By Kerry Acheson
The experience of grieving when someone we care about has died can be extremely painful and disorientating. The areas of our lives that can be impacted by grief can extend to the physical, emotional, cognitive, relational and even spiritual. There are prescriptive ideas in societal discourses about what our grief ‘should’ look like, and for what duration of time. These fixed ideas can negatively impact individuals, leading to feelings of personal deficiency. Wingard (2011) reminds us that these normative societal expectations may cause others to be less prepared to listen and respect non-judgmentally. The result may then be a sense of being isolated and silenced, making the grief harder to bear.
Narrative therapist Lorraine Hedtke proposes that a stance of respect be taken, rather than imposing any predetermined assumptions about what a person should be feeling. She emphasizes taking a position of ‘joining with’ the person who is grieving, centralizing their ideas about what might be helpful for them at this time. This may include conversations about the individual’s community and spiritual resources, as well as connecting them to stories of their own courage and resilience (Hedtke, 2000)
External expectations that we need to rush to ‘move on’, ‘let go’ and ‘reach closure’ can be pressurizing and add to the distress of those who are grieving. It is more helpful to honour the meaning of the grief, regardless of the time frame. To reflect on questions such as: What does your grief bear testimony to, in terms of what you give value to in your life? (Dolman, 2014)
Wingard (2011) describes how a narrative therapy approach facilitates the opening up of other possible ways of talking during bereavement. She says: ‘While we always wish to provide a place to speak of their sorrow, we are also interested in hearing about how people contribute to each other. This is about making it possible to talk about the loss in honouring ways’. Although the person who has died is no longer physically present, a sense of connection to their memory and the life that they lived can be developed in helpful ways. While the actual voice of the person can no longer be heard, in certain situations it may be possible to imagine what they would say, based on what they stood for, said or did in the past. This may provide some comfort or sustenance in the midst of painful loss.
In narrative therapy, reference is made to the concept of one’s membership club of life (Dolman, 2014). The people who have impacted our lives in meaningful, supportive and enriching ways are included in this membership club. Important people who have died continue to be included in this membership club, and the ways that we have been influenced by our relationships with them can be honoured and carried forward into the future. In narrative therapy, this is done through ‘re-membering’ conversations, where specific questions are asked that serve to strengthen the ability to remember this relationship in ways that are helpful going forward. Questions such as the following help us to connect with an on-going sense of purpose and connection to the relationship: ‘What are the lessons for living that have been learned from this person?’ ‘What values did they stand for that you would like to take forward?’ ‘How would you like to remember them?’ ‘How would they have wanted you to think of them in the future?’ ‘What did this person appreciate about how you impacted their life?’ Certain lines of thinking and remembering can sometimes enable us to draw strength from the relationship as a resource during this time. For example, it can be meaningful to reflect on the following questions: ‘What would they appreciate about how you are approaching this difficult time, and in what words would they perhaps have expressed this appreciation?’ ‘When are the times in life when you might remember this person the most?’ ‘In what kind of moments or situations might it be strengthening for you to think of this person? Based on what you know of this person, what do you imagine they would have wanted to say to encourage you at those times? (Hedtke, 2000) (Dolman, 2014)
As a wise friend of mine once told me, ‘you need to give yourself permission to grieve in whichever ways you need to, for however long you need to’. And we don’t need to go through it completely alone. Connecting with the strengths in ourselves, the valued aspects of the relationship with the person who has died, and supportive others in our lives can help us to find firm ground to stand on in the midst of grief.
Hedtke, Lorraine (2000). Dancing With Death, http://dulwichcentre.com.au/articles-about-narrative-therapy/dancing-with-death/
Wingard, Barbara (2011). Bringing lost loved ones into our conversations: Talking about loss in honouring ways. International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work 1:54-56.
Dolman, Chris (2014). Re-membering reciprocal relationships, http://dulwichcentre.com.au/re-membering-reciprocal-relationships-by-chris-dolman/