The Last Gift: the Meanings of Gift-Giving in the Context of Dying of Aids

Gail J. Stevenson, University of Northern British Columbia
Steven M. Kates, Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia
ABSTRACT - This study focuses upon the meanings of possessions of those caregivers who have lost someone to AIDS/HIV and received a 'last gift’ as a symbol of the relationship. Three themes are presented: remembrance of the loved one, sacralization of the gift, and the last gift and the interruption and continuity of life narratives. Findings are discussed in relation to the ideology of the perfect gift.
[ to cite ]:
Gail J. Stevenson and Steven M. Kates (1999) ,"The Last Gift: the Meanings of Gift-Giving in the Context of Dying of Aids", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 113-118.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 113-118

THE LAST GIFT: THE MEANINGS OF GIFT-GIVING IN THE CONTEXT OF DYING OF AIDS

Gail J. Stevenson, University of Northern British Columbia

Steven M. Kates, Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia

ABSTRACT -

This study focuses upon the meanings of possessions of those caregivers who have lost someone to AIDS/HIV and received a 'last gift’ as a symbol of the relationship. Three themes are presented: remembrance of the loved one, sacralization of the gift, and the last gift and the interruption and continuity of life narratives. Findings are discussed in relation to the ideology of the perfect gift.

Love is a promise, Love is a Souvenir

Once Given, Never Forgotten,

Never letit Disappear,

This could be our Last Chance...

-"Advice for the Young at Heart", Tears for Fears

In many cultures, consumers exchange objects charged with meaning and psychic energy (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981). An integral segment that complements any discussion on gift giving is that of the meaning of possessions. Our things are an integral part of our lives. Richins (1994), identifies two roles that possessions serve; possessions define self and create identity (Belk 1988), and communicate within culture (McCracken 1986). Another aspect of possessions is that there are certain possessions that we cherish more than others, and further yet, our station in life, and even our gender may influence our attachments (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg Halton 1981; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988).

Objects create order in consciousness by contributing to personal definitions of selfhood at the level of person, community, and nation (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981). Furthermore, objects may give purpose and direction to our lives, or may contribute to its disorganization or randomness (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981). Belk (1988) asserts that we are what we possess and that we support our 'fragile sense of self’ by possessing things. Thus, objects serve a process of differentiation (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981). Possessing an object can serve to distinguish one’s social position in society in relation to other people and their objects (Carrier 1991).

McCracken (1986) describes how individuals create a world by use of objects which is consistent with the world they imagine. Further, he suggests that the cultural category one inhabits is substantiated through material objects. Consequently, as we groom our own egos, we attempt to infer traits of other people by the nature of their possessions. In addition, we guess the nature of possessions against the traits of people we meet (Belk 1988).

In one study (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981) researchers found that 82% of people cherished at least one object because it reminded them of a close relative. Further, possessions that we hold closest to heart are those which represent linkages to other people (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Mehta and Belk 1991; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). Our possessions are fused with our psychic energy and a meaning transfer occurs when a person puts time, effort or energy into an object (Belk 1988; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; McCracken 1986). Furthermore, objects such as gifts serve as bridges to our past and thus, are a part of our identities (Belk 1991). Material possessions 'anchor’ our identities, as they help reduce the fear that somehow our identities could vanish (Belk 1988). Thus exchanging objects as gifts is actually a transaction of meaning and self towards self preservation and personal history. Thus, Western society has a love affair with objects which goes beyond materialism (cf. Belk 1985, 1993).

Belk (1991) suggests that possessions give us a personal archive which allows us to reflect on our histories and how we have changed. Further, Wallendorf and Young (1989) present the idea that since the link of self with one’s possessions is a central tenet of consumer behaviour, then the disposition of one’s possessions is equally central. Two types of disposition have been identified, voluntary and involuntary loss (Belk 1988, 1991). When one decides to give up his or her possessions, a voluntary disposition occurs. A life transition such as news of terminal illness, death of a spouse, divorce or even growing older may prompt disposal (Belk 1988; Young 1991). Another reason that prompts disposal is change in self concept (Belk 1988; Young 1991). This may be the result of a life transition, or as McCracken (1986) explains, in our western culture it is possible to shed one identity for another.

