When people tell me their grief stories
they often ask me “does this sound normal?” Because everyone goes through grief in their own way, it can be hard to see what might be normal about your own experience. The fact that our culture doesn’t encourage us to talk much about death, grief, or the down-side of change makes it even harder, because you might not have heard many other people telling their stories about what it was like for them. Worse, you might have been subtly discouraged from telling your own grief stories by (hopefully well-intentioned) people telling you how to feel or jumping instantly into their own experiences without hearing yours. I’ve seen this cultural habit leave people feeling isolated and stewing in their memories, feelings, or fears, afraid to speak their truth in case it might start a flood of unwanted advice or hurtful platitudes. Some end up just hoping the pain will somehow go away on its own over time. Sometimes it leads to a sense of bitterness and cynicism about the possibility of healing at all.
That’s why it’s so important to be open to hearing mourners’ own stories.
Truly hearing means listening to understand, rather than to come up with the perfect response that will fix the grief. I know it’s hard to sit with someone (including ourselves) while they are feeling horrible, and not to leap in with something we hope will make them feel better. What we don’t necessarily see at the time, through the tears, is the healing that happens through the telling itself. We are story telling creatures, whether that’s with pictures or words; human beings make sense of our world this way. When we tell a story, even if we’ve told it over and over again, we come to understand new things about it, about ourselves, about other “characters” in the drama, and even about the world itself and how it works. There is a really great article on the importance of telling your story here.
Mourners worry that if they keep telling the same story
over and over again their friends and family will get frustrated or bored with them. Sometimes friends and family worry that the mourner will get stuck in their grief if they let them keep talking about it. For both mourners and supportive listeners, the important thing to remember is that we can always listen deeper into the story, each time it’s told. Telling them you’d be interested in hearing about their memories of the person who died, or about what it’s like for them right now can be a loving thing to do. Of course it’s also always a good idea to let the person know that they don’t have to answer you if they’re not comfortable! A really wonderful little resource about what to say when you don’t know what to say is the book There Is No Good Card For This: What to say and do when life is scary, awful, and unfair to people you love published this year by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell. I found it useful for thinking about my own grief, too. It really validated my feelings and helped me understand my own needs a bit better.
Your path through grief starts with your story.
Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er wrought heart and bids it break. Shakespeare, Macbeth IV:iii
You can find lots and lots of personal grief stories on YouTube, Ted Talks, and blog sites. I think this is because finally we are beginning to recognize the importance of telling them, while not being quite ready as a society to hear these stories without the escape valve of clicking away. Reading and hearing these stories can be helpful to some grievers; others’ stories can give words and a shape to our own struggles when we’re not able to tell our own. In the end, however, it’s your own story that will you show you the path you need to take through grief. Your story will illuminate what is important to you. Your deepest hurt can show you what your deepest needs and desires are. They can be the compass that points the direction to your greatest healing.
Many times my clients have come to me because they feel they’ve exhausted the energy of their friends and family to hear their story any more. So often the people closest to us when we grieve or go through big changes are experiencing their own difficult journey. The first step I take with them is to make room for telling the story, with or without words, in whatever way and at whatever pace works best for them. As the story unfolds, they can begin to see where they want to go, and we can work together to map their path.