Open Your Mind: A Q&A with Faculty of Health researcher Christine Jonas-Simpson

Jonas Simpson
Jonas Simpson

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on Professor Christine Jonas-Simpson in the School of Nursing, Faculty of Health. Jonas-Simpson who uses art-based research to conduct studies on experiences of transforming and growing with loss and grief. Jonas-Simpson is also the director of the York-UHN Academy and the Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy for persons living with dementia.

Q. Please describe your field of current research

A. I conduct arts-based research that focuses on experiences of living, transforming and growing with loss with different groups of people, such as persons and families living with dementia, families who experience perinatal death and health care professionals who experience grief after the death of a patient.

christine-jonas-simpsonQ. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. After the death of my youngest son, I came to understand how important it is to grow and transform with loss.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. My research is significant because it opens up conversations about experiences of loss and grief, and the potential for growth and transformation after loss. People relate to my research and feel hopeful and less afraid after loss.

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. I use the arts as a medium for research such as fine arts, drama, music and short films. See or on Youtube at

Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. Using the arts makes my research very accessible beyond academic research audiences to students, practitioners and the public.

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you? (I.e. tell us about the most interesting finding, person and/or place you encountered while pursuing this line of inquiry.)

A. I am thrilled to see the impact the arts have with persons living with dementia and their family members. With my research colleagues and team members at the Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy, we are creating a research-based short film series. We are launching two of these films at the MaRS Auditorium, during Alzheimer awareness month, on Jan. 23. We are offering messages of hope for Alzheimer awareness month.

The cover of "Ethan's Butterflies: A Spiritual Book For Parents and Young Children After a Baby's Passing", a book Jonas-Simpson wrote for bereaved children and parents after a baby sibling dies
The cover of “Ethan’s Butterflies: A Spiritual Book For Parents and Young Children After a Baby’s Passing”, a book Jonas-Simpson wrote for bereaved children and parents after a baby sibling dies

Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. I received a rejection for funding from a major granting agency and in the letter I was told I was naïve to think that persons living with dementia could speak about their quality of life. I was quite taken aback, given I spoke with persons who live with dementia about their lives each day. This includes people who do not speak with words, but through other ways. I went on to get funding for this research, which was used to create a research-based drama. My colleagues – Drs. Gail Mitchell, Sherry Dupuis, Pia Kontos – and I have recently won an Alzheimer Society of Canada grant for $118,901.40 to study the experience of musical engagement for persons living with dementia and our entire community at the Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy.

Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

A. We will be creating another research documentary film about music as medium for relationships, engagement and life enrichment for persons living with dementia, while also including a group of students from a local high school who will engage with our academy members, to teach and learn music together. We plan to have an intergenerational concert by the spring.

Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

A. Absolutely. I conduct research on teams with nurses, sociologists, playwrights, actors, social science researchers, musicians, persons living with dementia and their families, musicians, artists, film makers and healthcare professionals. I love what can emerge when conducting research that crosses borders with many disciplines.

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?

A. I did not know if I would pursue a music degree or a nursing degree. To combine my nursing research and practice with my music and all other arts is a joy and a dream come true. I continue to play my flute in presence and in performance with people who live with dementia.

Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. I love to teach. I am teaching the Theoretical and Philosophical Foundations of Nursing course this fall for our first-year graduate nursing students. I have taught several different courses in the nursing program, including both undergraduate and graduate courses. Yes, I most definitely engage my students in my research. They find the research documentaries to be meaningful and accessible. So far our film entitled, Nurses Grieve Too, has been most viewed. We have nearly 19,000 hits on our Vimeo site. If you Google search “Nurses Grieve Too,” our documentary is the first on the list I also supervise graduate student theses in nursing and interdisciplinary studies.

Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?

A. Ensure you have a good research question before you even begin; 2) use a descriptive exploratory method if you are conducting qualitative research; 3) find a mentor to guide you who shares your theoretical perspective; and, 4) use the arts in some way if you can.

Q. How long have you been a researcher?

A. I have been conducting research since I worked on my masters thesis at U of T in 1989. My first study published was in 1992, when I conducted a study in Nepal on the meaning of being an elder.

Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?

A. So many books and recordings have influenced my life. Currently I listen to a great deal of Eckhart Tolle and his book, Stillness Speaks, has had a profound impact on me, along with his other books. Films that reflect human transcendence amid challenges have a huge impact on my life.

jonassimpsonoutdoorsQ. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. I have been reading Ruth Riechl lately and loving her books. I also love, Canadian author, Louise Penny’s murder mysteries.  I am watching The Good Wife reruns by executive producer Ridley Scott. Very well written and acted. However, once the season begins again, my prime time focus will be on Schitt’s Creek with the brilliant Eugene and Dan Levy. I absolutely love that show and I love that it is Canadian!

Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?

A. My third son Ethan William, because he died before he was born and before I could look him in his eyes and tell him I love him.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. I do many things for fun. I love to go canoe or kayak tripping with my husband and sons. I love to be active and run, go to the weight room, cycle, swim at my cottage, and cross-country ski in the winter. I love to travel, especially in remote areas of our Canadian wilderness. I also engage in community theatre since I turned 50, and have been in a drama, comedy and a musical since 2012.