Grief Tales: The Therapeutic Power of Folktales to Heal Bereavement and Loss

by Sunwolf, Ph.D.

At nightfall the cuckolded and damaged king ordered another maiden and her slave brought to his  chambers and took his pleasure. As the night wore on the slave spoke,”Mistress if you are not sleepy tell us one of your lovely little tales to while away the night before I must bid you goodbye at daybreak for I fear the fate that will befall you tomorrow. ” To which Shahrazad replied bowing to the king, “With the greatest of pleasure. May I have permission to tell a story?” Surprised the king nodded. Whereupon did Shahrazad smile slowly and say, “Listen!”
The Arabian Nights (Alf Lay lah Wa Lay lah)i

“Ha!” screamed the witch, mocking him, “You came for your darling but she is lost to you-you will see her no more. ” The king’s son was beside himself with grief and in his agony he sprang from the tower. He lived, but the thorns put out his eyes-so he wandered blind through the woods, doing nothing but lament and weep for the loss of his dearest wife.

Folktales are full of grief. Consequently, folktales are full of grief medicine. An oral story may put distressed clients in touch with strengths they have forgotten, wise elders they have not yet met, and longed-for dreams that lurk in the mind’s shadowy places. One psychologist who has studied therapeutic storytelling concludes that human beings think, perceive, imagine and make moral choices according to narrative structures (Sarbin, 1986).

Told stories function as recipes for structuring experience (Bruner, 1987). Told stories are not passive. They actively and idiosyncratically affect each listener, both at the time a tale is first heard, and subsequently, at unexpected reoccurring moments. Tolkien said that story gives to the person who hears it a catch of the breath and a beat and lifting of the heart. Folktales have always suggested myriad pathways out of dark forests.

What Do We Know About the Healing Effects of Oral Storytelling?

A long, long time ago, there was a tangled kingdom where spells and enchantments floated through the air and bumped harshly against one another in the night. Although everyone in this kingdom stumbled into magical wishes’ some chose unwisely, so were left with dark regrets. While everyone could harvest second chances simply by reaching into the starlight, many complained about the effort. While a variety of wise elders dwelt nearby people stopped visiting them yet bewailed the injustices of disappointment. Storytellers rarely go to places where they have not been invited so they stopped visiting this kingdom. And so it was-until one day, when a storyteller became lost, and found a path to this twisted realm. The king and queen became alarmed and ordered all doors and windows locked. The storyteller sat down in the deserted town square and did an Unfamiliar Thing. Speaking quietly as if to herself, she began telling a tale. Some of the words she spoke were black and silver, others were azure and crimson. The words were like water rising and falling. They were music that danced and drifted. When the teller was done, people were surprised to see that they were unhurt yet different – and this is the place where our tale begins.

Recently, I proposed a story model that demonstrates that the telling of stories contain multiple functions:(1) relational (ways of connecting people), (2) explanatory (ways of knowing), (3) creative (ways of creating reality), (4) historical (ways of remembering), and (5) forecasting (ways of visioning the future) (Sunwolf & Frey, 2002). While narrative has been recommended as a therapeutic tool in psychiatry and psychotherapy (e.g., Eron & Lund, 1996; Monk, Winslade, Crocker, & Epston, 1997; Parry & Doan, 1994; Roberts & Holmes, 1999), the specific use of folklore and fairy tales has received limited attention.  Bettlelheim (1997) and von Fronz (1980) are generally cited as reinstituting a psychoanalytic approach to the buried meanings in fairy tales.

How Can Stories Help the Healing Process?

I will tell you something about stories.  They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death. Silko (1997).

