Grief, MAID, death: The importance of storytelling

News & Updates | November 6, 2022 | Keri-Lyn Durant

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The 2022 World Federation of Right To Die Societies International Conference was held in Toronto and hosted by Dying With Dignity Canada. Several speakers summarized their sessions to share on our website; this is Keri-Lyn Durant and Kathy Kortes-Miller’s insight into digital storytelling.

We live in stories, not statistics.

Kathleen R. Gilbert

I recently attended a performance by the Elora Singers of Craig Hella Johnson’s oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard. In this incredible choral adaptation of the life and untimely death of Shepard, Johnson shares that he “very much wanted Matt’s voice to be heard, even in a small way, and to include a few musical snapshots of his strong life force” (Johnson, 2016). In addition, he also wanted “to provide a space for reflection, consideration, and unity within this musical framework.” (Johnson, 2016) 

As a dying, death, and loss educator, what I witnessed, beyond a consummate performance, was an audience exploring a grief story. Johnson’s inclusion of Shepard’s own diary notes, his parents’ first-person accounts, and the landscapes of his cherished home of Wyoming creates an event that is both educative in its knowledge transfer of this heinous, unconscionable crime and enthralling for those of us who dwell in the realm of dying, death, and loss supports, forever questioning how we may tackle tough, often heartbreaking subjects in authentic and compassionate ways. As a person who navigated my own grief story, the death of my uncle in 2020, using arts-based storytelling, Johnson echoes what I have long suspected and now accepted to be valid: that first-person narrative accounts of our grief serve to help us understand complex, painful experiences:  

“Like so many people, I was deeply moved and affected by the death of a young Wyoming man, Matthew Wayne Shepard. The events surrounding his death created an enormous feeling world in me which continued to reverberate for months and years after the event. I felt such a strong inner desire to respond somehow, especially musically.” (Johnson, 2016). 

As an arts-based researcher, it seemed a natural fit to explore my own grief through what Alrutz (2014) calls an applied theatre praxis tool: digital storytelling. Digital stories are created by combining a recorded narrative with images, still and/or moving, music and/or other sounds. Usually, they are three-five minutes in length, told in the first person about a person, event, or issue the narrator feels very strongly about. While Johnson’s depiction of his response to Shepard’s death is not a digital story, it embodies the key component: the opportunity to explore grief in a personal, creative, and compassionate way. 

The research that I am privileged to be a part of with Dr. Kathy Kortes-Miller involves facilitating opportunities for people who accompanied someone on their medical assistance in dying (MAID) journey to create their own digital stories. To the above descriptors, I would add the term collaborative. The processes and products that result effectively and empathetically translate human experience for both the creator and the audience. Poignant, raw, and real, these digitally realized first-person narratives about lives well-lived and lives well-ended educate and enhance grief literacy (Breen et al, 2022). And, like Johnson’s piece, they also enthrall dying, death, and loss educators like myself to find fulsome and fulfilling modes of processing and moving forward with grief. Finally, as a necessary pivot during COVID-19, digital stories have the potential to transcend restrictions surrounding our death rites and rituals that the pandemic enforced. 

Keri-Lyn Durant, PhD (c.), Lakehead University 

Research assistant 

The untold stories of MAID in Ontario 

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