The following resources were curated by Dr. Charmain Jackman, a licensed psychologist with 25+ years in the mental health field. She is the founder of InnoPsych, Inc., an organization on a mission to disrupt racial disparities in mental health and to promote emotional wellbeing and thriving in communities of color.
A Message from Dr. Jackman
My charge from the A.R.T. was to reflect on the essential question, “How does telling stories help us cope and survive?” and to consider what the audience might need after they experienced Life of Pi. In creating the resources that follow, I engaged my experiences as someone who has experienced loss and as a mental health professional who has supported young people through the loss of parents/
Overview of Storytelling
Storytelling is a powerful tool that promotes connection with others, allows for vulnerability, and creates pathways for healing. Sometimes our stories become trapped inside for fear that others may judge and/or reject us. We may have shame or guilt because of things that happened to us or things we said or did. However, when we lock up our stories, it often keeps us stuck. What we know to be true is that we are not alone in what we have endured. The human experience confirms that there are others like us and when we share our stories we find that connection. Telling our stories opens up the opportunity to learn from others and to gain ways to cope and survive.
10 Ways Telling Stories Help Us to Cope and Survive
- Gives voice to lived experiences
- Fosters human connection
- Offers an opportunity for people to make sense of their experiences
- Helps people to remember, to shares memories, and to create new memories
- Allows people to connect to their feelings and emotions
- Helps to organize events that happened to us
- Releases negative emotions like shame, guilt, anger, and sorrow
- Increases empathy and oxytocin, the happiness hormone
- Promotes stress-reduction and lowers cortisol, the stress hormone
- Creates opportunities for the listener to heal
Sharing our stories is an essential component in peer support groups, group therapy, and individual therapy. In these spaces, people have the opportunity to share their experiences in a safe and supportive environment and with people who will listen and affirm them. An essential part of the storytelling are the people who listen and bear witness to the story. In this way, storytelling can be seen as a cycle, in which the storyteller and the listener benefit.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress is a psychological response occurring when an individual experiences a traumatic event that causes them to fear for their safety or the safety of others. These traumatic events cause significant distress and can include actual or perceived threats of death or serious injury, witnessing death or serious bodily harm to others, physical and/or emotional violence, and natural and manmade disasters.
An individual can also experience vicarious or secondary trauma from hearing about death or near-death experiences that happened to a friend or family member or through that person’s professional responsibilities (e.g. emergency medical technicians, medical personnel, public safety professionals, and mental health professionals).
Clinical Diagnostic Criteria
For a clinical diagnosis of PTSD, clients must meet specific criteria. Symptoms fall into these general categories:
- Arousal: increased anxiety or fear; hypervigilance; exaggerated startle response; irritability
- Avoidance: social withdrawal; avoiding triggers or reminders of danger
- Intrusion: Trouble focusing or concentrating; unwanted negative thoughts; flashbacks or upsetting memories
- Disruption: changes in mood, sleep, eating, and behaviors; decreased need for sleep; engaging in risky or dangerous behaviors
Complex trauma occurs when someone experiences multiple traumatic events. For example, in Pi’s case, losing all his family at once.
The Grieving Process
Although we know that death is inevitable, processing the loss of a loved one is typically a difficult process. Grief is the emotional reaction to a loss, while mourning is the external expression of the loss. How we mourn and grieve a loss may be influenced by religion and spiritual practices, cultural and family values, and individual differences. One thing is clear that there is no timeline for grief and we all express our grief in different ways. Some people feel comfortable mourning in public, which others do not. Some people are open to talking about their loss with others, while others are more private. There are no right or wrong ways to grieve, but it is important to find a way to process the death of a loved one.
Below, we have outlined two theories that help to build understanding of the grief process.
Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlined the 5 Stages of Grief in her book On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families (1969):
- Denial: shock of the loss and rejection that the person has died; may feel numb
- Anger: intense feelings of anger and blame that may be directed at self and/or others
- Bargaining: negotiating with God or higher power to change behavior to reverse the death
- Depression: sense despair and sadness that comes with recognizing what life is like without the person’s presence
- Acceptance: adjusting to life without the person present
The Grieving Wheel
The Grieving Wheel was developed by the Hospice Yukon, an organization that provides grief supports and resources. The Grieving Wheel is based on the First Nations Medicine Wheel.
