Jo-Ann Boyle-Jackson

Jo-Ann Boyle-Jackson (she/her)
Masters Student
Department of Critical Sociology
Brock University

Current Research Project:

The Silent Pain of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Bad Deaths, Disenfranchised Bereavement, and the New Need for Death Education

My research topic connects the personal troubles of dying, death, and bereavement to the social problems of social structures and social processes inherent in capitalism, within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, that are fundamental to all social relationships. For example, the elderly population has been treated as a surplus population during this pandemic. This points to the need to take profit out of long-term care. Death education for all of society and different non-normative ways to grieve are needed as solutions to the exorbitantly high pandemic death rates. The concept of bereavement requires a broadened perspective to include losses outside of death loss that includes collective experiences of grief/loss. My project addresses the underexplored issues of best practices for dying, death, and bereavement, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is about re-humanizing death in a capitalist society suffering from scarce life-saving resources. It addresses the marginalizing socio-economic intersections of class, gender and race inherent in capitalism that the pandemic has more concretely brought to the forefront. An important sociological question considered asks what lessons can be learned from this pandemic that will help individuals, families, and communities better cope with dying, death, and bereavement.

What motivated you to pursue this project?

My research project focus is premised upon my own lived experiences of not having needed knowledges about dying and death during the period-of-time my husband lived while dying from metastatic melanoma cancer. I was an undereducated, unsupported and unpaid primary caregiver in desperate need of knowledge about disease, dying, palliative care, and bereavement. My husband, and my teenage daughter’s father, died without me and our family having these needed knowledges and supports. This lack of appropriate knowledge and support was foundational to my family’s visceral painful experiences. The present day COVID-19 pandemic is the catalyzing event that together with my caregiving experiences highlights the need for care and death education for everyone. My research addresses these marginalizing issues with a view to advancing empowerment, education, and support for the dying and their caregivers. Following my Masters degree, I envision building a community partnership initiative with a school board or non-profit organization to create and present workshops on dying, death, and bereavement for school aged children, the dying, and home caregivers.

My sociology of dying, death, and bereavement research project interestingly combines my lived experiences as a primary caregiver of a dying family member and my lived experiences as a researcher who is directly personally experiencing pandemic death loss and grief. My research involves an empirical and qualitative interpretive analysis of these social realities within a capitalist society using a Marxist theoretical orientation grounded in Marx’s dialectical-monistic social ontology. This project potentially expands the existing epistemic and ontological value of Marxist theory as applied specifically to sociological issues of dying, death, and bereavement separate from economic issues of the working class.

What are the most surprising findings of your work?

I am surprised about the lack of media sensitivity regarding the global increases in the nature of bad deaths whereby people and patients are dying in isolation alienated from their families. Individuals are dying in front of healthcare professions who are strangers to them in lieu of being with their family. I was also surprised to find that most healthcare professionals receive practically no training on how to appropriately interact with the dying and their families. I am surprised about the nature of disenfranchised bereavement as a consequence of the present-day pandemic. Disenfranchised bereavement is a consequence of the dying person and family experiencing a virtual online death without a final touch or hug goodbye. I am also surprised that needed death education is available to only the elite few and not all members of society. This is in stark contrast to members of society being taught sex education and best practices for conceiving, birthing, and raising children. It is most surprising that end-of-life education is not also incorporated in the typical life-span/life-cycle trajectory. Why are dying, death and bereavement issues not taught alongside birth/start of life issues? Such should be. Death is an important part of the life cycle. So why is society death-denying? Why is death shrouded in such secrecy? Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has made death more public. There is consequently a new need for death education.

What has been the most challenging part of your work?

The COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns have resulted in altered experiences of time. This has made meeting deadlines somewhat problematic as one day blends into another without much distinction. It has been challenging to research a topic I too am directly emotionally impacted by. No one escapes death loss. It has been especially shocking to be researching the sociology of dying, death, and bereavement at a time when death is all around me and everyone else because of COVID-19. I chose to research this topic long before the present-day pandemic was a reality. Imagine my shock being arbitrarily placed in this pandemic context. I share that I lost two close family members to COVID-19 in two different provinces. Because of the pandemic lockdowns there were no traditional family storytelling sessions, funeral visitations, or Mass services. I, and all others, have been left alone in our shock and sorrow. It was particularly challenging repeatedly not being permitted to visit my family to grieve together. This negatively impacted my active engagement in my research project. No amount of research prepared me for these new realities. Such are the hidden unintended challenges of my research and my simultaneously horrific lived experiences. These are the silent pains of the pandemic paradoxically experienced individually but en masse.

How has the pandemic impacted your work and what strategies have you used to overcome challenges?

My research project’s methodology has been iteratively framed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is the catalyzing event that has become a case study. It has provided a directional shift in my research. My own family death loss because of COVID-19 has caused me, as a researcher, to explore the collective emotionality of my research subject of dying, death, and bereavement alongside of exploring my personal grief. I have had to step away from mass media and social media’s catastrophic COVID-19 reports as well as some of my research tasks in the short term. The extended Brock University pandemic lockdown has further isolated me specific to potential peer and faculty supports. Online virtual team chats is a strategy that has only nominally helped. Scheduling shorter periods of research reading and writing sessions has helped me to better achieve my goals. COVID-19 cautious walks in my neighbourhood have provided an alternate sense of community as we pass each other while walking our dogs. Although physically distanced, we benefit from seeing each other and hearing one another’s human voices. 

Where do you see your project having the most impact?

My research project includes activism and agency that is most impactful  at a community level. It has policy and program considerations for the implementation of needed death education for all society. It envisions society in general, and schools in particular, acknowledging dying as the end stage of the life cycle that deserves to be taught and talked about in the same way birth is taught and talked about as the start of the life cycle. I envision a broadened understanding of the concept of bereavement to be significantly relevant. Practically, exploring best practices for coping with dying, death and bereavement is a meaningful aspect of my research.

What advice do you have for other graduate students?

I would tell other graduate students to be flexible and willing to pivot when and where necessary. I encourage other graduate students/researchers to learn as much as possible from their degree courses on theory and methodology. Staying in contact with one another is strongly advised. Occasionally reaching out to faculty and the graduate program director is advised.


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