Life transitions prompt disposal because our routine has been changed, and the props we once valued are no longer useful. In the above examples of life transitions, consumers find themselves in liminal states (e.g. Schouten 1991; van Gennep 1960; Young 1991). AIDS patients were found to be concerned about finding appropriate beneficiaries for their possessions while also reporting that material possessions were less important than they had ever been (Pavia 1992). This phenomenon is also demonstrated by elderly people as they exhibit a gradual detachment from material objects and consequently dispose of them (Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). This may reflect the acceptance of death’s inevitability, or perhaps a more spiritual outlook of leaving this material world for another one.

Especially through studying the ritual of disposition, reseachers may understand how objects play an integral part of our lives. Even when we voluntarily dispose of our belongings it is often with great emotion with which we have charged our possessions. Further, the dying are often concerned that we find suitable new homes for them (Belk 1988). But those left behind also experience a significant a traumatic and painful life transition. With the loss of a loved one, for example, we may lose part of our self concept. Grieving has been described as grieving over a part of self which has been lost, and this is one reason why we seek mementos, in order to fill the void. When this occurs, we may attempt to rebuild our self concept by reorganizing our possessions. It is in this context that we discuss the part that the last gift plays in the lives of our informants. The central importance of this type of offering is illustrated by an account given by one woman, Gene, who lost a friend to AIDS: "Significance is heightened when you know the person is ill and so when they give you a gift...that gift is really significant, because it may be the last gift..." Thus, the meanings of this gift are likely to be unique and worthwhile in understanding gift-giving as a whole.

GIFT-GIVING

Gift giving rituals permeate our lives from birth until death, and gifts celebrate the beginning of life and mark or memorialize the ending of one (Belk 1979). The act of giving gifts coupled with the resulting meanings of the gifts reflect important human characteristics, thoughts and behaviours. Belk (1979) identifies the four functions of gift-giving: communication, social and economic exchange, and socialization. Further scholarly work has identified the gift exchange as having cultural, sociological, relational and psychological elements (Sherry, Mcgrath and Levy, 1992). Although many scholars have contributed more towards the subject of gift-giving (e.g., Belk 1979; Mick and Demoss 1990; Otnes, Lowrey, and Kim 1993; Sherry 1983; Sherry et al. 1992, 1993; the context of this presentation will be weighted towards the symbolic and human aspects of gift exchange in the context of death and dying.

As Belk explains, "[g]ifts are not intended to fulfill lower order needs...but instead are addressed to higher order needs for love, self-esteem and self-actualization" (Belk 1996). It is no wonder that respondents feel anxiety when involved with gift giving rituals, as it is an activity that tests social ties (Sherry, McGrath and Levy 1993, 1993a). In a psychosocial context, gifts have the potential to bond recipients more tightly or reaffirm the other’s secret suspicions of mistrust and the personal inadequacy of the other (Sherry 1983; Sherry, McGrath and Levy 1991). Gifts are not always spontaneous expressions of sentiment, but are recurrent, predictable and socially regulated (Carrier 1991). There could be no better statement to illustrate that the act f gift giving is socially constructed, and most of us are culturally bound to its terms. The reasons that we maintain and carry on these rituals is that they provide opportunities to communicate the hope that we can actively improve our interpersonal relationships (Belk 1979). Further, social exchange creates a bond of goodwill and social indebtedness between people (Belk and Coon 1993). The interesting symbolic attribute of gift giving is that it involves interpreting the meaning of the gift exchange and predicting future behaviour.

