“People are hungry for stories. It’s part of our very being. Storytelling is a form of history, also of immortality. It passes from one generation to another.” -Terkel studs
Recently, I attended my uncle’s funeral, although I found myself making excuses to dismiss my obligation to go. When I read his obituary in the newspaper, I didn’t plan to go to the funeral because I hadn’t seen my cousins in about thirty years (they all lived out of town and so did my uncle). I wouldn’t recognize them, nor would they recognize me!
In the end, I decided that I had to attend. Despite the fact that none of my cousins recognized me, the mere mention of my name and whose daughter I was brought the dawn of recognition and removed all the barriers that time had imposed. We laughed at the fact that we had all “aged a little” and noted the strong family resemblance that couldn’t be denied.
Funerals and weddings can be described as a time when extended families come together for a mini-reunion. In our busy lives, we’ve distanced ourselves from family ties and rarely make an effort to connect other than the occasional Christmas card or email. But when a funeral or wedding event brings the family home, it can be a time to reconnect with our past and a time to glimpse our future.
Siblings, cousins, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles gather to honor the event. But, the reason for coming often has an even stronger meaning than the ceremonial gathering. It is a time to tell the stories, in pain and joy, of days gone by and the experiences that brought us to this point in our lives. Stories are the interesting portals of life. When told individually, they are just stories, but when woven from the threads of everyone’s memories combined, they speak volumes about the family legacy.
On my uncle’s visit, the cousins quickly huddled together, naming faces in tattered photo albums and synchronizing the forgotten faces of the generations that gave us our roots. We were eagerly seeking a glimpse of fond memories and good times, anything that would symbolize that we were once closer than we are today. We remember the family, now deceased, and mentally calculate the age of the house or car in the photo, or the time and place the candid photo was taken. And, after sharing the stories, we hugged and laughed once more. Hours later, each one returned to his life and wondered what would be the next occasion that would unite us. During those brief hours in time, we gather as a family as if it were decades before.
Storytelling is an important part of grievance healing. In our Wings© grief education series, we strongly emphasize story preparation that gives the bereaved control of whatever details and emotions they are willing to reveal. We all know the feeling of being “shocked” when someone asks blunt questions about the death of our loved one or says something that empties our emotional reservoir of tears.
Plan your story and know what you want to say before you start. It’s part of human nature to want to share the stories of life (and death) with someone who will listen, but you may initially have a hard time telling even the “short” version of your loved one’s death. Be prepared to say enough to answer immediate questions. Nothing more is expected. Over time, you will become more comfortable sharing the details with trusted friends and family. If you must, practice telling your story, because you will be asked it over and over again, both at the funeral and in the months that follow. Take every opportunity to tell your story because repetition makes it easier and ultimately that’s what helps heal the pain.
Your story must answer basic questions and can be told through images and items as well as words. These are some of the things I’ve learned over the years of telling Chad’s story.
Plan your response to sensitive questions.
Your story should answer: “What happened? How did he die?” This can be a short or long answer, whichever is more comfortable for you. It will likely vary depending on who is asking the question. When the death is natural or anticipated, we may find it easier to tell the story. There may be some relief that the suffering is over or that life has been well lived. (But this does not negate our need to grieve.) When a death was sudden or unexpected, the grieving person can be very emotional about the details. Some people may be curious and seek more information than you are willing to share, so guard against a defensive reaction to innocent comments that seem insensitive. People sometimes speak without thinking about how their comment might sound, and we react.
When our son, Chad, died as a result of suicide, I was very sensitive to this social taboo. I winced when someone asked me what happened, wishing I didn’t have to answer. When I didn’t feel comfortable, I subtly dismissed the question and offered “other” information. People generally don’t push for details when you do that. Know what makes you uncomfortable, and plan your story so that you can minimize touching your emotional reservoir, even if it means not answering some questions or giving very brief details.
Reveal the passions and strengths of the person who died. Your story should answer: “What was he like?” The stories celebrate the life of the person who died; and sometimes, “things” tell the most obvious story. Reveal your loved one’s passion for what was important to them. Maybe it was golf, carpentry, music, gardening, a job, sewing, volunteering, or being a sports fan, whatever reminds you of him. Bringing mementos of these special moments to the funeral gives visitors and family a glimpse into the phases of life and fills in the gaps where words fall short. For some, the years have passed with little contact, and it is a comforting feeling to see what gave meaning and purpose to the deceased.
Validate relationships. Your story should answer: “Our relationship was…” or “He talked about the time you…” He describes your relationship: “We were very close. I will miss him. He was my best friend.” Or validate your relationship with others. Everyone likes to know that their relationship with the deceased has been acknowledged, even if it is in a small way. Posting photos of family and friends with the person who died tells their own story and creates light-hearted conversation at a visit. But the family can also validate relationships by telling a person that their loved one spoke of him or her in a positive way. Telling a story you know connects your listener to the deceased. Friends and family will often respond with a similar story.
Never underestimate how long-term relationships stretch. When my dad died at seventy-nine, we thought his circle of friends was pretty small. We were amazed when dozens and dozens of people came to visit. Some had met him through the snooker (pool) league, others through his bartending job. People between their twenties and eighties came to recognize their relationship with my dad.
Encourages the imagination. Your story should answer, “I remember the time when…” Everyone is comfortable with a good giggle or adventure story. Tell humorous tales of human error or reveal stories of risks taken, achievements made and dreams forgotten. When you tell your story, find ways to stimulate the listener’s imagination so they can visualize exactly what you are saying. We live vicariously through the stories of others.
Some of your best stories will come from people who came to pay their respects and share a memory with you. The night of Chad’s visit, my husband picked up a photo that was among our son’s belongings from Army National Guard training in Utah a few months earlier. Chad was pictured with three officers, but we didn’t know the story that went with the photo. When the officers who came to his funeral saw the photo, they finished the hilarious story behind Chad’s mischievous smile. This story has been an important part of our memories ever since that day and reminds us that everyone loves a story and life stories are priceless.
Pause, reflect and connect . The story of him must answer: “So what is the connection?” We all try to make connections with other people that make us feel good. We want to relate to the challenges, frustrations, and ups and downs of life. We want to deposit these stories in our memory of people met, places visited, things learned and experiences lived. We connect with joy (wedding, births, celebrations) and we connect with sadness (loss, defeat, illness, hard times). We can react with a lump in the throat, a tear in the eye or a laugh from the depths. We are spiritual beings having human experiences, trying to make sense of life and death. We are creating our own life story.
Your story can make a soul connection. It’s also the time that allows you to slow down your racing heart, get your makeup back on track, and honor someone special. Stories are about remembering. Our son died many years ago and his story continues to evolve. In my book, I have a tribute that says: “Because I loved him I remember him. Because I remember him, he will never die.”
Your story is a gift. When you say it, you reveal your love and the soul connection you have with the person who died. Nothing is more sacred or more respected than the memory that endures. Stories, whether you tell them or hear them from someone else, are the windows to the heart. The hope that arises redefines you. You are who you are, in part because of your relationship with the person who died. The stories of a life lived can make you rich and hurt you, and the lives of those still living.
Connect with your inner psyche; breath deeply; Chill out. This is your moment, your moment to tell the story, in pain and in joy. Each one becomes part of his daily life.