Expressing Grief Through Storytelling

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  • Expressing Grief Through Storytelling

    HILDA R GLAZER D O N N A MARCUM

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    The authors describe the use of sto ytelling to assist children who have experienced the death of a family member or friend. The results support the theoy that children are able to use narrative to express grief and loss and that artwork can aid in the expression of both experiences.

    * * *

    Facilitating the expression of children's grief is an important goal of thera- pists who work with grieving children. Creative expression as part of the therapeutic process can help the child express emotion and process grief (Glazer, 1998). The purpose of our study was to document the efficacy of storytelling as an intervention technique with children who have lost a loved one through death. The story used in this study was based on our experi- ences while working with the families of grieving children at the Mount Carmel Hospice Evergreen Center of Columbus, Ohio. The Evergreen Center offers programs for children and families that are designed to promote movement through the grief process. The evening support group program is designed for school-age children and their families. Storytelling has become an essen- tial component of the program as one of the expressive art techniques that form the core of many of the activities.

    School-age children who have experienced the death of a loved one ex- press grief in a variety of developmentally appropriate ways. The grieving of the school-age child is complicated by his or her level of cognitive ability. Worden (1991) noted that concepts such as finality, causality, and irrevers- ibility are abstractions, and understanding them is related to the individual's level of cognitive development. It is important to develop opportunities for children to process grief in developmentally appropriate ways. Storytelling

    Hilda R. Glazer, Department of Psychology, Walden University; Donna Marcum, Evergreen Center, Mount Carmel Hospice and Palliative Care Services, Columbus, Ohio. Hilda R. Glazer is now at the Evergreen Center, Mount Carmel Hospice and Palliative Care Services, Columbus, Ohio. The research for this article was supported by a 1998 grantffom the National Storytelling Association. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Hilda R. Glazer, Ev- ergreen Center, Mount Carmel Hospice and Palliative Care Services, PO Box 91012, Columbus, OH 43209 (e-mail: hglazer@ix.netcom.com).

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  • encourages reaction and processing; thus, the child and adult work with the story in ways that are meaningful to the individual.

    Telling ones story is a part of mourning. In support groups, the sharing of stories is a critical element of the process (Harvey, 1996). It is therapeutic to tell ones story; the individual is able to verbalize the events and feelings. At the same time, when a person hears the stories of other people and hears their responses to his or her story, that individual realizes that others have had the same feelings about and experience with grief and mourning.

    The therapeutic value of the narrative may lie in the metaphor in that the individual finds his or her own solutions by contemplating what the story seems to imply at a specific time (Pearce, 1996). Bettelheim (see Pearce, 1966) suggested that stories can provide growth opportunities for workmg through concerns that preoccupy the individual. One of the ways in which this oc- curs is through reframing, that is, the shifting of experience from one con- tent to another (Pearce, 1996). The goal is the emotional development of the child, clarification of anxieties, and the development of problem-solving skills.

    Stories have been used to heal and cure (Pearce, 1996). All people have listened to the stories of other people and have stories of their own (Pearce, 1996). As people share their stories with others, they name and shape the meanings of their unique life experiences (Harvey, 1996). Narratives have been seen to be important in the lives of children as well as in the lives of adults. Hearing stories told and read by family members and friends and, later on, reading stories are major ways in which children learn about the world and the people in it (Hedberg & Westby, 1993). Children learn to share their experiences, both real and imagined, in the stories that they tell (Hedberg & Westby, 1993). Narratives can stimulate thought and understanding (Pearce, 1996). Hedberg and Westby also noted that children are likely to produce the most complex stories when the thematic content of the stimuli matches their previous experiences and interests.

    In addition, other creative experiences can help children heal. For example, an alternative to the telling of ones own story is the use of metaphor. Meta- phor is a literary technique in which one idea is expressed in terms of an- other (Pearce, 1996). The listener draws unique and unpredictable meaning from metaphor (Pearce, 1996), and metaphor can encourage the individual to consider the meanings for him- or herself.

    Art is another way of facilitating emotional expression. Art projects are a method through which the child translates the images and feelings into shapes and colors (Mills & Crowley, 1986). Art has the potential to make concrete what cannot be expressed verbally.

    The grief and mourning of a child are expressed and experienced in differ- ent ways at different developmental levels (Worden, 1991). Children between the ages of 5 and 7 years have a more highly developed cognitive concept of death than younger children have; however, children at this age may be unable to deal with the intensity of the feelings associated with the loss (Worden, 1991). By the age of 7 years, most children understand that death

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  • is universal, irreversible, and has a specific causality (Speece & Brent, 1996). Smith (1991) suggested that at least three tasks must be accomplished to process grief and integrate losses: understanding that the person is no longer there, allowing the feelings, and reinvesting in life.

    The objective of this study was to validate the contribution of the story to the grief journey. We have found that the value of the experience of storytelling is its interactive nature: Children appear to become involved in the story and to put themselves into the story. The study was built on our intuitive reactions.

    METHOD Procedure

    Modifying the mutual storytelling techniques of Gardner and Kottman (see Muro & Kottman, 1995), the storyteller began the story by setting the stage, that is, providing the beginning and the middle of the story; then, the story- teller invited the child to complete the story by telling the dream. Children were then asked to draw a picture of the story. Children were seen individu- ally, and the same story was told to each child. The story written by the second author incorporated the elements of change, loss, and sadness in relation to the loss of a loved one and provided the child with examples of problem solving or coping strategies to build on if the child chose to do so. (Note: A copy of the story may be obtained by writing to Donna Marcum, 6881 Bartlett Rd., Reynoldsburg, OH 43068.) The story recounts the expe- riences of a young man (Joey) who, after the death of his father, is now faced with moving from Ohio to Georgia, leaving his best friend (Ben) and the only home he has known. When he arrives at his new home, he finds a wonderful old oak tree in the yard that seems to be made just for climbing and sitting in. The tree becomes his dreaming tree.