The receipt of a gift is tangible evidence that one is an integral part of someone else’s life; gifts help to define and confer roles and statuses (Belk 1979). An intimate relationship is signified by the exchange of a gift that is not suitable for just anyone. Such a gift is appropriate to the needs and tastes of the recipient (Belk 1979), and demonstrates our depth of empathy and understanding towards this person (Belk 1996). Close friends may be distinguished by whether they give something that one likes. Whether we like it or not, the action of gift giving relates the relative importance the recipient has in the gift giver’s regard (Belk 1979). Gift selection characteristics exemplify the giver’s perception of the recipient and the giver’s self perception (Belk 1979).

One of the most meaningful gifts that one may receive is one given out of agapic love (Belk 1996; Belk and Coon 1993). Agapic love is described as unselfish, nonpossessive, and sacrificial. Belk (1996) describes the perfect gift as being one that symbolizes the giver’s agapic love toward the recipient. Further, he describes the 'Perfect Gift’ as being an extraordinary sacrifice on behalf of the giver. As well as being a luxury, it is uniquely suited to the loved one and delights, surprises and pleases the recipient’s desires. In Belk and Coon’s study (1993), informants noted that the best gifts are those that are extensions of the giver. The result of this gift is that the gift given, an extension of the giver, becomes an extension of the recipient (Belk and Coon 1993; Sherry, McGrath and Levy 1992).

The above passages on gift-giving and possessions were presented to lay the groundwork for the contribution of this paper: The Last Gift. Many of us will receive a last gift from someone who is dying, or we may be bequeathed one by will. The obvious implication of the gift is that it is the last within a relationship: the last extension of self and the last projection of the giver’s perception of and will toward the recipient. Thus, it may be the ultimate interpretation that the recipient will construct in regard to how the giver felt and how s/he valued (or did not value) the relationship. These last dispositions are very meaningful to the recipients. Interestingly these gifts may be as equally meaningful and important to the giver, in the sense that by finding the 'right home’ the giver may immortalize himself or herself in memory.

On a personal level, the last gift may hold many meanings for the recipient. The prior possessions of a loved one can be powerful remains of the dead person’s extended self (Belk 1988). Further, objects left behind can evoke a type of ancestor worship. That is, objects can extend the identities of ancestors, as well invoke the spirit of ancestors as protectors of their descendants (Belk 1991). An important consideration is that this is the last gift, and there will be no more chances to try again. Whether the gift is either cherished or hated, there will be a lasting impression of the giver’s perception of the recipient, and the recipient’s perception of the giver. It is the finality and intimacy of the last gift from which it assumes unique importance in the lives o recipients. In the next part of the paper, we discuss our method and present arguments which relate how the last giftB the one bequeathed by a loved otherBmay permeate one’s life. Finally, we discuss the concept of the 'perfect last gift’.

METHOD

This research paper is part of a larger project studying the consumer patterns of gay men and lesbians. We believe that by interviewing the caregivers of gay men who have died of AIDS, we were able to access deeply felt emotions and important (and often life changing) experiences which are then associated with possessions. We do not claim that the meanings we have interpreted are exhaustive; certainly other meanings of the last gift may be gained by further research. Further, our findings pertain only to recipients of last gifts.

During the fieldwork period, the second author interviewed nineteen people who were or had been involved in caregiving activities for gay men living with AIDS. Two of the informants were AIDS care professionalsBone woman (Gene) and one man (Roy). But these two people had also been involved closely in primary care activity. The remainder of the informants were the former partner-spouses, mothers, care volunteers, and friends of the loved ones who had died. Interviewees were selected on the basis of having had a close loved one who had died of AIDS or who were involved in volunteering. Referrals from an AIDS care hospice and a network of friends were instrumental to us in finding willing participants. Interviews lasted from one half hour to two hours, and usually began with the following question: "please tell me about your experiences in caring for people living with AIDS/HIV." Interviews were transcribed verbatim by the first author, and together we both analyzed and interpreted the 500 pages of transcripts, using open coding to organize the data into meaningful and descriptive themes about the last gift. Themes were related to extant literature in a back and forth hermeneutic process in order to achieve a depth of understanding.

