Death and Story: how story can help us cope with death.

Next month I’m speaking at a forum exploring how to guide children through dealing with grief, funerals, bereavement. It’s got me thinking about the importance of story in this process; how it can help inform and enrich the narrative of grief and loss. Twenty years ago, in the late April of my thirty-first year, my husband died in a boating accident. A rogue wave in an unforecast storm crashed over the back of our 42’ ketch and felled the mizzen mast. It dropped on him, breaking his neck — a moment’s natural fury leaving me a widow with two small grieving children. Our son was six; our daughter three. I’d known him since I was a month off turning fifteen, just over half my life. I felt as if my life had ended too; that every known touchstone had been shattered by that rogue wave’s force…
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Okay, now stop a moment here and analyse your own personal reaction to this confession. Maybe it makes you feel sad, sympathy tweaking at your heart-strings. Or else it brings up memories of a painful loss of your own. Perhaps it makes you roll your eyes (Oh God, don’t make this some messy, embarrassing confession. I’m not in the mood!) I could have merely written theoretically about the issues surrounding loss and grief. Safe and sanitised – impersonal – so you don’t feel obliged to care. But what I did was tell you a human story – a story designed to engage you at a heart level to draw you in. Most of us can’t resist the voyeuristic fascination of diving into the secrets of someone else’s personal life. We want to see how they cope, in order to weigh their own reactions and beliefs up against our own. This isn’t surprising. In fact, it’s natural. It’s human. It’s how we learn to navigate the world.

From the moment we are born (and, some would argue, while we’re still in the womb) we learn through observation and through the processing of stories – the personal narratives of those around us help to form our values and morals. They help us to define who we are and how we fit into the world. We watch how people behave, how they react in myriad situations. We ape the way they speak and act. Just think how a baby zeros in on the human face: smiling when they see a smile, reading every nuance with scholarly care. It’s this primal modus operandi that feeds our love of gossip. We love to explore the personal details of other’s lives.

This is why story is so essential to our species. It helps us enter into the big unknown world, to try it on for size in a safe and secure way. It helps teach us empathy. It gives us a road map to seek what really matters, and provides signposts to label how we feel along the way. In the past the role of story-teller was often taken by the elders in a family or community – the archivists of identity, history, practical knowledge, mores and values. It’s not by chance that when we’re asked to identify someone who is very wise we tend to think of older people. It’s true. They have the wisdom of experience – often hard-earned. They understand, by dint of more collective years, that every life will have its challenges and tragedies, its ups and downs. Not all of the same magnitude, I grant you, but just as painful to the person involved.

Yet for many of us in today’s silo-ised nuclear existence, bereft of close contact with grandparents and other elders in our community (and, sometimes, parents and siblings as well) we’ve not had the opportunity to observe, listen and learn about some of life’s greatest mysteries and challenges in a natural and organic way. Death used to be brought right into the front room, birth into the bedroom, and whole communities would work together to support those going through loss and grief. Our role models for how to deal with loss and pain have switched from those closest to us sharing their experiences and life stories, to impersonal professionals who speak the language of syndromes and ‘isms’ – distancing us from true emotional response.

We find ourselves unable to put what’s happening to us into the context of community and shared feeling. For instance, how sad that I never really experienced the highs and lows of child-rearing before suddenly being presented with my own. How I regret that the first dead body I ever saw was that of the person I loved the most. I felt very alone; as if no one could understand what I was feeling – that I was the first person to ever go through such a trauma. It was through books that I came to understand the terrible pain I felt was natural, and that if I acknowledged the pain, went with it and learnt from it, then I could use it to help me claw my way back into life. The books told other’s stories, helping normalise the feelings and legitimising them: yes, it’s natural to be swept by burning black anger at the world; yes, this sense of disconnection will eventually pass.

I came to realise that to grieving children stories are the most vital of life lines. The younger they are the more likely that the only real memories of their departed loved one are the stories they’ve been told – and this makes those stories all the more essential. One of their biggest fears is that they will forget the details which make up that unique individual, causing disconnection from the one they love. I also realised that the concept of death itself is very hard for young children to comprehend and that, again, through story, I could help to address this.

I sat down and wrote a picture book for young children called ‘Tom’s Story’, which followed the reactions of my son from the moment he heard the news through to the point he’d found some place of calm and acceptance (I use ‘acceptance’ with some reservation, as one of the other great lessons I have learnt about grieving children is that they reprocess their loss at every new developmental stage, needing new stories and insights as the sophistication of their thinking grows.) This is why every novel I’ve written for young people contains some aspect of coping with loss or grief: my hope is that it either reassures them that they are not alone, or else provides them with a safe way to explore such issues without having to go through the trauma for themselves.

Two of these novels now form the basis of two programmes for youth at risk, and through my involvement in the development and training of these programmes it’s become crystal clear that every single young person going through has some issue with loss and grief – many reflecting this through a loss of identity (with many more never having had the input needed to define an identity of their own in the first place.)

Through sharing the stories of the characters in the novels, with all their complicated feelings, it hands them a language to begin to start exploring these issues for themselves, under the expert guidance of the amazing facilitators who run the programmes. The stories also hand adults a tool: as a grieving parent you tend to shut your own emotions down in order to cope with the struggles of your children. Understandable, of course, yet what grieving children need the most is to be enabled to express emotion – and they can only do this if the adult in their life has not shut this down. The stories provide a way for adults to engage in the discussion, so their children can see that the remaining parent (or caregiver) is grieving too. They need to feel that they have the safety and permission to express their own insecurities and pain.

Of course, for me all this has been a matter of trial and error. Yet I have no regrets about the lessons learnt – they enrich my life – and I’m sure my children wouldn’t be the tender, compassionate young adults they are today without the journey they’ve taken through their own pain. It wasn’t easy. But I give thanks to the people who were prepared to open up their hearts and let me into their stories, in order to help me heal and tell my own.

3 Comments

  1. I'm currently doing a children's literature analysis on 'Tom's Story' for teachers college, this post really helped me understand further. This book is wonderful and holds great value for teachers and parents.

    Like

  2. Hi Mandy
    It was lovely to see you today and the forum was excellent; such a diverse group of speakers, all approaching the topic from different angles but with such insight. It deserved a bigger audience but you could tell that everyone who was there found it worthwhile, and it was interesting how some themes (like children's reprocessing of their loss at each developmental stage) were picked up and repeated.
    Best wishes for the 20th anniversary, a poignant day. It must feel strange looking back on all you have been through since then.

    Like

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