Why We Tell Our Stories

By Betty Ann Rutledge

I write this in the shadow of the massacre at Virginia Tech and in the wake of the death of June Callwood – two stories dominating our local and international news, two stories of loss and the many different ways we respond to grief as individuals, communities, societies and cultures.

What strikes me again and again is the response – almost a natural instinct - for grieving people to tell their stories in whatever way makes sense to them.  Within hours of the school shooting, students turned to their generations’ means of storytelling: the Internet.  Memorial websites, My Space & Facebook pages filling with personal accounts of the tragic events as they unfolded – and in the days (and surely months) following, providing a space for people to come together and remember those who died.

Here at home, one of the many ways the community chose to honour June Callwood was a candlelight procession through the streets of Toronto (beginning and ending at two charitable organizations she founded).  For three solid days, people streamed in and out of Casey House Hospice (for people with HIV/AIDS, named after June’s son who died as a result of drunk driver many years ago) to say their own goodbye in part by signing a condolence book.

What is it that drives us to mark these experiences by naming, describing, sharing facts and details about who we have lost, what we have lived through and how we are trying to make sense of it?

Counsellor/facilitator/musician Gary Diggins wrote in the aftermath of the April 16th killings: “There is a common urge to comprehend how this happened, how it was handled, or how future tragedy can be prevented.  Nothing serves us better in this grieving or understanding process than STORY.  Hearing the stories of others elevates us beyond parochial borders and helps us imagine the particulars of another.  Story is the gateway to compassion.

Human beings have never lost the practice of storytelling.  We inform, inspire, or infuriate each other through our personal and collective tellings.  What we are missing today, however, are intimate and safe contexts for "storycatching," places where our tales are respectfully held or deeply heard.  I believe many of us go to a therapist, a confidante, or a spiritual director to enter this sacred act of storytelling and storycatching.”

It is as if our yearning to tell our stories to one another mirrors the longing we feel for our loved ones who are gone.  Telling the story – of their life and their death – is both a necessary task in mourning (Worden’s four tasks of mourning* suggests the first is to “accept the reality of the loss”) and a way for us to eventually attempt to make meaning.

Kirsti A. Dyer says in “The Importance of Telling (and Listening to) the Story”:  “Stories help make sense of the insensible. Stories can help people explore other ways of doing, feeling, thinking and behaving. Storytelling can be regarded as one of the oldest healing arts; it has been used for centuries as a universal, useful way for the grieving person to cope with loss.”

As bereaved people, we are charged with the monumental task of trying to figure out the “new normal” of our lives following the shattering death of a child, sibling, parent or spouse. At BFO, we have always described what we do as helping people “learn how to live with their grief”.  One vital element of that learning process is telling our stories.

Kirsti Dyer goes on to say: “To assimilate a major loss, the grieving person needs to create a private personal story and then confide that story to others. Developing a narrative allows a person to weave together their life changes into a new more cohesive story….Sharing stories of loss can help those grieving overcome the existential crisis that frequently occurs after experiencing loss, by under-standing the new identity and accommodating to the life change.”

I encounter, on a regular basis, that natural desire to confide one’s loss story with someone – anyone - who will simply listen, with quiet compassion, respect and sensitivity. People in and outside the walls of BFO-Toronto have an almost urgent need to be received – authentically and in their full humanness – particularly as it relates to the loss experience. And who better to receive these stories than someone who has walked (and still is walking) down a similar road?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at a social gathering and as soon as I tell people where I work, out comes tumbling the precious bits and pieces of their story. It is a sacred space to occupy – this place of “storycatching” - and I am constantly humbled by the capacity and complexity of people’s relationship to grief and loss.

Some might assume that listening to stories of death, loss and grief leaves me feeling nothing but sad and drained. And to be honest, there are days that are harder than others to pick up that telephone - breath held, heart open, feet grounded - to receive the most recent tragic and painful unfolding in someone’s life. At the same time, being a bereaved person myself, it is also incredibly affirming to connect with a fellow traveler and begin to weaves the common threads of understanding that unite us.

That is our most important task in the BFO community: to be guides in this unfamiliar landscape and to hold the space for our fellow bereaved sisters and brothers as they begin learning to navigate the confusing, painful and relentlessly complex terrain of grief & loss. Forever mindful of the precious gift we are being given – the opportunity to bear witness to the raw authenticity of one of the most life-changing experiences that happens to people on this planet - we are, at the same time, blessed with the chance to continue reflecting on our own deep love for those we have lost and the ways in which our own lives have been irrevocably altered.

There are as many ways to tell our stories as there are stories to tell. Through writing, music, dance, visual arts, ritual – individually and collectively – with our voices & with our bodies – all over the world, we tell our stories of love, loss, surviving and thriving. In this issue of Journeys you will read about a few different mediums for telling your story. The Youth Soul2Soul Podcast project; Collecting Loss, a community-based arts project; and of course, our BFO tradition of mutual support bereavement groups.

Perhaps the summer months ahead will provide you with an opportunity to express your own personal, unique and precious narrative. May the sharing of your continuing grief experience – including the cherished memories of the love that you shared with those that you have had to learn to live without - bring you peace and a deeper understanding of the experience of being human. And may you always find safe spaces for your story to be heard.

To read Kirsti A.Dyer’s complete article on storytelling go to http://journeyofhearts.org/kirstimd/tellstory.htm. For more information about Gary Diggins, visit: www.garydiggins.com. Worden, J.W., Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, Second Edition, Spring Publishing Co., NY, 1991

Comments