FINDINGS: THEMES DESCRIBING THE LAST GIFT

During our interpretive process, we identified three broad themes which facilitate our understanding of the last gift given by dying loved ones to their various caregivers. Many of the nineteen informants spoke of the following associated meanings: the Last Gift as a reminder of the dying person, the Last Gift as a sacred possession, and thirdly, the Last Gift as a means of continuity within alife narrative. Below we unpack and discuss these three types of meanings.

'Forget me not’: The Last Gift as a Reminder of the Loved One/Singularizing the Dead. Not surprisingly, most possessions were charged with memories of the loved one who had died, helping informants construct a sense of their pasts (Belk 1988, 1991). Roy (WM 30) works as a communications co-ordinator at an AIDS outreach organization in a central Canadian city. During his years in this position, he has met many people living with HIV/AIDS. In addition to his professional duties which involve the organization of AIDS education and prevention strategies, he has become increasingly involved in the long-term care of friends and acquaintance. On a few of these occasions, he has received small gifts from people about to die:

Roy: I look at them sometimes with sadness, 'cause they remind of a time with a person who was very ill. And who was lonely sometimes. Um, sometimes they...you know, I begin to get...to cry a bit. When I really think about them and really focus on them. And that’s okay. It’s not like I’m distraught and out of control. It’s just, hey, you know, this person’s gone. I’ll never see them again. And I’m grateful that those things are there because it helps me not to forget about them completely. It helps me to keep them alive. They gave me something. It’s a way of saying goodbye. It’s brought closure to things.

Interviewer: Closure?

R: Closure. It’s like, "hey, um, I’m going away. I want you to have this to remember me by. You take care. It’s a way of saying I love you. It’s a way of saying I care for you." It’s a way of saying thank you. As a last statement you want to make to someone. That’s going to stick around other than just saying it that will melt into thin air.

Particularly, Roy was speaking of a close friend who had died of AIDS and had given him a small ceramic figurine. It reminds Roy of the special personal qualities of the friend who had passed away so he can 'focus’ on that person and the relationship. While the ceramic figure may have been a commodity produced among thousands of identical ones, it is the context of death and giving which singularizes the object and the friendship, after the friend is gone (Carrier 1991; Kopytoff 1986). This helps Roy resolve the tension between the emptiness of an 'off the shelf’ commodity and the need to reconcile this threatening potential anonymity (of the object and the person) with personalized memories.

Gifts also have the potential to be resources with which consumers make meanings. Specifically, Roy talks about personal closure. As he now possesses the gift, he has tangible evidence that his friend is dead and that he must accept this irrevocable state of affairs (Knbler-Ross 1969). Moreover, the ceramic figurine helps him remember his friend and to continue the relationship in his mind, connecting to this friend symbolically through the gift.

Interestingly, Jack (WM 40) who had lost his significant other of seven years to AIDS and had acted as primary caregiver, shares a similar perspective:

Jack: Possessions mean a lot. When someone dies. And that’s why gift-giving is so precious when someone’s dying is that possessions become a piece of that person. That’s how you see it. You can feel that person in that object. You know, that’s why people sleep with shirts that the person wore or that’s why they go and smell clothes in the closet of the person who dies because, well, they can smell them, but it’s them. You try and capture the essence of that person. Or you try and...you need...it’s incredibly comforting to have that. And that’s why being able to have a possession is so important.

