Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

Creating Stories of Hope: A Narrative Approach to Illness, Death and Grief

Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

Creating Stories of Hope: A Narrative Approach to Illness, Death and Grief

Article excerpt


Working with children and their families when serious illness and death visits, requires special skills that are often learned on the job. This work calls on us to sit with more than just an open hear t and the finesse of active listening, but also to think about how to help children and their families find hope when their world is threatened by dramatic changes. This ar ticle will offer some new ideas about how those who work with children who are seriously ill and their families can create spaces of hope. The ar ticle will also address the upheaval that a death of a child brings to a family, and how to suppor t families towards stores of strength and agency at such times. It will bring together strands from narrative therapy with personal experiences of working with death, dying and grief. My hope is to invite readers to notice places of resonance, or perhaps find places of curiosity, that will encourage fur ther delving into narrative counselling.

I believe narrative practice invigorates life, and strengthens the stories that people can live by, while upholding love, even in the face of the unthinkable. While many other theories and practices have provided models for counselling families facing the death of a child, I have found narrative practice a model that personally resonates with my way of thinking and living. It is based on the use of questions that social workers, counsellors, medical professionals and those in caring professions can use to draw from people's performances of living. These theories can be used to form questions - really good questions- for those whose lives depend on them.

THe nARRATive bAckgROUnd

Narrative counselling was born in the 1980s in Australia and New Zealand. When Michael White and David Epston (1990) wrote Narrative means to therapeutic ends, ideas about how to view problems and how to think of people's lives were shifting dramatically. In the thir ty plus years since, hundreds of ar ticles have been published, thousands of counsellors have been trained around the world, and many books on narrative practice produced1. All of this work has heralded a depar ture from thinking of people primarily in terms of personality deficits, fractured egos, attachment oddities, or psychological diagnoses such as adjustment disorders or PTSD. Narrative counselling has grown from these beginnings to address many topics and to present a fresh approach to the suppor t of individuals, families and communities facing hardship. We see wonderful examples of a new approach in Michael White's (2007) book, Maps of narrative practice that fur ther shifts how problems are thought of and the way in which counsellors can create new conversations with clients even in the face of the unthinkable. The question remains however, how can narrative practice help people make sense of illness, death, and grief? And how in par ticular is this new way of thinking helpful when working with children and families who are dealing with these challenges?

Narrative practice is strongly informed by a social constructionist philosophy (Gergen, 1994, 1999). This means eschewing the assumptions of modernist humanistic philosophy or empirical, positivist realism. In social constructionism, people's personalities and identities are considered relational constructions organised into coherent narratives (White, 2007). While it seems harmless enough to say that we are relational beings, this view has implications for how we understand where problems might originate and, ultimately, for where we seek solutions (Gergen, 1994, 2009). Narrative practices have embraced the idea that we are always in the process of becoming - that is, who we are is always being constructed in the context of relationships and that these relationships are formed against the cultural backdrops of stories.

Narrative practice is built on the assumption that people live their lives through stories and that they are all multi-storied in their lived experience (Freedman & Combs, 1996; White, 2007). …

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