Grief and bereavement are experienced when people are faced with issues of loss, lack and leave-taking events that impact their expectation, dreams and relationships.  Yet loss is unavoidable.  Loss may, in fact, be necessary in life.  Folktales are full of characters coping with ‘lack’ in their lives; something missing and mourned for often initiates the tale:

There was once a good king and queen who mourned for lack of a child, and were more upset than words could say:  They went all over the world making pilgrimages, giving vows, drinking waters, and performing every devotion.  Everything was tried, nothing worked and they remain barren.   Sleeping Beautyii

Folktales are full of unwanted parting.  Such leave-taking are also grief-triggers, paralleling unbearable pains of storylisteners:

There was once a merchant whose wife lay sick, and when she felt her end drawing near she called for her only daughter to come to her bed and told the child, “Be pious and good and God will always take care of you.  Ever after will I look down upon you from heaven and thus you will never be without me.”  And then she closed her eyes and expired.  The daughter went every day to her mother’s grave and wept bitterly.  Aschenuptteliii

Told stories from other cultures have both pedagogical and persuasive functions (Sunwolf, 1999). It has recently been theorized that listening to stories may have therapeutic effects in the psychological treatment of trauma, as an oral story offers itself as an immediate container for listeners, in which painful emotion can be safely “held”, while accommodation of the self is permitted (Honos-Webb, Sunwolf, & Shapiro, 2001).  Further, when a therapeutic client has connected with a particular story, events in their life that were previously innocuous may now act as naturally-occurring triggers in the future that bring the story back to memory.  Stories increase clients’ capacities to tolerate painful experiences.  Our model describes the artistry of therapeutic story selection as choosing stories consonant with clients’ strengths, rather than with the nature of the trauma.  In a sense, the story listening phenomena can operate as a time-release form of medicine, continually disseminating its effect, long after the told take.  Stories provoke intense flashes of insight for clients-insights that may be invisible to clinicians.

Inducing trance. Benson (1975) described the Relation Response, synthesizing western medical date with eastern religious practices.  When listeners are relaxed, they are open to more active retention of what is being said, less defensive, and the internal processes of their own wonder bodies begin “healing” (blood pressure lowers, pains fade, breathing becomes softly rhythmic, the heart beat slows, and stress hormones cease production).  Stallings (1988) describes storytelling’s power to hypnotize (“wrinkles melt, lips part, and even elderly faces glow like the youngest” p. 6).  Folklore and fairy talks come with familiar “inductions” for trance states built in (“It was a dark and stormy night…” or “Once upon a time in a far away land…”).  The spoken tale itself continues the trance in ways the literary tale cannot: repetitions, rhythms of voice, silences, whispers all enhance deeper relaxation.

Motivating change. Indigenous people around the world still tell ancestral stories to evoke healing spirits and inspire change (Meade, 1995).  Kirkwood (1992) suggests that stories function to open the mind to creative possibilities, when the tales exceed people’s values, beliefs and experiences.  Some researchers have discovered that story listening allows the mind to enter a deeper, more imaginative state of consciousness. Bristow (1997), a 30-year veteran psychotherapist, argues that while traditional talk therapy for emotional problems can be threatening, storytelling can be a powerful alternative. “Holding an audience spellbound” is often used to describe an audience’s altered state of listening to a great tale told well, and psychologists have claimed that storytelling performances contain many of the conditions necessary for inducing trances (Martin, 1993). A former nurse turned teller explains that for both the storyteller and health care provider, the use of story can help to establish a safe, slower paced, receptive human environment in which patients can feel more relaxed and empowered to express questions, concerns and needs (Klingler, 1997).

Storylistening. Not only storytelling, but storylistening may have specific health benefits. Three studies were undertaken exploring the coping benefits and limitations of stories people hear about others undergoing similar stressful events (Taylor, Aspinwall, Giuliano, Dakof, & Reardon, 1993). Interestingly, cancer patients reported that positive stories about other patients were more helpful than negative stories, yet negative stories were the most commonly told! Relatively few patients were interested in seeking stories about other cancer patients, though participants repeatedly reported that they had been told one or more stories about other cancer patients, usually by friends or relatives who were not cancer patients (two-thirds of these stories were about others who had died or done poorly with cancer). The source of a story may influence how it is perceived, even when the story parallels a patient’s own situation. Research shows that stories may be perceived as helpful by those in distress, depending upon whether they are negative or positive. Three groups of students listened either to stories of another student’s poor college adjustment, average level of adjustment, or excellent success; there were further two story conditions (informative story condition, containing information relevant to improving college adjustment, or uninformative story condition). Findings supported that the reason a story may be perceived as helpful depended on valence (negative stories made students feel lucky by comparison, positive stories were perceived as offering a better role model and sense of hope). This suggests that illness tales from survivors of similar illnesses may have the most profound healing and comforting effects for newly-diagnosed patients.