Jack implies that a last gift helps fill the void which occurs when a loved one dies of AIDS. The gift in this case is a personal item of the giver such as clothing, and it allows Jack to feel 'the essence’ of his lover. The last gift allows Jack to construct richly textured and keenly felt experiences in connection with his heartfelt loss (Belk 1991). Possessions are a 'piece’ of his lover or an aspect of the extended self (Belk 1988). It connects Jack to his past and to his former self who actively cared for his partner during the last stages of HIV infection. The 'capture’ metaphor is particularly appropriate, as with such a loss, it may be easy to lose everything that had once happened, as if his lover had never existed, a horrible possibility to all of the informants. But for the tangible evidence of possessions, these lives (and deaths) may be rendered meaningless. No informant desired his or her loved one become 'just a statistic’ or a commodified person.

Sacralization of the Last Gift. Most last gifts were understood to be a part of the sacred realm (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989), contaminated by the associations with the beloved dead. Death and dying just may be two of the last truly sacred phenomena left to all people in secularized, postmodern society, as death is bigger, more powerful, and transcendent than most things in our everyday, mundane lives. Moreover, people often approach death with a kratophanous and complex mixture of awe, reverence, and profound fear (Belk et al. 1989). Dan (WM 42) nursed his companion Ned full-time for a period of about six months at their beautiful, lakeside Bed and Breakfast Inn, the Lakeview:

Dan: Well everything that I had was his, and everything that was his was mine. When Ned died we had joint ownership in the house so I inherited his half of the house, um, there was almost two hundred thousand dollars of life insurance, and another twenty eight or thirty thousand dollars in pension benefits that were paid out in one lump sum pension payout to me... I put one hundred and twenty thousand of renovations into our bed and breakfast, and I did that unfortunately within the first six months of his death. I substituted my caregiving for Ned, for my attention and caregiving to the building or reconstruction of our house so it would be the way Ned and I wanted it to be, the way we had dreamed it would be. So I took all that time and energy that I had put into caregiving and nurturing my dying spouse and put into a project, a crusade. Often it involves a project that maybe ...[we] started or had dreamt about doing or ompleting with the dead spouse, and for Ned and I it was Lakeview becoming what we had dreamed it could become. So within four weeks of his death they were breaking ground and starting this new project.

Dan’s use of the 'crusade’ metaphor to describe the renovations is especially significant, as it alludes to the Christian religious Crusades to liberate the Holy Land from Moslem 'infidels’ during the thirteenth century. Dan’s renovations of Lakeview assumed an almost religious, ritualisitic fervor. While to many of us, it may seem foolish and irrational to begin an expensive, financially burdensome business activity immediately following the death of a beloved partner, but it made 'emotional sense’ to Dan, as it helped him fill the emptiness created by Ned’s death, at least for a little while. One of Ned’s last gifts to Dan was a large sum of money. Money is a particularly polysemous object, and it has both profane and problematically sacred meanings attached to its sources and uses (Belk and Wallendorf 1990). Dan used the money not for his dream, but for their shared dream of making the Bed and Breakfast as wonderful as they had always envisioned. His efforts were geared to retain the sacredness of Ned’s memory and the caregiving period as long as he was able. Interestingly, the money itself had a traditionally sacred source and a profane character; Ned had been a retired priest and subsequent to that career, he had worked as a teacher in the Catholic School system (sacred) and Dan had subsequently received the cash from an insurance company (profane). Paradoxically, given Dan’s negative feelings toward the Catholic Church (which represents evil sacredness) and financial institutions, the source(s) of this money had the potential to violate and contaminate his own perceptions of the (good) sacredness of his relationship with Ned.

The loss of Ned was intensely painful, shocking and shattering to Dan (he noted that Ned’s death 'came as a terrible shock’ although he understood the direness of AIDS), even after one year of mourning. So Dan set himself the task of renovating Lakeview as a type of shrine to his lover and to their relationship, a lasting sacred momento which represents their dream and their shared goal. Thus, the use of the money was decidedly and unequivocally sacred, cancelling out the threat that the money may represent an ill-gotten gain (i.e. 'the filty lucre’). The home was then suffused with Ned’s spirit which Dan so desperately wished to keep alive and a constant comfort to Dan as the surviving spouse.

