"In this approach of therapeutic puppetry, it is important to give the child control, to allow for more authentic puppet play and storytelling. This allows the child to direct and work through real and/or symbolic scenarios in order to master emotional conflicts"
Jola Martis, Play Therapist.
The Power of Puppetry, Storytelling and Narratives in Helping Children Triumph Over Grief
Puppets. For many of us, this word invokes a set of predictable imagery, with Punch and Judy, Pinocchio, and the ventriloquist’s dolls of the early 20th century all jumping to mind. ellenor's work in 2021, with Strangeface Theatre is bestowing puppets with a whole new purpose and power – helping bereaved children to express and overcome feelings of grief and loss.
As a Kent and Bexley-based charity that provides community-based care and support to life-limited patients of all ages, as well as their families. ellenor's respite care team works to temporarily relieve loved ones of their care giving duties; our counselling service, GEMS (Grief: Every Memory is Special) weekends, and innovative music and play therapies help our bereaved children process particular emotions and thoughts.
Currently, we provide individual play therapy for children and therapeutic group intervention as part of our GEMS services, which aim to help children overcome deal with grief and loss via a non-verbal medium. Our current play therapy programme, spearheaded by Jola Martis, is always looking for new ways to revitalise its work.
This involves approaching the discipline from increasingly new, innovative angles in order to address the unique needs of bereaved children, engage kids in a greater variety of ways, and deliver positive experiences for the families ellenor supports.
Here is where Strangeface Theatre comes in.
Led by Artistic Director Russell Dean, the Royal Tunbridge Wells-based company uses masks and puppetry to create immersive, accessible experiences for a wide range of audiences. Having played everywhere from village halls to grand theatres and English Heritage sites, Russell and his team soon began to realise the value their masks and puppets could have for people with conditions such as autism, those with specific educational needs, and children coping with grief and loss.
Recently, Russell – in collaboration with Jola, our play therapist – ran a puppet-play therapy session for the bereaved children of those under the hospice’s care.
The online-facilitated workshop empowered the children, who were aged between four and 16, to create puppets, many of which became a representation of a person the child had lost. This session provided the kids with a safe space to play and interact and created an environment in which they were able to process their feelings of grief and loss alongside other bereaved children.
One child created a puppet in the visage of her father, who was supported by our hospice in his final days. As well as recreating his outfit, the girl even rushed off to grab a few of his favourite things from around the house – including his mug, and a block of his beloved Toblerone chocolate – to complete the creation.
So, what kind of role can a puppet have in helping a child overcome grief?
“What a puppet does is take you into an alternative reality”, explains Russell. “Although part of you knows that it’s an alternative reality, the emotions you bring to it are very real. It’s the theatrical version of a fairy tale, and – once you’re in that world – anything can happen. Gravity can stop working; people can come back to life; your wishes can be fulfilled.
Our emotional life and our intellectual – or rational – apprehension of the world are not necessarily as strongly connected as we think. It’s very easy to swap one rationale for another, and to allow emotions which might be blocked by one particular rationale to start to express themselves in another.”
Russell’s passion for his vocation, as well as the artistic flair imbuing the masks, is evident. But his work – is also informed by a fascination for cognitive science – and what makes us tick. It also contributes to a strong understanding of grief, trauma, and how to address these through creativity and play.
“Trauma and grief often lock parts of the brain. The ability to move from the right-hand side of the brain (which broadly speaking holds emotion) to the left side (which handles analysis and conceptualisation) can be blocked by that trauma. However, by the process of making something – whether it’s a mask or puppet – and then analysing that thing through creating a narrative, enables the neurons in your brain to start to regenerate and bypass that blockage.
The process of first detailing something, and then bringing it to life with puppetry, really seems to move people on from grief. It proves, in a way, that the idea that when a loved one dies, they’re no longer there – that a curtain has come down – is false. To have a moment when you’re bringing someone back to life – albeit in an embodied way – is very powerful. Those we have lost are always with us.”
Telling a Story
It’s at this coming together of art, psychology, and science that the most potent force for creating positive change emerges – that of the story.
“We’re natural storytellers”, Russell asserts. “As human beings we cannot take in everything around us and the very process of curating our experience in the world is one of storytelling – even though we may call it reality. What matters is that our stories have a meaning that works for us. This is especially true in the grief process where meaning has often been lost quite suddenly leading to a feeling of senselessness.
Yet, while stories are important, Russell stresses the extent to which it’s not the telling of the child’s story that’s key, but the very act of them figuring it out for themselves. For this reason, Russell never tries to be too “prescriptive” of what the children in his puppet-making workshops must do, and instead attempts to facilitate their expression of their own, unique experiences.
“We’re not trying to find out what people’s stories are – they’re making their own narrative, which can be as obvious or metaphorical as is comfortable for the child. All I can do is provide the means through which the child can further that narrative… to take control of it. The great thing about it is that you’re not pushing anybody to do anything. It’s off the child’s own back, and you’ve allowed them to feel a little more powerful, and a little more aware of the world and of themselves.
“One of the things that happens in traumatic situations is that you get a lot of people trying to impose a narrative on how you should feel, how you should be – or maybe even taking a particular narrative away. It’s a very disempowering thing for a child to be bereaved. Their whole world of certainty has been turned upside down. But the ability to do something for themselves – albeit a small thing – can be really, really big.
“The very process of prodding that narrative-making part of the brain is very powerful, because they being to feel they have agency again. The puppet may be tiny, but the amount of real estate it can take up in a child’s consciousness is enormous.”
For All the Family
The children that participated loved the workshop, and embraced the task of building their puppets, before then creating and presenting a story around the character they’d brought to life. Plus, these puppet-making workshops – despite being oriented towards children – can have a kind of “knock on” effect for the parents, too.
“Some parents were assisting, and that puts them in a really interesting position – because the roles are different. They’re playing a support role, rather than [a leading one]. They’re going through grief themselves at the same time, and the workshops offer something different, where both adult and child are on a level playing field.
“If you’re bereaved as a parent, you often feel you have the responsibility of withholding grief in order to appear strong for your child. Anything that can show that a child is moving on from loss then benefits the parent – I think they get as much out of it!”
With their profound potential to help the whole family express their feelings of grief, loss, and disempowerment through a powerful non-verbal medium, it’s clear that puppets don’t only belong in films or Vaudeville theatre. But ultimately, it’s not only how we perceive puppetry as a concept that Russell with our collaboration is helping to reframe, but society’s wider attitudes towards hospice care, too.
“It was that idea being able to show ellenor and hospices in a different light because the general perception is that they’re places you go to die. Actually, hospices address aspects of life you may yet need to live albeit in a limited time. To be able to demonstrate that – to show something that’s so full of life, and people moving on as an example – is something I want to be a part of.”