Michael Cotter (1998) describes the challenges tellers face when working with those who are ill face. Cotter, a storyteller and farmer from Minnesota, led a workshop for twenty-two terminally ill people suffering from AIDS or cancer. Cotter’s job was to create a safe place and help patients see the powerful stories embedded in their pain. A circle of anxious patients and caregivers gathered, led by a farmer who had never lived more than 60 feet from the spot where he had been born more than 60 years before. Which stories? Cotter finally settled on two tales that revealed his own vulnerabilities. It was challenging however, to lead listeners into the role of becoming tellers. Cotter created a transition reaching to the genesis of who they were: he asked each person to share the story of their name. This was a “story” each participant knew and could tell without planning: When their stories began to come-hesitant at first, fragile and vulnerable, then with more power and humor and force-they came like a tidal wave. Sad, tender, at times humorous, they were the stories of people looking at life’s end.

In enacting storytelling with one another, and making the transition from listeners-to-Cotter’s-tales to tellers- of-their-own-stories, the listeners seemed to gain a sense of mission, as they moved from names to individual life-dream-identity stories:

“Of the 22 participants, 21 told their stories. An 11- year old boy with brain cancer just wanted his classmates to treat him normally. There was a young father of three whose six-year-old daughter had only known him as ill, though he longed to be a normal one to her.

There was a woman who lived in a setting surrounded by birds and trees and natural sounds. She told of having to go from the well world of nature with its sounds and colors, into the sterile shut-in sounds of the hospital where she had only herself and her fear and her pain.” (Cotter, 1998, p. 4)

Testing effects.  Health care workers routinely rely upon the self-reports of their patients in measuring the healing effects of listening to and telling stories. One unique effort to quantify such effects is the use of a “Death Anxiety Scale,” that gauges the degree to which an individual experiences anxiety at the prospect of dying. This scale is being applied in storytelling applications to help create emotional and spiritual healing at life’s end (Stone, 1998). The Missoula Quality at Life’s End Demonstration Project is currently finalizing results from a study in which two groups of 30 residents living in a congregate living facility participated in research over a period of six to eight weeks. The Death Anxiety Scale, as well as other scales, were administered before, at the conclusion of the story treatment, and then six to eight weeks later. A matched control group as led by a facilitator in general discussions about events of the day at the same time each week, while the experimental group participants worked with story exercises designed to facilitate reminiscence sharing (Stone, 1998). Another research project is examining the biochemical effects of storytelling, testing story listeners for the presence of an immune substance known as immunoglobulin A and the hormone Cortisol which have been connected with the trance state associated with storylistening (Martin, 1993).

Pathographies: Healing Illness Tales

Now God sometimes tires of making people happy, and always mixes some misfortune with good luck’ like rain with sun. The queen fell ill, and neither the learned doctors nor even the quacks could do anything for her… Donkeyskiniv

Storytelling may function to create the possibility of being successfully ill Frank (1995), a sociologist at the University of Calgary, argues that illness is a call for stories. Becoming ill, in fact, may function to promote narratives by repairing the damage illness does to a person’s sense of self and task of redrawing self-maps in light of changed circumstances. Illness tales are collective narrative interpretations that ease the stigma of deviant behavior and unusual symptoms by conversion to the absurd.

