Thinking differently: The role of books in understanding death and loss

The role books and stories play in promoting a greater understanding of death and loss has become ever more apparent in the events run by Kirklees Library, in collaboration with Redbridge and Newcastle Library services, as part of work focused on death positive libraries.   

Judith Robinson, who has been leading the work at Kirklees, shares some of her thoughts and highlights how books can help spark difficult conversations and shine a light on experiences of death, dying and encourage empathy.   

'Before the pandemic I had worked with colleagues to organise death positive events in Huddersfield library for Dying Matters Week. These events were supported by Kirkwood Hospice and feedback from participants was incredibly positive. During the pandemic, events move online and a personal highlight for me has been our event with Kathryn Mannix. Kathryn is an NHS consultant in palliative medicine and discussed her book “With The End In Mind” during a Q&A session. In the book, Kathryn discusses the taboos around death and how denying the inevitability of death impacts on end-of-life care.  

'I found Kathryn's book incredibly moving, reading the stories of patients, family members, doctors, nurses, support staff. Kathryn discussed her experiences and thoughts about palliative care. She has such a straightforward but sensitive manner when speaking about the value of books and stories in promoting a greater understanding of palliative care and building death-positive communities. A large number of medical staff were at the event and reading their comments and thoughts in the chat-box was particularly insightful, especially their thoughts on the role of public libraries in providing opportunities for end of life, death and bereavement support. 

'In our online event ‘Book Room of Loss’, participants were invited to bring along a book on the theme of loss or death; one that they thought might increase understanding and empathy or that they had found helpful themselves. The participants at this event brought a range of titles which covered death, the grieving process, the importance of funeral rituals and memories. This event clearly demonstrated the role books and stories play in promoting a greater understanding of death and loss. It also highlighted the strengths of library staff in using books to stimulate discussion and facilitate the sharing of ideas and opinions. I found some of the book choices surprising, and the discussion about cloning and artificial intelligence (in relation to identity) were particularly fascinating. 

'Events like these centred on sharing insights around books and stories are an essential part of creating death positive libraries, where those in the community who are experiencing death or bereavement can find support and where those who are interested to grow their understanding of these issues can discover more. The online events have been successful but I have missed the dynamics and contact which come from being part of an in-person event. Working with colleagues in Redbridge and Newcastle libraries has been incredibly useful; learning from their work, hearing what they have done, sharing ideas and thoughts. It has been really inspiring and has certainly made me think differently about what public libraries can do within the death-positive movement.'

Read more about Kirklees involvement in Tickets to the Afterlife, a #DeathPositiveLibraries project. This project highlights the importance of partnership working and how a project can be effectively developed for a particular target audience by involving them in the development stages.