We gained our first inkling of the healing power in stories when Moses Pulei, from Kenya, flew up from Southern California to our daughter’s memorial service in Spokane. “In the Masai tradition, when someone dies, our gift is to go to their home and share a story,” he explained during the reception. “May I come over?”
When a loved one dies, researchers found that the most common early reactions is an intense yearning, a sense that part of you is missing, and a hunger to have them back. This surprised grief researchers at Yale University who expected depression to be the dominant emotion after a death. In sharing stories, such reminiscences often provide solace and help ease the heartbreak.
But to the dismay of many bereaved parents, after a brief time many people rarely want to talk about the child who died.
It’s the most common lament I’ve heard from so many mothers and fathers who have come to my Pilgrimage through Loss book presentations. These silences add another layer of pain. “We go to a family reunion and our son’s never mentioned,” laments a mother. “It’s like he’s been obliterated from our family story. We know it’s because they are afraid to upset us, but we just long to hear our child’s name.”
“Ours was a family bound by an unacknowledged credo,” says Solveig Torvik who wrote a family memoir Nikolai’s Fortune to unearth four generations of Norwegian silences. “They tend to believe that if a thing remains unspoken, it does not exist; if pain is given no voice, it lacks power to harm.”
Many war veterans in my writing classes told a similar story. They carry their pain in silence in vain hopes it might go away. Unfortunately, buried grief seldom dies.
But the Masai know better. Moses visited the next day and told us about a disturbing encounter with overt racism when he first arrived in our city to attend college. While walking downtown with another African student, a group of men in a pickup threatened them, hurling racial slurs and yelling at them to go back to Africa, a scary moment. Grandson of a respected village elder known as one of the “holy people,” he’d never encountered such abuse in his life. He seriously considered returning home. His college sponsor knew Krista, and for some reason said, “You have to meet her first.”
“What she said changed my life,” he recalled. After he told her what happened, she encouraged him not to make a hasty decision. “Moses, when this happens again, you have to remember that the problem is not in you, but in the persons treating you this way.” Then she added, “If you let these men deter you from your goals, you’ll never achieve what you came to America to do. You want to be in control of your life decisions, not let them determine your future.”
He took her words to heart. Rather than shut down in fear, he chose to stay in America and be his warm sociable Kenyan self. He became so beloved among students they elected him as their first international student-body president. His brilliance and commitment as a scholar led to doctoral scholarships. He now speaks several languages, connects Americans and Kenyans in common projects such as drought relief and education for girls, and presently leads a program for World Vision in Tanzania. “Without her encouragement, I often wonder how different my life would be now.” Although we knew he’d met Krista once at our home during an Easter brunch, we’d never heard this story. Truly a gift.
Ways of sharing stories:
Parents tell of a variety of kind gestures that others do to give them more lasting memories of their child. Friends, family, or work colleagues of older children share emails, letters, or music tapes they’d received, or drop by to visit and reminisce . Sometimes teachers, baby sitters, or neighbors of younger children give another glimpse into a parent’s child. “When I came to know some of the children in my son’s grade school class, you sensed how they almost all felt like he “was their best friend,” said one grateful mother.
As well as hearing stories, parents often long to share stories of the son or daughter they miss so profoundly. Compassionate Friends recognizes this need and offers over 660 meeting locations throughout America. A pastor founded this bereavement organization in England in 1969 after observing that parents found their greatest comfort when talking with other grieving mothers and fathers. Their credo “We need not walk alone” finds expression through the parents, siblings, and grandparents who gather and share support, insight, and stories. Several I interviewed for my upcoming book found this network a lifeline in their early years of grief. I’ll write much more about them in a future blog, but you can find their on-line presence at www.compassionatefriends.org.
When have you found the sharing of stories offered solace? Have you experienced painful avoidances or silences? Do you know of traditions or rituals during bereavement from other cultures that seem meaningful?