Teaching Tip: Using reflective writing to learn about beliefs and baggage

Teaching Tip: Using reflective writing to learn about beliefs and baggage

We often think of writing as a way to present our ideas to others, to answer questions, and to illustrate what we know.  However, Laurel Richardson suggests that she writes in order to LEARN!

I write because I want to find something out. I write in order to learn something that I didn’t know before I wrote it.  I was taught, however, as perhaps you were, too, not to write until I knew what I wanted to say, until my points were organized and outlined.

Reflective writing helps students to become more aware of their “beliefs and baggage” – personal beliefs, their issues, values, preferences and fears, about dying, working with the dying, and their history with dying.

Student might find that reflective writing can help the writer bridge the inner and outer world, and connect new knowledge with practice. They might find that their writing helps to create new meaning and results in personal and professional growth.

Students may be new to caregiving and may be concerned that they have “nothing to write”, that they have “no work experience” in this area.

A person burdened by their beliefs and baggage
When you are unaware of your beliefs and baggage, they can weigh you down

Students are invited to write reflectively.  Naomi Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) provides the following guidelines for writing practice, that can be adapted here for reflective writing:

  1. Keep your hand moving
  2. Lose control
  3. Be specific
  4. Quell the critic (silence the critic)
  5. Be easy about spelling or grammar
  6. Feel free to write junk
  7. Go for the jugular

Instructors will need to help students understand that this is not about right or wrong!  In fact, inform and remind them that reflective writings are not marked for content, but only for participation.  Students will need to adjust their mind set, to simply look at the statement or the question, and just write whatever comes to their mind.  If they want to take a notebook, they might find that writing without stopping for ten minutes provides more opportunity for issues and ideas to come forward than writing for just a few lines.

Sort your beliefs and baggage
Learn to sort through your beliefs and baggage with reflective writing

Instructors can go through the Workbook exercises with the learners and brainstorm reflective responses to the different questions posed.  Some questions such as, “list what you think would be a good death, a bad death for you” student respond to easily.  They may have experience with a loved one dying, a pet dying, or their experiences may be limited to death as they have seen it portrayed in the media or how they have imagined dying might be.  Any or all of their thoughts would be more than appropriate to write.  “I don’t know” and “I have never thought of it” are reasonable answers.  I would then ask the student to follow Naomi Goldbergs directions for writing, and see if any other ideas come forward.

Students may request permission to write their responses in their native language.  This would be fine.

As students reflect, it is hoped that they will become more aware of themselves, their concerns, fears, issues, values about dying, death, caregiving etc..  With the increased awareness of themselves, they may be better able to focus their care on “the other”.

An image that may be helpful: airport and many suitcases.  If you know which one is yours, you can pick up your own baggage.  But if you are not sure which baggage is yours, and which belongs to someone else, you may mix up the bags.  The analogy is, that if you are not aware of your baggage, you can trip over it, while trying to care for someone else with different baggage and different needs.

Baggage sorted and put aside before caregiving
Sorting your baggage prevents your beliefs from weighing you down

Please note: Students may have much experience with death, loss and grief. For a person who has immigrated to Canada, it may be that their experiences with death and dying occured in their home country before immigrating to Canada.  These may be extremely painful experiences and be painful for the person to recall and difficult to explore. Instructors can support students by offering support as they work through their experiences as they prepare to care for people who are dying in Canada.


University of Birmingham offers a “short guide” to reflective writing here that details different methods for developing a reflective writing practice. I encourage you to read it and share with your students as a way to help them consider the various methods of tapping in to their beliefs and baggage.




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Courtney Murrell is a PSW who works in hospice palliative care.

When she is not at work, she is spending time with her family, going on hikes or writing. Courtney is a lifelong learner and loves to share her passion for writing as a wellness practice.

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