Exploring death through arts-based methods

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By: 
aberard
Childhood photo of Tiffany Hill and her brother Theodore.

Tiffany Hill, MA student in the College of Interdisciplinary Studies and graduate research assistant of the ResiliencebyDesign Lab recently presented at the Association of Death Education and Counselling (ADEC) conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The association is the premiere educational, interdisciplinary meeting for professionals working in the field of death, dying, and bereavement.

While Tiffany describes herself as both a student and researcher, she prefers her title of storyteller, sister and the owner of big feelings and many tattoos. These elements of her identity greatly influence her research, which she spoke about at ADEC last month in her presentation titled, “Exploring Childhood Sibling Bereavement Through Arts-Based Methods.”

Supervised by Dr. Cheryl Heykoop, Tiffany’s thesis, "An Autoethnography on Sibling Bereavement: Navigating the Complexities of Dying, Death, and Grief,” aims to explore her lived experiences of the dying and death of her brother, Theodore, and her grief in the recent six months following his death. Further, she will be reflecting on her use of creative arts-based methods to help cultivate an understanding of grief as a process to be honored rather than a problem to mitigate. This exploration will inform policies and practices to support siblings who are bereaved.

In describing suffering, Frankl (2006) states; “for what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement” (p. 112). Therefore, the impetus to conduct this specific research comes from the confidence that by understanding her own grief, Tiffany may offer support and insights to those who have or will experience grief or loss in their lifetime.

Tiffany’s journey has been greatly influenced by creative arts-based methods, as highlighted in her two paintings, done after her brother’s death, titled, “Heart of the Storm” and “Embers”. These methods have the potential to support grieving processes, which Tiffany discussed at the ADEC conference. She explains that children who have experienced the death of a sibling need support. Of the limited existing research on sibling bereavement, most is largely focused on emotional, behavioural, and social signs of grief and conducted using interviews supplemented with external observations. Tiffany has recognized these patterns and believes there may be value in identifying the limitations of generalizing or categorizing these reactions to grief. In her talk at ADEC, she discussed how creative arts-based methods have the potential to encourage children to express themselves and result in more ethical and accurate research. The talk included influences and narratives from her own experience in grief and preliminary findings of her thesis.

As Tiffany shows through her experience and research, grief is a complex journey and expressing this through art-based means can provide an important outlet. A quote that greatly influences her work captures this process well:

“Grief, I’ve learned is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go” (Anderson, n.d.).

To learn more about Tiffany’s work and her role in the RbD Lab, visit the RbD Library Showcase in the Royal Roads Library until June 8th.