Transitions: Interruption and Continuity of a Life Narrative. Having lost someone very important to them, most informants indicated that the gifts represented the filling of a gap or empty space in their own lives which had been created by the deaths of loved ones (often prematurely, as many of the loved ones died in their twenties, thirties or forties). It has been oft noted how instrumental possessions are for negotiating important life transitions (Adelman 1992; Young 1991; Wallendorf and Young 1989) and constructing a sense of the past (Belk 1991). The death of a loved one (particularly in this context as the death from AIDS of a young person is experienced as traumatic and not belonging to 'the natural order’ of life) constitutes a strong threat to the order and fluidity many of us wish to impose upon our lives (e.g., see Thompson 1997). Death from AIDS, while anticipated during a usually lengthy and prolonged deterioration of the body, is interpreted as a 'blow’ and a serious interruption of life’s ebb and flow. Gene (WF 39) worked as a professional counsellor in an AIDS hospice ad was constantly surrounded by evidence of death and dying. When a close gay male friend of hers died, her grief seemed strange and unexpected (to others) as her duties demanded calm and poise when dealing with the ill and with their families. To Gene, possessions helped to 'fill in the empty space’ withiin her own life (and self narrative) while simultaneously providing a means of continuing an aspect of her friend’s extended self as represented by the last gift:

G: Huge. Huge sense of loss. Once those pictures are gone, and presumably the negatives get ruined in that kind of thing too, then there’s no way of capturing those images again. You can’t go back to a year, a year and a half and have that picture taken again. So furniture and those kind of things in some ways don’t matter as much, but it’s like my paperweight that I got from my grandmother’s house after she died. That’s highly significant to me. If I lost that, it would be a real loss.

I: What is loss? I guess it’s something very significant involved here...???

G: I can help you for me only. Um, that there’s a void, um, there’s an ache. And it’s a hole that can never be filled because...unless that object is found unless that person comes back to life. But that hole, that void, is never filled again. Other things can happen to build around it, you know, I might get other paperweights or I may get new friends. But where that person was or where that object was in my life, won’t be again. And so it’s like a little hole in the fabric. The fabric doesn’t need to fall apart, but there’s a little snag in it and it never looks the same again and the fabric of my being is never quite the same again when someone I have LOST dies. When someone I have LOVED dies.

...Mmm hmmm. Well there’s...there’s no more continuation of making new memories. I mean, there’s still the old memories and they’re still there, um...oftentimes how I recapture some of those is by telling stories about that very person about what we used to do, and so then I lose the ability to recapture them because that person is gone. That person’s no longer there to recount the stories with me. But then there’s also no new memories being made with that person. So it’s sort of like coming to the end of a...a dyelot in wool, and they never make that colour again. So you’ve got all of the stuff 'cause you saved it of that dyelot but then you can never get anymore. 'Cause they don’t make the colour anymore. Um, because things like photographs...let’s say the person isn’t here anymore, but at least I have the pictures, so I can go back to the pictures and say, oh yeah, I remember when we were doing this that or the other. I lose the pictures and I lose the visual reminders of some things we may have done. So it’s all part of the same thing. But also there will be no new photographs. Of them. Because they’re gone now...so probably significance gets somewhat heightened when you know the person is ill and so when they give you a gift, give me a gift, then that gift is really significant. Because one, it may be the last gift, but also, I know at the time, it’s a momento. It’s a way of remembering that person. Or it will become that when they die. Um, I’ve heard of a lot of people that after they’ve died, what they wanted to have happen...there’s sometimes even before they’ve died is they’ve called in friends and given friends BACK gifts that have been given to them.