Hawkins (1993) studied pathographies, autobiographical and biographical narratives about illness, treatment and death. In that sense, illness and death challenge our existential being to construct meanings that make sense of life and create a coherent narrative for what appears to be inexplicable. Clark (1998) has examined childhood imaginative narratives in the face of chronic illnesses. One five-year-old boy shared a narrative he had constructed that used a favorite toy car given magical qualities that took him to other places, that aided him in reframing his reality. Fear of death was a universal concern shared during Clark’s interviews with asthmatic children; a lack of breath always carried a concurrent sense of life-threatening consequences. Clark reports one child had sheets on his bed depicting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which provided a basis for the child’s imagined what-if stories that, should a nighttime emergency with his breathing occur, one of the Turtles would fly off the sheets and go to get the doctor, which calmed him during attacks. Adelman and Frey (1997), using an ethnographic approach over several years, collected entry experience stories (joining the residential community), as well as exit experience stories (coping with loss and anticipated loss of community members) in a residential setting for people living with AIDS. Illness tales helped create and recreate community. One resident reported:

“The first week I didn’t allow them to make me feel no kind of way. I isolated myself in my room basically till I got used to being there. I had to get used to the place in order to make it my home . . . and then I slowly started to come out and talk with other people. I would speak and when they asked certain questions’ I would say it in such a cold way that they would stand far away from me and be careful with what they say. I kept it like that for a while.”

Some of these collected narratives provide examples of the stress of residents coping with finishing their own life stories, as well as the unfinished stories of others:

“Since I’ve been sick with this disease’ I don’t allow myself to become emotionally attached anymore, because in this business you have to let go constantly and you get used to letting go. That’s important right now, because a lot of people go through depression when someone leaves and they really get sick. And I choose not to, and I hope that doesn’t sound cold, but I choose not to, and I am pretty much happier and healthier that way. And all the people that have passed away the last few weeks, man, it’s good that I have. When they tell me that someone passed I’ll say, ‘Now they’re resting in peace, ‘ and I go on. No more thought no more nothing. I go on.”

Other storytellers who are taking their tales into health care settings report similar examples of dying patients with a story to tell. One teller was directed by a doctor to a man who had been in the hospice for more than six months, receiving no visitors, no mail, not even a single phone call (Oceanna, 1998). By all medical standards he should have been dead. The storyteller sat down and explained who she was, but he said nothing, and they sat together quietly for awhile. Then she began telling a tale. The patient suddenly reached out his hand and touched her arm gently:

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you my story, my life’s story. I’m dying you know AIDS. There isn’t anyone to tell it all to, and I can’t die until I’ve told the whole thing. Will you listen?”

They sat there for hours as his stories poured out. When the hospice nurse called the storyteller the next day to report the man had died peacefully in his sleep that night, storytelling took on a new dimension for the teller, as she confronted the phenomenon she called “Transitional Story Listening.” Oceanna’s hospice work began to actively include story listening. She had often used stories to ease the transition between life and death, but now she realized that sometimes the dying have a need to tell their own stories, to be heard and accepted by other human beings before they can let go of life. She began asking the people she visited if they wanted to tell her their stories. Many patients specifically gave her permission to tell their stories:

“One elderly English gentleman called me his personal bard. In his mind’s eye, he said he saw me singing songs and passing down stories about his life like the troubadours of old. He claimed it made him feel immortal.”

Towards the Re-enchantment of Shattered Lives

In West Africa, when a person in the village becomes sick the Healer will ask them,”When was the last time that you sang? When was the last time that you danced? When was the last time that you shared a story? (Cox, 2000)

Early research was supportive of the use of stories to help heal emotional wounds of children in therapeutic settings (annotated bibliography, Langenbrunner & Disque, 1998). The “mutual storytelling technique” was outlined in the early 1970s by Gardner (1972) as an effective method for revealing conflicts troubled children may have experienced. Gardner advocated the role of the therapist in “retelling” the child’s life story in a way that became both more acceptable and empowering. The metaphoric power of stories for children in therapy became popular among many therapists (Rosen, 1991), as children’s own stories became a tool for the therapist to use in symbolically gaining access to a child’s experiences. Milton Erickson combined both the hypnotic trance and storytelling methods to help people address suppressed and painful information in their lives (Rosen, 1991).

