Writing grief

Death and bereavement in ethnographic texts

Jennifer J. Carroll

30 May 2016

Here, one is immediately caught – to the death: death is the only thing we know about around here.

                        – An unwitcher, to Jeanne Favret-Saada (1980)

On my very first day in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, I found a scrap of paper in my stairwell. It sat discarded on a window ledge, curled up with the memory of folds unfolded. It had once formed a tightly sealed package, an origami familiar to anyone who has bought or sold (or, in my case, studied) illicit drugs in Eastern Europe. The page itself was map of northern Africa torn from a pocket atlas. Traces of shirka, the tar-like poppy straw derivative often injected in Ukraine, dotted the coastline of Libya, an indelible marker of the map’s final purpose. Above the Libyan shores, the water was labeled ‘Sredizemnoe More’, which, literally translated, means ‘Middle Earth Sea’. I had to learn this name in Russian before I realized I had already known it. English: Mediterranean. Latin: Medius Terra. Middle earth. Water between two lands.

As anthropologists, we teach ourselves to be plastic. We strive to learn, to adapt, to give slightly against the weight of the worlds we explore. The Mediterranean is a good role model in this regard. It is enduring and strong, yet giving to the demands of its encircling shores. The demands my dissertation fieldwork made of me were, shall we say, complex. What began as a clinical ethnography of medication-assisted therapy (MAT) for opioid addiction in Ukraine soon fell head first into a bloody revolution, a military annexation, and a violent occupation of what had once been my field sites.

The deaths of my contacts began while I was still in Ukraine; they continued long after I came home. Sergey was killed by Ukrainian special police forces in January 2014. He was shot in the middle of a Kyiv street, three times in the chest and then once more in the head. Mikhailo died next. His heart was pierced by a 9mm bullet on the same boulevard where Sergey fell. Dima died of a drug overdose that summer. He was in recovery when I knew him but relapsed after the Russian Federation closed his MAT clinic in Crimea. Aleksey, another Crimean MAT patient destabilized by the absence of care, took his own life in January 2015. My dissertation became crowded with their ghosts.

The loss of these men unsettled everything. My interviews with them, my photos of them, the small gifts they gave me: the meaning of these artifacts irreversibly changed. I became ‘caught’ in these deaths. Writing my dissertation became a ritual of mourning and contemplation. I felt torn by the obligation to conform to the standards of sober, analytical anthropological science, which seemed in direct conflict with my other, eulogizing impulses. How could I convey the analytical insights they gave me when they were alive without displacing the importance of their deaths? How could I convey the emotional weight of their deaths without de-emphasizing the contributions they made in life? The politics of representation and the exigencies of grief: I felt trapped between these two uncompromising shores, believing that my commitment to one required my rejection of the other.

My paralysis eventually passed, but only after I had done the work of forgiving myself for writing a different dissertation than I had previously (and wrongly) envisioned. Since the reflexive turn in anthropology, we have hinged so much of our methodological rigor on our knowledge of ourselves. Feminist insights have rightly obliged us to unpack and problematize our individual standpoints. But personal trauma renders the events we wish to capture murky, refracting them through multiple layers of emotion. Knowledge is socially situated, but grief and anger are situated in a more private, fundamental way. They are boundary objects (Bowker and Star 1999), which we are naturally limited in our ability to convey. To write an ethnography of things so inexpressible, like knowing proximity to untimely deaths and the unanticipated gravity of the stories left behind, I found that I must first leave and then return to the moment of being ‘caught’ in them. There must be a ‘second catching’ (Favret-Saada 1980) from which meaningful narrative can emerge, in which everything unsettled must be settled again. We must – and we can – find a way, in conversation with partners who cannot speak back, to produce the cartography of these human shores. 

What does that mean in a practical sense? It means, firstly, that we must acknowledge diverse obligations to the dead. Dima and Aleksey consented to participate in my study. Pseudonyms obscure their real identities. No images of them appear in my work. I am bound by my commitment to protect their anonymity, even when they have no longer have lives left to lose. Sergey and Mikhailo are martyrs of the revolution. I call them by their given names. I photographed them while they were alive and again after their deaths. I want my audiences to see them, to know them, to recognize them. I maintain that these acts are not contradictions. My relationships with these men were not equivalent; therefore, my obligations to them are not as well. My goal was and continues to be to protect them. Obscuring their identities of some of them and publicizing my mourning of the others are foundational acts in that praxis of care.

Second, it means that writing a book, a dissertation, an article, is not simply an act of intellectual expression; it is also an act of personal exposure. When the mind of the ethnographer is the instrument of her analysis, and when trauma affects the landscape of her mind, she has no choice but to examine the events in her field of vision by gazing at them through the shadows they cast. Her ethnography is still an ethnography, but it also becomes something else. It is an act of self-making, in which she puts pen to paper and commits to her own narratives about what her relationships were and what they will continue to be. It is also, therefore, an act of auto-exposure, in which she is forced to separate memory from emotion and reveal her most intimate self to herself. As I can attest, this can be a deeply unpleasurable exercise. Seeing that work through, however, affords us the tools to present with integrity what we saw on the one hand and what we felt on the other.

I keep that map of northern Africa by my writing desk. It serves as a constant reminder that we are, like the sea, commendably plastic. Our greatest strength as social scientists is our willingness to be taught new ways of being human. It also reminds me, however, that this first observation is a partial truth. All maps, no matter their fidelity to the curvature of the land, present us with illusions. The greatest of these is the permanence of their geography. Maps necessarily omit the power of water to break apart rock and alter the face of the shore. Through the act of ethnographic writing, we likewise ‘settle’ uncertain narratives and codify their meaning. This is a daunting responsibility capable of making us feel trapped between competing ethical imperatives. To tear free from this illusory crisis, we must forgive ourselves for the meddling of our own emotions and expose them as co-authors of the stories we tell.

About the author

Jennifer Carroll, PhD, MPH, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Infectious Diseases at The Miriam Hospital and a Research Associate at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University, where she is part of the Brown University Ukraine Collaboration. Her dissertation, entitled ‘Choosing Methadone: Managing Addiction and the Body Politic in Ukraine’, explores the perspectives of Ukrainians who are receiving opiate substitution therapy to treat opioid dependence disorder. Her current project investigates the marginalization of drug users from health care services and from regulatory consumer protections, and the amplifying effect this disenfranchisement has on the lethal opiate overdose crisis in New England.


Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. 1999. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Favret-Saada, Jeanne. 1980. Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage. New York: Cambridge University Press.