Centering Researcher and Participant Wellbeing

a display of painted ceramic plates and bowls
Hospice Wellington approached CESI's Research Shop to evaluate the impacts of their art and narrative therapy program. Photo credit: Brandon Marsh Photography.

Research isn't just about the findings — it's also about the process.

A recent project conducted by the Research Shop, a CESI program that employs graduate students and works with local and regional organizations and collaborations to carry out high impact community-engaged scholarship, and Hospice Wellington illustrates how research can fulfill community priorities and also result in secondary learning, resulting in higher impact overall.

Hospice Wellington is a charitable organization that provides support and care to individuals who are living with life-threatening illnesses or experiencing grief and bereavement. They initially approached the Research Shop with a request for research to evaluate the impacts of their closed-group art and narrative therapy program.

Working together, Hospice Wellington's Art Therapist and the Research Shop co-designed a project to explore the experiences of individuals who participated in this program between 2015 and 2020. The Research Shop team conducted 32 interviews focused on understanding participants' experiences of loss and how the program's structure and activities supported them during bereavement.

The researchers found that art and narrative therapy hold great therapeutic potential as tools to help individuals experiencing grief or bereavement.

Specifically, the program at Hospice Wellington enabled participants to make strong connections with other participants and to learn new skills and coping mechanisms through the integrated offerings of art and narrative therapies, to develop a stronger self-concept and to learn new self-care tools and management strategies, and to obtain skills that supported their resilience when facing future grief experiences.

In addition to the primary research findings, this project also resulted in extremely impactful secondary learning, especially for the Research Shop team.

Knowing that the subject matter would be sensitive, the Art Therapist and the Research Shop co-created a research process that intentionally supported researcher and participant wellbeing throughout.

painting a surreal image of a yellow VW Beetle
Photo credit: Brandon Marsh Photography.

Before they started scoping the project, they asked themselves how will we care for our own and each other's emotional and wellness needs during the research journey? In doing so, they were able to design a process with support from Hospice Wellington to better understand effective practices around conducting emotionally sensitive research projects.

First, the Research Shop Manager ensured that the research team was emotionally prepared for the topics that would be covered throughout this project and that they were willing to approach the topics of death, dying, end-of-life care, grief, bereavement with openness, gentleness, and a sense of curiosity. They developed a system of self-care and check-ins that researchers could rely on as a supportive measure as they conducted interviews and reviewed the research data.

soapstone carving of an elephant
Photo credit: Brandon Marsh Photography.

The researchers took practical tools with them to each interview, checked in with each other before and after each interview, and built-in time for self-care immediately after interviews. The full research team, including the Art Therapist and the Research Shop, also participated in regular bi-weekly check-ins with group activities. In these meetings, they were encouraged to sit with the stories they had been entrusted with by participants and to understand how they might relate to their own lives. Through sharing, the research team developed relationships, built trust, and strengthened their bond as colleagues.

This project also provided a new role for the community partner – in addition to guiding the research, Hospice Wellington actively supported the researchers' well-being in a therapeutic capacity.

In reflecting on this project and this carefully constructed research process, the research team felt that intentionally building this space of trust helped them to dive deeper into difficult conversations, and to hold space for participants to express themselves freely and be vulnerable. These practices and relationships allowed the researchers to be more sensitive, present, and intentional in their work, which in turn allowed them to be better researchers and co-create better, more nuanced community engaged research with higher potential for community impact.

Moving forward, the research team will carry this experience and the lessons learned with them as they work on other projects, considering what secondary learning they may gain through the process, and how they might be able to connect with other team members and generally support wellbeing, especially when working on sensitive topics. This shared learning will also infuse CESI's practices more broadly moving forward.