Skip to main content
Creative Approaches to Death and Grief

Creative Approaches to Death and Grief

Project team

Dr Sarah Turner

Collaborators

Dr Sally Pezaro, Coventry University
Professor Danielle Fuller, University of Alberta
Dr Karolina Kuberska, THIS Institute, University of Cambridge
Professor Jeannette Littlemore, University of Birmingham
Professor Sheelagh McGuinness, University of Bristol
Professor Julie Taylor, University of Birmingham
Professor Annie Topping, University of Birmingham


Project overview

Grief is a universal human experience, and a natural response to the loss of a loved one. However, it can have long-lasting and significant effects on wellbeing, and those experiencing it may benefit from support to help them to navigate the challenges that it entails. Bereavement research has demonstrated how this support is often most effective if it is based on a good understanding of the experiences of the grieving person (see e.g. Riley et al., 2007). However, enduring taboos around death and grief risk jeopardising this goal, as people often struggle to talk about grief or to respond to those experiencing it.

Sarah’s research explores ways in which we can reach a better understanding of grief, and use this understanding to improve support for those experiencing it. As a cognitive linguist, she is particularly interested in how people use metaphor and figurative language to conceptualise and express what cannot be communicated in literal language alone, and how the metaphors they use can provide important insights into their experiences.
Her interest in the topic began with her postdoctoral research work on the ESRC-funded Death before Birth project, which ran from 2016-2018 and was based at the University of Birmingham. This was an interdisciplinary project, combining aspects of socio-legal studies, cultural studies, and linguistics. In it, the team examined how people who have experienced miscarriage, termination for medical reasons, and stillbirth reach decisions concerning what happens to their baby after death, how their perceptions of the law impact on their decision-making, and how they communicate their experiences and choices to those there to support them. As part of the linguistic strand, Sarah was particularly interested in exploring not just what the bereaved and those who support them do, but how they express themselves through their words and actions. There was a strong focus on how individuals drew on metaphor, symbolism, and figurative language, which was often highly creative, to help them to express complex and difficult emotions.

Sarah continued this focus into her role as a co-investigator on a project funded by the True Colours Trust, which explored parents’ and carers’ perceptions of the care and communication they received following the death of a child. Here, too, the focus was on the ways in which parents and carers used figurative language, often in highly creative ways, to help them to conceptualise and communicate their experiences, and how an analysis of such language could be used to inform better care.

In both these projects, it became clear that the figurative, symbolic thinking that underpinned so much of the language participants used was not restricted to their verbal communication. Participants often spoke of richly symbolic and highly creative practices they engaged in to help them to come to terms with their loss, or explained the benefit they gained from engaging in expressive practices like art or writing. Because of this, Sarah is now broadening her focus to explore these practices in more depth, and what they may bring to our understanding of the experience of grief, loss and death. Maintaining the focus from the previous work, this improved understanding will then be used to inform bereavement care.

A particular focus on Sarah’s work going forward is on prioritising working with communities who have been historically underheard and underrepresented in social science research. These include communities who are minoritized because of their ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender and sexual identity, or because they have a disability. The experience of grief may be highly personal, but at the same time it is shaped by our backgrounds, with different cultures conceptualising and responding to death and grief in different ways (Rosenblatt, 2001). Effective support therefore requires an understanding of grief on both the personal and the collective level, and in today’s culturally heterogenous society, those who work to support the bereaved need to be sensitive to how experiences of grief may be shaped by background.

Impact statement

Sarah’s work in this area to date has been widely disseminated through publications and conference presentations, and has contributed to methodological developments through the development of a taxonomy of creative uses of metaphor (see Fuoli et al 2022; Turner and Littlemore, 2023; Littlemore et al., 2023) and through contributions to broader conversations around the nature of metaphor (Turner & Littlemore, 2023). It has had external societal impact through informing CPD materials which have directly contributed to professional practice in the fields of healthcare and funeral directing; she collaborated on the design of a CPD module for the Royal College of Midwives, and worked with Professor Littlemore to design a module on communication following the death of a child for the National Association of Funeral Directors. As part of her postdoctoral work, she contributed to a report prepared for the Department of Health & Social Care Pregnancy Loss Review, and the project as a whole helped to shape the National Bereavement Care Pathway. She has co-written a number of articles in professional publications, and contributed to The Conversation.

