Using storytelling in the care of the dying and the bereaved

Using storytelling in the care of the dying and the bereaved

The past 18 months have been unprecedented: the unanticipated deaths from Covid-19, the ‘non-covid’ deaths hampered by Covid-19 restrictions, and the feeling of hopelessness by families unable to share last days with their loved ones to say the things they always meant to say... Amidst all this, our society shies away from talking about death. Our fears and worries about facing it for ourselves, the impact of the death of others, and the myths we tell each other, stop us from discussing death because we fear it will make death happen sooner.

Using storytelling in the care of the dying and the bereaved
"A traditional tale can highlight the universality of death." - Janet Dowling, Fellow

In the predominant UK culture, children and young people do not always have strong family role models on how to deal with grief. Adults can be in their thirties before they experience an emotionally meaningful death for the first time. But death is a natural match for birth. Everyone who is born will also die - and in between there is the living to be got on with.

When a death of a loved one occurs, the body goes into shock mode and becomes alert and ready to respond to this new situation. Some people find that they can adjust to living without the deceased in their lives, but for some people it can be very challenging. They continue living in an aroused state which leads to depression, low self-esteem, low motivation, sadness, anger and potential self-harm, as the body tries to adapt to the increased stimulation.

Imagine the lottery machine with the balls bouncing around inside and occasionally hitting the walls of the globe, coming into notice, then streaking off again while something else takes their place for momentary attention. For the bereaved, each of the balls is a memory, thought or feeling and there is no time to grasp and try to put them in order before they are off again. In the lottery, a handle is turned, six random balls fall out and are then put into order. For the lottery, it works best for them to have the balls numerically ordered lowest to highest, but it could be the other way round. Or taking all the prime numbers first and then the other numbers. Or all the even numbers, then the odd ones. It all depends on the context and with that organisation they begin to make sense. For the bereaved, how do they know when to turn the handle and what kind of organisation works?

Experience of grief and loss depends on whether you have good support to know how to turn that handle and then sort those feelings. For people who do not know how to turn that handle, it can be very debilitating. Organisations like Cruse focus on supporting people to express themselves and take an active part in their recovery. From my experience as a bereavement support worker, and from what I learned as part of my Churchill Fellowship, I look for ways to support grieving people to express themselves, tell their own story and feel witnessed. That’s when they can learn about themselves and how to manage their grief in a different way so that they can live their daily life again.

I’ve been using storytelling in the care of the dying and the bereaved for over 15 years. I have found it to be an effective way for some people to learn oral storytelling skills through exploring feelings and emotions of the characters in the story. A traditional tale can highlight the universality of death (and reminds the listener that they are not alone), while allowing them to explore the feeling of the characters within the story and the relevance of their own experience. All the time, they are discussing the characters’ emotions and drawing on their own emotional experience to express and find ways to deal with it.

Within my work, I encourage people to explore traditional stories, their own stories of the relationship with the loved one, personal stories of past experiences and real-life stories. This develops their emotional literacy and gives them the language to express their feelings, developing their self-confidence and self-esteem in being able to voice these.

Then they work on the stories that they create themselves. These include keeping a journal with reflections and writing stories of the positive days, whether it be memories of their loved one, or how they are journeying through the grief, or even letters to the loved one expressing thanks, apologies and the things they need to forgive. Having found their stories, there are different ways to express those feelings beyond the oral or written word. A small boy who is an elective mute finds that he can express himself through writing and drawing comic book characters. A teenage girl tells her story through dancing her relationship with grandmother. A 30-year-old woman finds she can use craft to make something that reflects her relationship with her mother. Now that they can name and understand the feelings that they can express them in other ways including non-verbal.

I have been running workshops teaching storytelling skills to bereavement support workers as well as the bereaved. Not everyone gets it, but those that do feel empowered for themselves and more able to help others. The most important thing is to witness in a non-judgemental, empathic way and to empower them to retell their stories so that they can manage their feelings. Having learned the skills of storytelling, they can then apply these to other parts of their lives - and get on with living.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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