We have an affinity for stories—they are the vehicle for making meaning out of chaos. By late adolescence, most of us have developed a “life story” that gives us a sense of identity and reflects our explanation of how the world works. This overarching story is not particularly factual, but rather consists of experiences that are remembered as being powerful and shaping our lives. With these life events, we tend to construct and reconstruct our life story.
One of the experiences that can impact our life story is the death of someone important to us. We develop a grief story that helps us cope with loss. The story may be positive, such as a story of gratitude for having had the person in our life, or it may be negative, such as disappointment and anger over being left or over a broken relationship. It closely reflects the emotions that we are experiencing. We tell our grief story over and over again as it allows us to accept the reality of the death and make sense of our loss.
Sometimes, our grief story fits with our life narrative of how the world works, and sometimes, it doesn’t. When it is incongruent, the story may evolve over time resulting in a change in how we see the world. At an unconscious level, the story may continue to be reworked until it is acceptable to our consciousness. For some individuals, there may be an “aha” moment in which thoughts about the story transform how we experience the loss. These thoughts allow us to see the world differently, decreasing our ongoing distress and making meaning out of our loss.
Here is an example of a thought embedded within a story of grief that allowed the griever to reframe his loss. A father tells of his enduring distress after the death of his adolescent son. The son had been his father’s delight: he was witty, academically talented, and popular with peers. He blamed God for his son’s death. He was no longer able to enjoy the out-of-doors that he had shared with his son. Two years after the death, the father remained angry and distraught. Nothing in life gave him any particular joy.
He had a younger daughter with whom he had not shared a close relationship. In contrast to her brother, she was not at the top of her class in academics; she was artistic and not athletic; her boyfriends were not to his liking; and she tended to push the envelope behaviorally. Further, she hadn’t been overly demonstrative about her brother’s death, and the father interpreted her behavior as not caring about her brother.
Their relationship remained rocky until one day when he found a note she had written about her continuing distress over her brother’s death and her thoughts of suicide. The father was shaken. He took immediate steps to seek therapy for them both; he began engaging in activities with her; and he talked with her about her boyfriends— even ones he didn’t like. One day, while they were walking in the woods where he had previously hunted with his son, he suddenly realized that he had gained a daughter he had never known. In that moment, he understood that he could have lost both of his children. Although he continued to mourn his son, he felt a newfound gratitude for his daughter, which helped lessen his distress. He suddenly saw his loss in a new way.
The occurrence of these thoughts is not universal. But sometimes these thoughts happen and transform the story, offering healing and hope.
Jane Williams, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and author. Portions of this article are reprinted from her book, Mysterious Moments: Thoughts That Transform Grief. Copyright 2017 by Jane Williams. Published by Library Partners Press.