During winter of this year, I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down and speak with Dr. Rita Charon of the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University. In my essay "Storytelling, Illness, and Carl Jung's Active Imagination," I discuss our conversation on illness, death and the role that the doctor plays in acknowledging and supporting the patient's narrative of the illness experience. I talked with her about my recent fascination with 20th-century psychologist Carl Jung's theories on narrative in treatment.
Jung argued that spiritual leaders no longer exist to listen to stories of illness, and so the doctor was given this important task. Charon, too, encourages doctors to take on this responsibility. However, we discussed how doctors are often restricted from making this kind of connection now with the many tasks demanded of them from the business of healthcare. We were left asking ourselves who will listen to patients' stories of illness and their anxieties about death if doctors are unable to do so. I wondered if perhaps this role would fall on the family members of the patient.
I found that the fiction piece "Life, Death and Betta Fish" (Fall, 2016) by Bradeigh Godfrey beautifully illustrates the way family members may play a critical role in shaping how individuals, and particularly children, come to understand illness and loss. The metaphor of the dying betta fish Mrs. Stevenson, who is named after the elderly neighbor who gifted the fish to the family's young son Ian, seems to serve as an opportunity for the family to come together around loss. Parents Molly and Josh disagree about how they should discuss the death of Mrs. Stevenson with Ian. Molly is determined to save the betta fish for her son and also speaks openly about death and illness with Ian, while Josh continuously remarks that they could simply get another fish for Ian and that it's not as big of a deal as Molly makes it out to be. Molly is conflicted throughout the entire narrative as to whether she should keep trying to save the fish or let it die.
Later as readers, we learn that Molly had suffered from a miscarriage not too long ago and that this baby would have been born around the time that Mrs. Stevenson gets sick. We learn that the betta fish was given to Ian around the time that he and his mom were grieving this loss. Mrs. Stevenson quickly becomes a metaphor for an unresolved loss for Molly, Ian and Josh and the different ways they are coping with this death. The end of the story is moving as the family together buries the deceased fish in their yard. I found this story touching and illuminating about the way family members may play a role in narratives that are created about illness and death, a thought that surfaced for me in my own writing.
Kelly Goss is a second-year master's student in the General Psychology program at New York University who will graduate May 2017. She also earned her B.A. in Global Liberal Studies at NYU. Kelly’s passion for individual’s narratives of life experiences began as a high school journalist and creative writer. As an undergraduate, she became fascinated with Carl Jung’s archetypes and process of active imagination, which led her to pursue a career in Clinical Psychology. As a graduate student, she is interested in research centered on narratives of trauma and illness, parent and child relationships, family dynamics and multi-cultural issues.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine