The Role of Storytelling in Coping With Grief
At some point in our lives, we all experience grief. Death is a part of life that we are all touched by— it’s part of the human experience. However, despite its inevitability, we’re almost never fully prepared for the period of grieving and emotional pain that follows the loss of a loved one. Grief can manifest itself in different ways and it’s often significantly more complicated than simply going through an extended period of sadness. Someone might experience anything from sadness or despair, to anger, to guilt, to denial. It can wear you down to the extent that even small, everyday tasks can feel like a monumental undertaking.
Eventually, the sadness and physical pain will subside; the experience can even bring us closer to the significant people in our lives and provide an opportunity to reflect on, and learn from, our experiences. But, grief never really ends. It never goes away. It stays with us for as long as love does, and, as a result, it’s not something someone can simply “get over”. It changes us forever and we continue to move through it as it changes forms, we just learn to cope with it along the way.
In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion on the role storytelling plays in coping with these processes that I’ve found quite fascinating, as I only recently realized that I am a storyteller myself. After attending a local event, I fell in love with the notion that a group of people could share some of the most personal, impactful experiences in their lives and feel validated and supported by the audience. I have since been able to see the outcome of this support first hand on many occasions and it’s become very important to me to bring that opportunity to others who might want to share their stories of loss, grief and bereavement in its many forms.
Why Do We Share Our Grief Stories?
There has been a trend towards using storytelling in a way that’s therapeutic for the bereaved because telling a story, especially their own, allows people to explore their feelings in a very unique way. It’s a way for us to reflect on a situation and make sense of what actually transpired after the fact. When we experience a loss, there is a huge amount of information to process—diagnoses, Doctors appointments, prescriptions, changing prognoses— and, if the loss is sudden, it can be even more difficult. It’s very common for the bereaved to still struggle with processing everything that’s happened even long after the event— sharing that grief story is one of the best ways for us to do that. This type of story in particular helps to capture an emotional event in a way that lets us take control of it, pull meaning out of it, and connect with others through our shared experiences.
There is a long list of reasons why we might use storytelling in coping with grief, but there are a few that are common to all of us. First and foremost, sharing our grief stories makes our loss real in a way that is absolutely necessary in being able to move forward. While telling that story can be a very painful experience, we need to be able to reconcile the event in our own heads so that we can eventually make room for the reality of the loss. Telling our stories also serves the purpose of allowing us to have our experiences witnessed by others. Many studies have shown that humans have an inherent need to have their experiences witnessed in a supportive way in order for us to be able to integrate those experiences into our lives in a way that’s healthy. Sharing stories with a loving network, even if they’re painful, acts as a means of having our feelings validated. It can also be a healthy way to continue our relationships with those we’ve lost— sharing our stories time and again can help up to preserve our bond with them.
With all that said, sometimes it can be incredibly difficult for us to explore our own stories. Sometimes an experience is simply too emotional and it becomes difficult for us to bring up the memories that surround it. In these situations, a related story can act as a metaphor that lets people reflect on the emotional elements of their own experiences without having to directly address them. The story can act as a lens through which we can examine our own feelings. This approach becomes particularly important when helping children to cope with complicated emotions.
Storytelling and Children’s Grief
Experiencing a loss is difficult for everyone, but, at least adults have the emotional capacity to articulate their feelings surrounding grief. On the other hand, children, especially under the age of 10, have a difficult time talking about their feelings in the same direct way that adults do. Rather than open up, they often have a tendency to unconsciously shut down and compartmentalize their feelings. To them, death feels like a huge, overwhelming concept, and it is easy for them to feel lost or isolated in their feelings surrounding it unless they learn to express them. Using metaphor through storytelling is a great way to help children relate to those feelings— the metaphors help to create enough understanding to facilitate conversation around what they’re feeling.
When a child follows a character through a story, they’re able to process their own emotions through that character. As a result, difficult emotions can be clarified more easily and worked through in a way that doesn’t feel confrontational for them. Ideally these kinds of stories should be read to a child to create opportunities for an adult to answer questions as they come up. Any questions they might have can lead to them opening up about their own experiences, but, it’s important that they aren’t pushed into anything— open, non-confrontational conversation is key. There are hundreds of children’s books that have been written to help introduce these difficult concepts, and I’ve taken the liberty of including a few favourites here:
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
Ida, Always by Caron Levis
The Memory Box: A Book About Grief by Joanna Rowland
As I mentioned earlier, I was introduced to storytelling through a local event, so I thought it only appropriate that I briefly touch on a few events that have been significant to me.
Since the inception of Death Cafes as a kind of franchise in 2011, there have been nearly 12000 of them held in over 65 countries. These cafes, now held virtually, create a space for people, often strangers, to gather together, eat, drink, and have open discussion about death. Their aim is to reframe the way we think about death and help to do away with the stigma associated with talking about it. The discussions are directed by the group, have no agenda, theme, or topic, and act as an open forum for participants to ask whatever questions they may have . They are not, however, meant to be support groups. They are also run on a not for profit basis, are accessible to anyone, and provide a respectful space that is not meant to lead the participants to any kind of conclusion.
6 Minute Memoirs
Founded in 2013 by Hamilton author and journalist Anne Bokma, These storytelling evenings feature a dozen or so local storytellers who spin their tales on a common theme within the strict time limit of six minutes or less. While not specific to grief storytelling, these stories stir up all kinds of emotions for people, and one thing is certain— the space connects us all. We are one as we listen to the tales. We laugh, we cry, and we applaud, together. It can be a very bonding experience.
The Goodbye Story Cafe
This is an event we launched on March 25th and was initially inspired by Anne’s 6 Minute Memoir series. The Goodbye Story Café (taking place on Zoom) hosts 3 or 4 storytellers who share stories of love, loss, understanding, and forgiveness, each one being a maximum of 10 minutes in length. I am honoured and privileged to be providing a space for people to share their stories.
Since I started my journey to becoming a doula, it’s become evident to me that the role of storytelling in coping with grief cannot be understated. Stories connect us and allow us to process difficult feelings, and validate the feelings of others, in a way that is completely unique. It has been, and continues to be, my honor to be able to share in the experiences of those individuals who I have been privileged enough to care for, listen to, and even played a role in the stories that they have to share.