- Life as usual: place where all start
- Shock: occurs as loss; disbelief
- Chaos: as resistance decreases, there is an acknowledgement that the person has died, resulting in a mixture of emotions
- New beginning: as the person comes to a place where they accept that the sorrow will end, they adopt a new understanding and start to readjust to life without the person in it
- Life as usual: the person is coming back to place where they feel like themselves again; new normal
Essential Components of Grieving
While there are many ways to mourn the loss of a loved one, here are three factors that are essential to any grief process:
- Rituals: Engaging in rituals (e.g. funeral, wake) that acknowledge the loss can help in moving from the stage of shock and denial into other parts of the grief journey.
- Feel your emotions: Allow yourself to feel the range of emotions you may experience without judging or trying to control them. Meeting with a therapist can provide ways to explore and express the various emotions that you experience along your journey.
- Connect with others: Death and loss can bring on a sense of loneliness and isolation and it can be easy to withdraw from others. While it may be difficult at first, finding ways to connect to friends, family, or with people who have experienced loss can help in decreasing the sense of loneliness. Support groups offer a place to share your story and to connect with others.
Complicated grief occurs when the intensity of a person’s grief response does not decrease over time and they have difficulty resuming their life (outside of the person’s cultural norms). There may be a number of causes such as overwhelming feelings of guilt, unfinished business, or past losses they experienced, or being unable to participate in a ritual.
As you cope with the death of a loved one, there are likely to be times that resurface intense emotions around the loss:
- Anniversaries: birthdays, wedding anniversaries, death dates are significant; missed occasions such as graduations or weddings
- Holidays: celebrations and observances where people gather
- Environmental cues: sounds, songs, voices, or situations
- Loneliness: death of a loved one can make people feel distant and isolated from others; there may be a natural desire to withdraw or to avoid situations where people seem to be having fun
- Insensitive remarks: There is also no time limit
Bosticco, C & Thompson, T. (2005). Narratives and Storytelling in Coping with Grief and Bereavement. Omega, 51(1), 1-16. https://sites.ualberta.ca/~jennyy/PDFs/17540048.pdf
Brockington, G., Gomes Moreira, A., Buso, M., Gomes da Silva, S., Altszylerg, E., Fischerh, R. & Mol, J. (2021). Storytelling increases oxytocin and positive emotions and decreases cortisol and pain in hospitalized children. PNAS, 18(22). https://www.pnas.org/doi/epdf/10.1073/pnas.2018409118
U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. PTSD: National Center for PTSD. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/essentials/dsm5_ptsd.asp
Hospice Yukon. The Grieving Wheel: https://hospiceyukon.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Grieving-Wheel-with-description.pdf
National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Cancer Institute:
- Reimagine: a community-driven nonprofit dedicated to transforming the world by facing loss, death, and adversity together
- The Children’s Room: provides grief support resources for children, teens, and families who have experienced a loss; based in Arlington, MA
- GriefShare: provides information about support groups happening around the world
- Dougy Center: provides grief support in a safe place where children, teens, young adults, and their families can share their experiences before and after a death
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: raises the standard of care and improve access to services for traumatized children, their families and communities throughout the United States
- Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief by Joanne Cacciatore
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
- The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat
- Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg
- Homecoming: Overcome Fear And Trauma To Reclaim Your Whole, Authentic Self by Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis
- My Time To Thrive: Feel. Grow. Heal.™ card deck is stacked with powerful tools, activities and quotes created to kickstart your personal journey to healing from challenging and traumatic life events
- Zara’s Big Messy Goodbye by Rebekah Borucki & Gina Moffa LCSW, & Danielle Pioli
- The Memory Box: A Book About Grief by Joanna Rowland & Thea Baker
- I Miss You: Grief and Mental Health Books for Kids by Pat Thomas & Lesley Harker
- Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen
- Always Remember by Cece Meng & Jago