Friday, August 2, 2013

Grief Stories.

I am co-facilitating a bereavement support group this summer made up of people who are approaching the first anniversary of their loved ones death.  One of the subjects we may be talking about is the story of the death, starting with the diagnosis, if it was by illness, or the news of the death if it was sudden or tragic, and proceeding on through the memorial and the days and weeks after.  This got me thinking about how people tell the story of a loved one's death - how it becomes shortened and distilled into the facts and a few memories that stood out - so that it can be easily told to people who are sympathetic but don't really want to listen to you for a half hour.  The story becomes familiar, rote, something we know and can tell quickly that has come to define a huge and almost unbearable event.

This has particular resonance for me at the moment because we are once again approaching the year anniversary of my mother's death - August 7, 1990.  It has been twenty-three years, which I can hardly believe, and it seems like I have lived at least for lifetimes since that hot summer night when she left us.  Thinking about people telling the story of their loved one's death made me think about the story I tell about my mother's, and the ways in which, I am sure, it has hardened and changed and become rote.  I was inspired to write down everything I remembered from the weeks before her death and the weeks after, an exercise I am not sure I ever really did, since I never attended a grief support group, or got much grief support at all. 

I read a study about memory that said that it is those past events that we think about, or remember, over and over that become ingrained, and the ones we don't really think about often fall away.  The study also said that we change those memories subtly over time, adding and deleting bits and pieces so that what we remember happening probably isn't exactly what happened.  My husband lost his father twenty-two years ago, a good friend lost her brother about fifteen years ago and then her father ten years ago.  I know other people who have suffered loss, and we all have a particular, pithy, compiled story that we tell about those events.

When I read back over what I had written about my mom, I could see that, even though I had really concentrated and tried to remember, most of the details were ones I had always included in the story - although there were a few small new ones I was surprised to remember.  It makes me sad that so much has been lost, so many important details and events and conversations and actions that might now be important to me, that I just can't remember.  I also wish I could remember more about her and how it was to have her in my life, just in general.

I found it to be a helpful exercise, nonetheless, and I'm happy I did it.  After twenty-three years, things start to fade, although you never truly forget, nor do you get over the heartache of loss.   No matter how much others might want us to 'get over it', or shorten our grief-story, I hope that those who have suffered a loss keep trying to remember everything they can about it.  Don't let your grief story solidify too much, or become rote; it belongs to you and it is precious, as was the person you loved.

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