“Stories matter. They’re not just entertainment – stories matter because humans are narrative creatures… We make sense of the world and fashion our identities through the sharing and passing on of stories.”– Sharon Blackie
Storytelling is a time tested way humans connect with one another. Telling stories and listening to them has been an important part of the human experience for thousands of years. We learn about ourselves as we craft our own story. Likewise, we glean encouragement, guidance, and a sense of community when we listen to others’ stories.
We all swap stories about our embarrassing moments at a party. We brag on the newest feats of our living children. Everyone wants to feel seen and heard. We yearn to know that we matter, that our experiences are worth something to someone and that we aren’t alone. We find connection and validation through shared stories.
Unfortunately, for those of us in the Grieving Parents Club, we often find it especially hard to tell our stories. Even a casual mention of our deceased child is a showstopper. A hush falls over the crowd as they get uncomfortable. We wind up comforting the new guy who innocently asked how old our kid is… only to find out she’s dead. And let’s be real, it doesn’t even have to be someone who didn’t know to make it awkward. Unless they’re extremely close to us or are particularly savvy in the care and nurturing of those who’ve lost someone, even our friends and family get uncomfortable when we mention our deceased children in the same passing way they mention their living ones. We are protective about who we share with, for good reason! And darn it, how nice is it when you can toss out your child’s name or a memory without it being a big deal?
We as a society in general struggle with the topic of grief. People are fearful. Those who are grieving are afraid they will drive others away with their own grief, and those who want to be supportive are afraid they will say or do the wrong thing to those who are grieving. So no one says anything.
Unfortunately this struggle can make it difficult to find ways to talk about your child. It can even leave you feeling alone and unheard.
Do you keep parts of your story, or even the whole story bottled up?
Can you feel it pushing at you from the inside, threatening to burst out… wanting to be heard and recognized?
Are you afraid if you focus on the good, it’ll somehow invalidate the immense pain you feel and people listening won’t get just how horrible some days can be?
Or perhaps it’s gotten to a point where it’s easier to stay numb, and out of touch with the emotions and feelings of your story.
Could it be time to start getting in touch with those tender moments and feelings? On the other hand, you may share your story openly and frequently. There’s plenty of room for you here too!
We need to know our children won’t be forgotten and that their experience matters. We need to honor our past, and we hope that others will too. Having said that, how we formulate our story is just as important as the telling of it. Each time we recollect and recite our stories, we reinforce a particular narrative and our feelings associated with it.
As Brene Brown put it in Rising Strong, “Storytelling helps us all impose order on chaos—including emotional chaos. When we’re in pain, we create a narrative to help us make sense of it. This story doesn’t have to be based on any real information.” She was talking about how we respond to people and situations based on the stories we tell ourselves, but what she says applies equally as powerfully in how we tell ourselves stories about our experiences with our children.
She goes on to say, “But this unconscious storytelling leaves us stuck. We keep tripping over the same issues, and after we fall, we find it hard to get back up again. But in my research on shame and vulnerability, I’ve also learned a lot about resilience…The good news is that we can rewrite these stories. We just have to be brave enough to reckon with our deepest emotions.” Now is the time to start reckoning with those deepest emotions.
This is also why choosing how we tell our story is so important. Focusing on the aspects that make us feel good doesn’t negate the struggle and the pain, but it does lift us up and encourage us to press on. Okay, I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, I see how I perceive things compounds upon themselves. I feel so much better, and ready to keep pushing the momentum forward when I emphasize the good.
You’ve already got more pain and angst than any human should have to tolerate. So for now, give yourself a break. Don’t worry. You can create plenty of time and space for the other 😉
And yes, yes, yes!! There are plenty of moments, even days where it’s easy to sink into a depressing narrative. It fits within the research. According to studies, only a small percentage of our happiness is based solely on external circumstances. The majority of our happiness is primarily influenced by our genetics and to a lesser degree, our internal mindset. Yikes! This means no matter what happens externally, we eventually end up equalizing at our personal genetic set point. Hard to believe, huh? But think about it, how often have you thought if you just had that one dreamy mate, or the perfect car/vacation/weekend/job (you fill in the blank) life would be the bomb? And once you get the perfect whatever, how long did the “bomb” life last? That other piece, our internal mindset, is under our control. This is where choosing how we tell our story comes in.
Let me be crystal clear, I am in NO WAY asking you to negate, ignore, or abandon a single horrific experience or painful feeling. What I am challenging you to do, just for today, is to choose in your internal teeter-totter to place your thumb on the side of feeling good. What can it hurt?
“There isn’t a person you wouldn’t love if you could read their story.”
– Marissa Nickel
Your story, and telling it is important. We yearn for the opportunity to share our child, our grief, and to connect with others. There’s a scary desire to tell more than just the dry disconnected facts and include the emotion behind the story. But it feels vulnerable, and there’s a lurking fear that the listener won’t adequately honor your child’s memory. The problem is, if the telling doesn’t happen in one way, it will come out in another so here’s a chance to do it consciously and constructively. I know this firsthand.
It was New Year’s Eve. I know…I know it is so cliché. I wish I could take credit for planning my launch into 2006, but trust me, if I’d written the script it would’ve been much less sloppy and embarrassing. I don’t remember how it happened, but I ended up sitting crumpled on the stairs in the middle of a concert venue in the literal center of everything, attempting to force down the tears welling up. The tears quickly turned to uncontrollable, inconsolable sobbing. It was the ugliest of ugly cries. In mere minutes another new year would begin and my daughter wouldn’t be in it. I was surrounded by dancing strangers and acquaintances who either knew nothing or very little of my story. I was overwhelmed with grief and a feeling of utter aloneness – loneliness in my grief surrounded by hundreds of people.
I woke up the next morning mortified, but determined with one clear thought, “I will never let that happen again.” While I don’t do public emotion, I’d allowed myself plenty of moments for feeling and crying so this caught me completely off guard. My private sessions clearly hadn’t been enough.
Believe it or not, I am by nature a very private person. In spite of that, throughout Alison’s illness we’d let a lot of people in our lives. We’d needed the support and frankly, I didn’t have the energy to navigate setting boundaries. Shortly after Alison died, we had an explosive and visible divorce that our whole network of support was well aware of and in large part, involved in, to some degree or another. I felt overly exposed and vulnerable so I went turtle like, creeping into my shell. This crying debacle showed me it was clearly time to not only find people who would honor my story, but begin the process of writing it in a way that left me feeling good, not sobbing in a celebrating crowd.
I realized I’d been holding onto a story, a big story of my daughter, my grief and my strength, and the life that I was no longer living. It had all built up inside of me. I’d given it no real outlet outside of myself so somewhere my psyche had decided, whether or not I’d given it permission, to break down the dam. According to a wise sage, Mr. Willoughby, (of the series Outlander), “A story told, is a life lived.” On January 1, 2006 I decided Alison’s life would continue being lived through telling her stories.
From this moment forward, I was taking the reins and I didn’t want my story and the retelling of it to be focused on me as a bereaved parent or just the sadness of losing Alison, but the positive and good her presence brought me and the growth I’d experienced since her death. I was resolute. It was time for me to be in charge of my story telling – the content and the telling of it.
When a memory is recalled it’s also rewritten. Through recording and telling your story in a deliberate way you begin redefining your life in a meaningful way.
Through sharing your story you have an unique opportunity to establish safe connections and feel heard. And I would be remiss in not warning you, when Mr. Willoughby was asked if he would tell his story, he responded, “Not yet. Once I tell it, I have to let it go.” When you allow your story the freedom to move among the clouds, it releases its hold on you. You no longer carry its weight alone; it’s got its own legs to dance.