an ethnographic study on the taboo around their occupation, and their social status in North India. 

My research became my personal journey. A friend once told me how her father is still grieving her grandfather, who died almost 15 years ago. I decided to dedicate myself to the field, to develop cross-cultural techniques of intervention that can be used to help those like my friend’s father. I knew that somewhere down the line, I might need them too.

The threads of research

This field isn’t for everyone. Remaining with death, even vicariously, is not something all people are comfortable with. We’re taught to be objective and unbiased in our research, but how can you avoid absorbing the emotions around you?

I remember the questionnaire I had used for one of my studies. I asked terminally ill participants to rate whether ‘death is a reliever of pain’. It was just an item on a paper for me, until I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis seven years ago. The excruciating pain from the neck to ankle, and the sound of rubble that I could hear from inside of me, made me question the existence of the material body repeatedly. At night, while I slept, my father would turn me every five minutes from one shoulder to another because my shoulders were unable to bear the weight for more than a few minutes. One night, I woke up in unbearable pain, limped towards the living room and sat on the arm of the couch.… I couldn’t bend my knees to sit. I kept staring into thin air, stuck in a liminal space, on the couch but not on the couch. In that moment of introspection, one aspect of my participants’ lives started making sense to me. I understood why most of them marked ‘true’ for that item. Death takes away the pain, but in that very moment it embeds an invisible but permanent sadness in the loved ones. 

The threads of research become intertwined with the threads of a researcher’s life, and death became omnipresent for me. The thought that my parents are going to leave me someday still makes me anxious… many times I wake up in the middle of the night and go to my parents’ room, just to check if they are breathing alright. Am I trying to intellectualise death so that I can cope with it, gain control over it? 

Making friends with death

How blissful it would be to not think about death, to not brood over what its certain unpredictability. To be free of the shackles of the anxiety it provokes. Instead, I try to make friends with death. For a decade I have walked hand in hand with a friend who I can’t trust. I am skeptical of it leaving me and going for my loved ones. I want to keep hold of it, so it can’t go anywhere else.

Of course, that can be draining, and I have needed a break. My floor mate’s body was found in her room two days after she died. The same day I received the ethical approval from my university for my ongoing research, talking to the funeral directors. I couldn’t push myself to work and be in a ‘space of death’ at that time. I wanted to go back to the world of happy denial. It’s not just with death, I suspect that in any sensitive research area the researcher may need to be away for a while… so the inner world can rearrange itself, ready for more manageable chaos. 

Many assume I am now ‘desensitised’, the hard and the unaffected one. It’s natural to develop a coping mechanism, and I learned the skill of staying detached. I stopped feeling miserable after ingesting the painful experiences of my participants. But I wouldn’t say I became desensitised. Rather, I started empathising and feeling content in the process of ‘sharing’ my own experiences with people. I don’t tell them that ‘I understand’: no-one really can. 

Venturing into the unknown

Why have I not left the area? Because I have learned so much from my interest in the field. It’s satisying to venture into the unknown, to bring back knowledge for the curious or those in need. It’s normal to feel anxious and jittery while working in a sensitive area, but self-care is key. I realised how important it is to have a space where I can talk about my feelings, and my therapist gave me that space. It gave me perspective, taught me not to drown myself in order to measure the depth, but instead to ignore the depth and be in the moment. I am trying not to assimilate the death I study with the death of my loved ones. I talk about my anxieties and my fears. They won’t take over.  

This is my honest story. I’m trying to tell you how personally impactful a professional engagement can be. Sometimes, as psychologists and researchers, we have to take a harder route. We have to go into streets which are dark and need a lot of effort to navigate through. I chose to see what was in front of me. I fixed the lights, illuminated the path, and now I’m ready to continue.

Khyati Tripathi is a Doctoral scholar, University of Delhi, and Commonwealth Split-site PhD scholar (2016-17), Birkbeck, University of London.

Twitter: @khyati_tripathi