More recently Barker (1996) demonstrated the use of stories in the public domain that he reworded to fit the needs and lives of his clients, in order to help them develop alternative perspectives of their own lives. Thematic Fantasy Play (TFP) was developed as a strategy allowing children to role play stories from children’s literature to increase social competence (Williamson, 1993). A psychiatric nurse, also trained in hypnosis, reports that she regularly uses the combination of storytelling and hypnosis in her work with clients (Martin, 1993). A Boulder Colorado psychotherapist-storyteller describes the story trance as an inner-directed state of consciousness, such that eyes may be on the storyteller, but consciousness is turned inward (Martin, 1993).

Stone (1994) has developed a guide to help health care practitioners elicit story memories from patients and actively conducts workshops across the country on such topics as the healing power of humor in storytelling, enhancing communication skills through the power of storytelling, improving physician communication through positive listening attitudes, transforming a hospital’s culture through the power of storytelling, and building a community of caring and support in health care institutions. His storytelling workshops are intensive and experiential-designed not only for nurses and doctors, but also therapists, social workers, volunteers, patient advocates, interns and clergy who constitute additional accessible avenues for eliciting stories from anxious patients. Bristow (1997) has developed a “storyboard,” to aid in the process of putting together some orderly sequence to a patient’s told story.

Many national health care organizations now regularly offer training programs designed to help patients heal through storytelling, including the National Hospice Organization and the Spiritual Caregivers Association. In the same way that “story” serves as a bridge, connecting listeners to new possibilities in their own lives, storytellers are now serving bridges to therapists, hospitals, hospices and health care providers. Workshops and collaborative teamwork offer therapists new possibilities for their own practices. Fish (2000) is a Bay Area stress management therapist who has compiled a book on tales to help people cope with specific complaints that impact health (anger, attitude, love, the inner critic, serenity). He includes multicultural healing tales to cope with loss (“There are Giants Leaving this Land,”), forgiveness (“Letting Go”), gratitude (“The Woman Who Walked to Paradise”), and balance (“The Bamboo Forest”) among many others. He shares how his own health crises (colonoscopy and pre-cancerous growths) moved his practice into one that connects spirit with body, using story as a healing bridge.

Once upon a time, a person’s wealth was judged more by the number of stories they could tell than by the possessions he or she owned. By these standards, we all have access to great wealth. Told tales provide temporal bridges, allowing story tellers and story receivers to reframe past loss and imagine future gain. The most important thing I can tell you about stories may be this: stories help people rethink their worlds and re-value their lives. Even a violent king grieving for his lost illusions was one day healed through storylistening:

Oral tradition has it that while the nightly tales continued to unfold, Shahrazad bore the king three children. After a thousand and one nights of story listening, the damaged king learned both to love and trust, sparing the teller’s life and keeping her as queen. Then did they commence to enjoy life, until they were overtaken by the Breaker of Ties and Destroyer of Delights. Hazar Afsana (and from a thousand legends v)

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The Arabian Nights comprises oral tales from Persia, India and Arabian cultures, adapting over time to the circumstances in which they were told. First mentioned in writing in the 9th century, the oldest surviving manuscript is Syrian, dating to the 14th century. The format- frame contains a story within a story within a story.

ii  Adapted from many sources. An oral folktale collected by Charles Perrault.

iii  An early version of Cinderella, adapted from many sources. An oral folktale collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

iv  Adapted from many sources. An oral folktale collected by Charles Perrault (France), 1600s.

v  Adapted from oral tellings and many sources.


This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 4, Summer 2003.

Born on a dark and stormy night, Dr. Sunwolf developed an early interest in ghostly tales and unexplained happenings. She is a former criminal defense attorney, now a university professor teaching relationships, persuasion and oral storytelling. She researches African dilemma tales, Sufi wisdom tales, storytelling in jury deliberations and storytrance. Her most recent work with a clinical psychologist is the first study on the power of listening to folktales to reduce anxiety following the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

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