She has worked with a range of stakeholder organisations and has also engaged with the wider public, speaking at the Hay Festival (2018) and the Blink Festival (2018), and participating in the 2020 Good Grief Festival as an invited panellist. She has been invited to speak at professional events such as the National Association of Funeral Directors’ AGM and the Together for Short Lives conference, and she has also been invited to run workshops at the National Funeral Exhibition and the Humanists UK Celebrant Conference.

Outputs 

Academic Articles

  • Turner, S., & Littlemore, J. (2023). Literal or metaphorical? Conventional or creative? Contested metaphoricity in intense emotional experiences. Metaphor and the Social World, 13(1), 37-58.
  • Turner, S., Littlemore, J., Parr, E., Taylor, J., & Topping, A. (2023). ‘Lights in the darkness’, Part 2: characterising effective communication with professional groups following the death of a child. Mortality, 28(4), 645-660.
  • Turner, S., Littlemore, J., Parr, E., Taylor, J., & Topping, A. (2023). ‘Lights in the darkness’, part 1: characterising effective communication with healthcare practitioners following the death of a child. Mortality, 28(4), 627-644.
  • Austin, L., Littlemore, J., McGuinness, S., Turner, S., Fuller, D., & Kuberska, K. (2021). Effective Communication Following Pregnancy Loss: A Study in England. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 30(1), 175-187.
  • Kuberska, K., Fuller, D., Littlemore, J., McGuinness, S. and Turner, S. (2020). ‘Death before Birth: Liminal Bodies and Legal Frameworks.’ Ed. C. Dietz, M. Travis, & M. Thomson. A Jurisprudence of the Body. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 149-178.
  • Tovey, R., & Turner, S. (2020). Stillbirth memento photography. Journal of Visual Communication in Medicine, 43(1), 2-16.
  • Littlemore, J., McGuinness, S., Fuller, D., Kuberska, K., & Turner, S. (2020). Death before birth: Understanding, informing and supporting choices made by people who have experienced miscarriage, termination and stillbirth. MIDIRS Midwifery Digest, 30(2), 251-255.
  • Littlemore, J., & Turner, S. (2020). Metaphors in communication about pregnancy loss. Metaphor and the Social World, 10(1), 45-75.
  • Turner, S., Littlemore, J., Burgess, M., Fuller, D., McGuinness, S., & Kuberska, K. (2020). The production of time-related metaphors by people who have experienced pregnancy loss. In A. Gargett & J. Barnden (Eds.), Producing Figurative Expression. John Benjamins, pp. 389-418.
  • Littlemore, J., & Turner, S. (2019). What Can Metaphor Tell Us About Experiences of Pregnancy Loss and How Are These Experiences Reflected in Midwife Practice? Frontiers in Communication, 4.
  • Kuberska, K., & Turner, S. (2019). The presence of absence: Tensions and frictions of pregnancy losses – An introduction. Women's Studies International Forum, 74, 91-93.

Publications in Professional Magazines

  • Littlemore, J., Turner, S., Parr, E., Taylor, J. and Topping, A. (2021). ‘”He was very kind and you know, very understanding and sympathetic and said the right things. It’s a sort of gift isn’t it?” Communicating Effectively When Helping Parents to Organise a Funeral for Their Child’. Funeral Directors Monthly, March edition.
  • Turner, S., Littlemore, J., Parr, E., Taylor, J. and Topping, A. (2021). ‘Maintaining identity is important’. SAIF Insight, Journal of the Society of Independent Funeral Directors, 227.
  • Parr, E., Turner, S., Littlemore, J., Taylor, J. and Topping, A. (2020). ‘Communicating effectively with parents whose child has died’. Resurgam - The Journal of the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities 63(4).
  • Littlemore, J., McGuinness, S., Dandy, P., Fuller, D., Kuberska, K., & Turner, S. (2019). Arranging a funeral following a pregnancy loss. Resurgam – The Journal of the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities, 62(4), 52-55.
  • Littlemore, J., Turner, S., & Rumbold, K. (2018). Pregnancy loss: how to find the right words to talk about it. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/pregnancy-loss-how-to-find-the-right-words-to-talk-about-it-100915

Reports

  • Fuller, D., McGuinness, S., Littlemore, J., Kuberska, K., Turner, S., Austin, L., & Burgess, M. (2018). Death before birth: Understanding, informing and supporting choices made by people who have experienced miscarriage, termination and still birth: Preliminary project findings for meeting with representatives of the Department of Health and Social Care.
 Queen’s Award for Enterprise Logo
University of the year shortlisted
QS Five Star Rating 2023