Gene uses the poignant 'weaving’ metaphor to express her sense of an interrupted self narrative. Each friend who has died of AIDS represents an irreplaceable strand or 'dyelot’which has been ended or cancelled, often prematurely. The Last Gift of the photographs provides a means of holding or anchoring the meanings which that friend meant for her within the overall context of self narrative, facilitating the bridging of past and future, particularly when the present is so threateningly uncertain. For Gene and other informants, the last gift symbolically represents the specific meanings associated with the person who has been lost to AIDS. While there has been a physical loss, the Last Gift, to some extent, helps minimize the loss of meaning. It is a tangible, polysemically charged reminder of all the loved one meant to the recipient.

Stanley (WM 50) who lost his partner Edward to AIDS just six months before the interview, also noted that various possessions acted as a means of anchoring Edward’s memory in his life while he negotiated the very difficult grieving period immediately after his lover’s death. The last gift, in this case, was a pair of glasses which had no functional benefit to Stanley beyond the purely symbolic one. It is there only to aid in Stanley’s suffering. In an immaterial sense, Edward is there with him:

...and his glasses for some peculiar reason were really important to me, I have his glasses. It just seems to hold, it is like a lie that I like to entertain myself with, believing for a little while, that some part of him holds on. Yeah, that is what I mean by anchor...it is something that I can focus on, it seems like it has a little piece of him that moves through time.

For Stanley, Edward’s glasses are charged with his spirit. Understandably, Edward’s loss precipitated a crisis of meaning in Stanley’s life. Within the context of a life narrative, Edwards glasses and other special possessions allowed his lover to end one difficult chapter and begin yet another one, with the constancy of his lover’s presence in both. A key challenge for Stanley was to maintain stability in his life while accommodating a traumatic change, a typical human experience. The last gift provides a meaningful "anchor" which represents this striving for a sense of continuity.

DISCUSSION: THE PERFECT LAST GIFT

I’m not perfect, but I’m perfect for you.

BGrace Jones

So what is the 'perfect last gift’? The perfect last gift is one wherein both the recipient and giver benefit, to some extent. If the reciprocity of a gift giving exchange relationship is to end, then cannot the giver seek immortality by having his/her own memory live on? That is to say, by choosing the appropriate last gift for the appropriate person, the giver may display self interest by attempting to preserve an aspect of extended self.

The ideology of the perfect gift (Belk 1996; Carrier 1991) is described as having the following characteristics: elements of sacrifice, surprise, desirability, luxury and uniqueness to the recipient. Moreover, it is motivated solely by a wish to please the recipient (Belk 1996, p. 61). But with the perfect last gift (a very special context), are all of these criteria necessary or appropriate when this ideology is manifested (or reproduced) in consumer experience and practice? In this context, it may be entirely appropriate for the recipient to make his or her wishes known so that the giver can preserve the relationship by giving an object to whom it means the most. Thus, both the giver and recipient can both rest assured that the momento is in no better place. Again, we emphasize that the meanings constructed herein are 'perfect’ only for the context studied. And future research may endeavour to expand upon the various experiential manifestations of the perfect gift ideology by studying other gift-giving contexts.

Sacrifice. We contend that no sacrifice is necessary to give the perfect last gift. In a meaningful sense, the giver is already making a very meaningful sacrifice to be in the position to give such a gift: his life. Thus, the loss of the loved one potentially renders the last gift perfect in a rather tragic manner.

Pleases the recipient. Perhaps 'pleases’ is not quite the right word in this context. The last gift basically says "Goodbye, I love you, remember me, remember us". It pleases the recipient in that the last gift may eloquently singularize the donor, the recipient, and their relationship (see Carrier 1991). In other words, the more relevant criterion for the last perfect gift is its capacity for nostalgia and remembering the relationship.

Luxury. In most of the participants’ reports, the perfect last gift has no functional use whatsoever. Rather, its sole benefit was symbolic. For example, Del (WM 36) received a television and a few thousand dollars when a close friend died of AIDS. While he needed neither gift (he had a working television and money of his own, thus the gifts were luxuries, technically), he felt rather 'cheated’ as he would have preferred a small item of sentimental value such as a photograph. Thus, the perfect last gift is a certain type of luxury which has the potential to communicate something special about the relationship. Objects are resources from which consumers may construct meanings, but some objects (such as flowers and photographs), due to widely shared cultural conventions, lend themselves more easily to sentimentality than others (such as televisions).