    Participants

    Muro and Kottman (1995) suggested that storytelling works best with chil- dren who are at least in the second grade. Muro and Kottmans technique, which requires that the childs story have a narrative flow, has been most successful with children in the second and third grade and above (Muro & Kottman, 1995). Children selected for the study were no younger than 8 years old. Volunteers were solicited from the Evergreen Center families with school- age children and were invited to participate in a special storytelling time. Participants parents signed a consent form that had been approved by the Hospice and Aftercare director. Parents remained in a separate room, and the child went into a group room with the storyteller.

    Description of Participants

    With one exception, all participants were able to finish the story. One girl was able to draw the tree but was unable to finish the story, so her drawing

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  • was included in the analysis of the drawings. Seven girls and 3 boys partici- pated in the study. Seven children had lost a parent, 2 had lost a grandparent, and 1 had lost a teacher; at the time of the study, the average time since the loss was 14.1 months (SD = 8.33, range = 5-27). Eight children were Caucasian, 1 was Latino, and 1 was African American. The average age of the children was 9.8 years (SD = 1.51, range 7.5-12 years old).

    Data Analysis

    A qualitative paradigm was used to analyze the data. Miles and Huberman (1994) noted the power of qualitative data because a qualitative paradigm em- phasizes lived experience and is a means of determining the meaning of the experience to the individual. In the present study, we used content analysis, a method of analyzing communications. It is a technique for making inferences by objectively and systematically identifying specified characteristics of a com- munication, whether it is verbal or pictorial. The method can be used for both the content of the childs story and the artwork he or she produces. Before the storytelling sessions began, we developed a codebook, using information ob- tained from a review of the literature. Similar categories were developed for both the story and the artwork. In addition, the artwork was reviewed using the categories developed by the first author (Glazer, 1998) for another research project. QSR NUD*IST (Qualitative Solutions and Research Pty Ltd., 1997), qualitative analysis software, was used for the content analysis. Subsequent to the identification of themes, the findings were reviewed for properties or subcategories to dimensionalize, that is, to show the possibilities of the cat- egories (Creswell, 1998). In order to verify the categories that were identified, the coding results were compared with existing literature.

    Themes in the stories. Six themes were identified before the storytelling:

    1. Visiting: the concept of having Ben come for a visit or visiting Ben 2. Tree house: adding to the tree to make it more his own 3. Dreams or dreaming: the presence of a dream in the story 4. Loss or sadness: references to the loss of a person or object 5. Staying connected: references to actions taken to stay in touch with his

    friend or someone else 6. Memory: evidence of a memory of the loved one who has died or some-

    one unique to the story

    Visiting was the theme that appeared most frequently in the stories; it was used in eight of the nine stories; in one story, Joey went to see Ben, and in the remaining stories, Ben visited Joey. Following is a 12-year-olds narrative, which illustrates the visiting theme:

    So the next day he goes up into the tree, and he is reading a book and his mom calls him down and says that Ben is coming for a visit and he gets really excited because he can show Ben his new house and his tree. And so, when Ben gets here, he shows him around the house and then he tells him he has a surprise for him, and he takes him out to the tree and they climb up in the tree and they play up in the tree.

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  • A tree house was added in two stories. Staying in touch with Ben was noted in two stories. Sadness or loss were themes in three stories. There were spe- cific references in two stories to missing the loved one who had died, and two stories mentioned taking things away: [Dlont take my best friend away; Why do people have to take away things I like all the time? The second statement was the one of two references to the loss of the tree.

    Analysis of the content of the stories revealed three themes: continuing to play or be in the tree, making new friends, and dreams or fantasies re- lated to the loss. The first theme related to continuing to play or be in the tree either with Ben or with others; eight of the nine stories included this theme. This theme can be seen in the following story excerpt from a story by a 10-year-old boy:

    Hey, Mom, can we stay here for the rest of our lives? Well, maybe when you grow up, you might move, but we might stay here for a little, maybe for a lot longer. The next day, when Joey came home from his new school, he went up in his oak tree and did all the usual things.

    The second theme that appeared in two stories was making new friends, as seen in the following narrative from a girl who was 9 years, 6 months old:

    He decided to go visit when he went to school; he decided to try to make friends at recess and [to] try to make new friends at school and he decided to invite them over for, like, a sleep over, and he decided to share the dreaming tree with them.

    Dreams or fantasies were part of three childrens stories. One story included two dreams: The first was a dream about loss, and the other was a happy dream in which the child was reunited with the loved ones who had died and lived happily ever after. In one story, the dream was of a boat; in an- other story by a 9%-year-old girl, the tree came alive:

    Joeys friend came, and they both played in the oak tree and they spent the sum- mer there and they had fun. Joey wanted his friend to live there, but he couldnt. And Joey almost forgot about his friend because he loved the tree so much. The oak tree comes alive and instead of being the oak tree, its Joeys friend. And he lived there forever being the oak tree and Joeys friend.

    Thus, the two major themes, as defined as those appearing in the majority of stories, were Joey and Ben visiting and Joey playing in or being in the tree with Ben or with others. Both of the major themes can be interpreted as being related to resolving the loss, which may be seen as a problem-solving strat- egy. The problem-solving theme was triangulated with the current literature as a validity measure. In discussing the work of Bettelheim, Pearce (1996) noted that stories can convey problem-solving messages; through the story, the child can develop problem-solving techniques. When viewed as an il- lustration of the problem-solving theme, the appearance of the detailed dream in one story might be seen as the childs attempt to deal with the loss and to fantasize about how life might be different.

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