Grief work, continuing bonds and co-creating new stories:
Tracey Johnston & Peter Robinson, 2017 CMMI Fellows

Our CMMI Fellows’ project sought to address the gap in the social world of grief, paying particular attention to the tension between traditional ‘grief work’ counseling and contemporary research and ideas about ‘continuing bonds’. Central to the work is the idea of co-creating new stories and understandings with the bereaved person about their loved ones, as a way of re-connecting identities (personal, social and cultural) as resources for living. Our project paid particular attention to exploring how these identities could be transformative for the individual as well as the group. We were also concerned with how this identity work could be shared within the extended family and community as resources for living and become an enduring legacy.

We anticipated that we would, as group leaders, experience connection and a full range of emotion within the group. However, the depth of connection and the depth of emotion have really left us feeling very grateful and hopeful about the capacity to heal in relationship. It has also re-emphasised the need for enduring legacies to help co-create and extend existing identities.

We met for four group sessions before the Learning Exchange and then two further sessions afterwards. Reflections on the group process have shown us that the positioning we adopted as co-leaders within the sessions contributed to the emotional safety of group members. We were both careful to maintain a balance between sharing from our own experience and actively sharing the legacies of our loved ones, whilst maintaining the role of facilitators inviting difference through the exploration of multiple stories within the LUUUUTT model.

Taking a CMM perspective through the LUUUUTT model helped us remain open to different perspectives and different levels of understandings well as being sensitive to the explicative and implicative forces. The explicative forces, in particular arose from dominant cultural stories about staged grief processes, as outlined by the popularised writings of Kubler-Ross, (1969) and Parkes, (1972).

The group were accepting and valuing of the implicative forces, which helped construct emotions that were shared and co-constructed. As leaders we were active in encouraging a range of emotional expression around grief and keen to ensure that group members did not compare and measure their grief reactions in relation to others. Overall, this led to further focus on the relationship and legacy, rather than framing some deaths as worse as or better than others. In turn, we believe this led to openness in the group and the contributed to the expression of emotion, as the implicitness of the communication of a range of expressions were encouraged. This led to enriching descriptions of grief. Some members were able to embody their experiences of grief and connection, whilst others were able to put their thoughts and feelings into words. All group members talked about valuing the space to talk about their lost family members that allowed for a fullness of their stories, without feeling the pull to memorialize in an idealized way.

How the room was set up and the use of space seemed to contribute to the functioning of the group. In the first session we had more of a traditional workshop style set up with two presenter chairs and a semi-circle. By the end of the first session, we both felt strongly that we had to move closer and make a circle. Inhabiting the space in a circle and sitting ‘within’ contributed to the sense of big ‘M’ mystery and connecting to ideas of ancient gatherers in similar circles. It seemed to fit with the invitation to become co-ordinated story tellers.

The group members connected to the LUUUTT model ideas and were able to access the Lived, Told and Untold stories concerning their relationships at multi-levels. For instance, some had gone from the session and actively asked other family members about Untold stories, or were able to go and share their Lived stories with others concerning their loss. As members began to feel heard in the group, they also started to feel more able to be heard elsewhere. The stories that were Unallowable, became allowable in the group and the stories that were Untellable came forth through the dairying of experiences and the bravery of one or two members to put these in words.

As we have reflected on the group process throughout this project, we have become more and more aware of the process of story Telling. This was particularly linked with the use of the physical space and the sharing of food and recipes from lost family members, the sharing of family jokes and the culture of family humor. In addition, the opportunity to bring in physical objects belonging to lost family members, the sharing of letters, photos and perfumes all enriched the story Telling in a weaving process.

As part of the group process we also focused on extending the LUUUUTT model and incorporated the idea of Undigestible Stories. There was something about the metaphor of the ability to digest and not digest that linked back to processing for individuals and for the group. Used as a metaphor, people were able to access the idea that it was ‘okay’ to be where they were at with their thoughts, emotions and their grief process. The idea helped construct having ‘permission’ to not rush, to stick with a process and reduced panic that they were ‘stuck’ in grief. This, in turn, helped us as therapists to take the focus of grief and put it onto an embodied process, attunement, empathy and compassion.

It was a privilege to present at the Learning Exchange with such a warm and appreciative audience. We felt the responsibility of trying to capture and present the Lived stories and experiences of the group and really wanted to do the bereavement group and their loved ones’ stories justice. The context of playfulness, safety and appreciation had already been evident in the many previous workshops at the Learning Exchange. This really helped us to carry our bereavement group into the Learning Exchange group, where we felt that we had extended the group, or joined the two together. We took the experience of the Learning Exchange back to the bereavement group and it helped us fold back in further ideas into the group. The poetry, songs and the expression of emotion within the Learning Exchange made the experience more enriching and spiritually connecting.

Of course, no experience is ever in a vacuum and in the time frame of the group, members have experienced illness, pregnancy, birth and one member experienced the news of her daughter’s terminal illness and subsequent death.

The bereavement group have agreed together that they would like to meet periodically to remember their loved ones together and we have plans to paint a Tree of Life, where group members can add symbols of remembrance.C

We have spoken to the existing group about running future groups and they were enthusiastic about this, but also felt that they would like to have celebration meetings in the future.

These are just some short highlights of the experience of the group. We are both very aware of the challenges we faced and the learning that we are still digesting together. We would love to write in more detail in the future on how the process added to our own ideas of co-working, especially with the wide ranging emotions expressed within the life of the group.

The LUUUTT model fitted really well with working with grief constructs. We would like to extend the model to include the idea of Undigestible stories as a focus on the embodiment of story processes.

Tracey Johnston and Peter Robinson
Possibilities Counselling and Psychotherapy Centre

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