Appropriate to the Recipient. We believe that this is perhaps the most important criterion of the last perfect gift. Yet, this gift must be appropriate in a nuanced manner. It must singularize just how important the recipient was in the donor’s life and make him or her feel loved. Moreover, the perfect last gift must represent an important aspect unique to the 'nature of the relationship.’ For example, Stanley noted that the art and books left to him by Edward were indeed treasured after Edward’s death, as both men had shared a passion for these things.

Surprise. We do not believe that surprise is necessarily a prerequisite to the perfect last gift. Often, the gift was negotiated between giver and recipient before death in order to ensure that no unpleasant surprises could occur, as dying presents quite ahigh risk gift-giving situation. Also, some participants chose the gift for themselves after the death when charged with the duty of disposing of the loved one’s possessions or as stipulated by conditions in a will.

Desire/Delight Certainly, all informants reported that they desired something by which to remember their friends, children, and partners; yet, they would have traded these bequests for more time with the loved ones. 'Delight’ is perhaps the inappropriate word to describe the perfect last gift. As a negative case involving a decidedly imperfect gift, Del did not delight in getting the television and the money, nor did he particularly desire them. He would have preferred a more personalized, singularizing possession from his friend’s estate. The emotion most commonly expressed by participants was nostalgiaBthat bittersweet mixture of sadness, remembrance, and wistful longing for their lost ones which only a perfect last gift captures so powerfully (cf. Holbrook 1993). There is a key ambiguity or paradox surrounding the receipt of the last gift. On the one hand, the gifts are often loved and cherished as sacred. Yet, on the other hand, the means by which they are acquired and charged with such powerful meanings is generally thought as painful and undesirable.

So it appears that all the criteria for the perfect gift do not necessarily translate well to the context of the perfect last gift. We also acknowledge that some last gifts are 'gag’ gifts or could be downright mean and negative, depending upon the nature of the relationship in question. But we contend that the perfect last gift benefits both the giver and the recipient. Both should gain satisfaction and comfort from this most urgent exchange context. The giver is allowed a sense of not being forgotten in the future. This is only attained by thoughtful disposition. Even though it has been pointed out that people facing their own mortality may not necessarily care about their possessions (Adelman 1992; Pavia 1992), it is the survivors who will need meaningful momentos to 'replace’ the sense of extended self they lose with the giver’s death. Even though a gift may be but a small token with no functional utility, it may still be regarded as an extension of self and act as a surrogate to fill the void. Thus, the perfect gift may also be regarded as one that enables the recipient to feel a sense of the giver through an object that is charged with the giver’s memory and invokes a strong feeling of nostalgia (Belk 1991).

In conclusion, both the giver and recipient would prefer to be thought of favourably in the context of the last gift, assuming the relationship was a positive one. Further, although we have studied deaths from AIDS, it is likely that future research will conclude that our themes apply to other kinds of deaths at different life stages. All in all, thoughtful gift-giving in this context allows the giver to 'live on’ if only in memory, and the recipient to fill a void after the loss. The last gift is irrevocable and often sacred; that is, there will be no other chances to make amends for thoughtless or inappropriate choices. The message that is communicated and received may have lasting effects beyond other gift exchange rituals such as Christmas or birthdays. There will never be another time to make things right in a subsequent reformulation stage (Sherry 1983). The feelings which the recipients are left with may bolster self esteem or may leave the recipient feeling worthless in regards to the giver’s regard and affection. Gifts may be displayed proudly or hidden in the basement. The actions of the recipient may influence the immortality of the giver. Thus, perhaps the last gift is the most important gift of all, because it is, well, the last.

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