Distraction Free Reading

Bed-Time Storytelling

Bedtime stories are stories narrated by adults to children before they fall asleep. As an essential parenting skill, the storytelling scene is infused with love and trust. These stories make the transition from day to night easier. Rest well, tomorrow will be another day.

In this piece, I wish to introduce an alternate narrative form I have named bed-time-storytelling—a practice of care born within the confines of hospice care beds. This approach redefines our understanding of storytelling, bridging the realms of the living and the departing, and opening a new chapter on how we engage with tales shared in the threshold between two worlds.

During my fieldwork in China’s nursing homes in 2023, the word “chuang wei” (床位, hospital beds) was mentioned frequently by doctors, nurses, residents, and families. The literal translation of chuang wei is “bed unit,” which is often treated as a standard measurement of healthcare resources. Bed units in the hospice care center are always in shortage. There is a long waiting list; sometimes patients pass away before they have had the chance to enroll.

Upon admission, individuals often face a life expectancy of less than six months, which means the majority of their remaining days are bound to the bed. The size of the patient bed is about 90 x 200 centimeters. This bed becomes more than a piece of furniture; it anchors them, becoming a platform where daily life unfolds—washing, dressing, defecating, urinating, talking, laughing, and crying. In this space, the lines between night and day blur, merging into a singular existence. Time within the hospice ward oscillates between chaos and stillness, challenging the conventional flow of moments.

To live and to kill the long hours, patients tell stories from the bed. They talk about childhood; places they have worked; natural wonders such as rivers, deserts, and snow; relations with partners and children; traumas endured; and sufferings during volatile times. They talk about their dreams too.

From the medical perspective, delirium is common for patients in the final stages of cancer. The line between reality and fantasies becomes indistinguishable. The medical staff and families alike have learned to navigate these surreal narratives. One day, an elderly woman vividly described witnessing a giant, green bird resting on a branch just beyond her windowpane. “Look at the long tails! Can’t you see it?” Her daughter-in-law shared this story to a therapist working at the hospice center.

Visions of the non-existing are frequently interpreted as harbingers of death. The hospice staff encourages families to gently accept these ethereal experiences. “It is fine if she insisted she saw the bird, as long as she is not frightened.” “She appears at peace,” the daughter-in-law noted. “That’s good then, you just have to listen and acknowledge whatever she says.”

The elder woman who envisioned the green bird endured many trials in her life. When being asked what she was most proud of in life, she emphasized teaching children calligraphy. Despite the discriminations she experienced as a substitute teacher, she found value and solace in teaching. From her bed, she shared with the hospice care staff the art of crafting the Chinese character “好,” meaning “good” in English. Toiled in sociopolitical turbulences and family tragedies, she revealed her wish for the next life is to find a good home.

In the below drawing, I wish to convey the transcendence quality of bed-time storytelling. Memories, hallucinations, and unfulfilled dreams are narrated from the bed during the final chapters of life. I seek to highlight the experiences of those in the hospice ward who, despite being confined to their beds, are actively living through their final moments, rather than just waiting out their last days.

The caring families and staff practice tender acknowledgment that embraces the illusions and dreams of those dwelling in the between. This ethics of care is another form of storytelling that stitches together the tangible and the transcendent, interlacing what can be deciphered in medical terms with the enigmatic whispers that elude empirical understanding.

Digital sketch of abstract line figures around a hospital bed in a dark blue room. Iridescent colors shimmer around the bed.

A meditation session for a hospice patient in a deep coma as family members surround her, drawn by author.

This illustration captures an intimate ethnographic moment: a meditation session for a patient in a deep coma. The therapist held one hand of the patient tightly with both of her hands. The bed surrounds are in stillness, and one can hear the heavy breathing of the patient and the steady beeping sound of the life-monitoring apparatus.

The two daughters of the patient find positions next to the bed. The therapist talked in a way as if the patient was fully conscious. She begins with a tribute to the patient’s fortitude in raising children by herself despite all the difficulties. She then leads the patient through a guided vision of snow descending from her childhood’s northern skies, transforming into streams, and merging with the sea. Where stars twinkle and moonlight bathes the water surface in silver, the snow ascends once more, completing its ethereal cycle.

Tears cascaded from the daughter’s eyes as they listened to the meditation crafted for their mother. Abruptly, the monitor signaled an increase in heartbeat, and all present witnessed a teardrop fall across the patient’s cheek.

“Look! I knew mom has always been conscious and knows what we are doing!” One daughter shouted. As the meditation unfolded, the patient’s son entered, attending to medical bills. The daughters revealed that his bond with their mother was somewhat distant. Throughout the session, he remained a shadow behind the curtain.

Digital sketch of a giant green bird described by a hospice patient

An elderly patient on her hospice bed sees a giant, green bird on the window pane of her room, drawn by author.

Is the patient truly aware? This question eludes the definitive reach of medical knowledge. Staff often find themselves addressing the delicate balance of family hopes and “medical facts.” Families yearn for a lucid farewell from their loved ones, yet equally desire to shield them from suffering, hoping for a tranquil passage in deep dreams.

The ward resonates with the echoes of unfulfilled wishes and words left unsaid. My drawings wish to encapsulate these poignant moments where imagination takes center stage. Here, the bed-time-storytelling begins—beyond the reach of words and the confines of reason.

This post was curated by Multimodal Contributing Editors Prerna Srigyan and Hae-Seo Kim.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *