Tag Archives: Defining stories

Grief Needs No Justification

“Today, in our “shut up, get over it, and move on” mentality, our society misses so much, it’s no wonder we are a generation that longs to tell our stories.” – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Grief and Grieving –

 

 

It was a Sunday morning in 1997. The 31st of August, to be exact. I was attempting the impossible: clothe three rocket-charged children for church. The TV was blaring in the background when the reporter’s words sunk into my tired brain – “Princess Diana, her boyfriend Dodi Fayed, and the driver, Henri Paul, had all passed away following a horrific car accident in a road tunnel in Paris.” I sat staring at the TV, stunned … then the tears started.

I cried for days. Every day I felt stupid for my inexplicable sorrow for a person I did not know personally. I wept through her funeral, as her boys walked behind their mother’s coffin, heads bowed, their grief visible to the world.

Everyone had an opinion, not just about her death, but about the mass outpouring of grief. Here in Australia, two radio hosts suggested that the grief was ridiculous as none of us knew Diana. Our grief caused confusion. Why did her death affect us all so much?

Since Diana’s death, many celebrities and icons have left us. Most recently, we awoke to the devastating news of nine people who died in a helicopter crash. The victims included basketball legend, Kobe Bryant, and his daughter, Gianna. Yet again the tears were flowing … and yet again I heard the frustration as people tried to explain or justify their grief.

There are many, many reasons we grieve. Grief, in and of itself, is a huge burden – a guest that arrives unannounced and, often, unexpectedly. Grief barges in and takes over the dinner party we are hosting in life and it cannot be ushered away. When we attempt to justify or belittle our grief, it becomes all the more burdensome and belligerent.

I look at life as a narrative tapestry and that tapestry will have grief intertwined in so much of the picture it weaves. Grief is a ‘normal’ part of existence. There is no need to always explain its presence (unless, of course, we are particularly interested in studying our grief to understand our story a bit better). We owe no one an explanation for the tears that may fall for whatever reason.

Grief is best handled with care and tenderness. As you open the door to its loud, incessant knocking, invite it in, sit with it, offer it a cup of tea, listen to the story it wants to tell you. What is your grief telling you about what you value in life? Slowly we can learn to listen to grief, instead of those who find our grief awkward and personally challenging, and therefore attempt to silence it (and, yes, many of those endeavours are well intended … but good intentions are not necessarily ‘good’!) Sometimes it is helpful to ask, “What is it about the grief you observe in my life that challenges you so much that you feel a need to silence (mock?) it?” … It is surprising how that shifts the focus of the conversation.

Then there is the whole notion that we should not grieve those we do not know personally. What a predicament! So here is a thought, icons like Diana or Kobe or Robin Williams or Prince, etc, etc, may represent a dream or a hope that was written into our life story. There was something about their story that resonated with ours. For example, for many young people, growing up in less-than-ideal circumstances, there is a memory of joy and stability that came with the gathering of the neighbourhood clan every afternoon to play basketball. Young players would plant their feet, jump and shoot yelling, “Kobe!” They were mimicking and honouring someone whose life inspired theirs. So, in a sense, Kobe became the neighbour, the family member, the brother, the source of inspiration in a bleak world, that they loved and looked up to. The loss of Kobe feels like the loss of a loved one because for many that’s exactly what he is – a loved one.

The death of celebrities is also a reminder of our own mortality and our attempt to come to grips with life’s impermanence. Freud said that the ego cannot imagine its own dissolution. Our heroes, in our eyes, are often ‘immortal’, so their death is all the more confronting as we face our fears of loss.

Ultimately, grief is all about being human. We live connected lives. We have the capacity to empathise with other people’s suffering. Grief is a dominant colour painted all through the human history mural. So next time you feel burdened by the need to explain or justify your grief, ask yourself ‘Why’? If it simply a response to shame and embarrassment, perhaps it’s time to dismiss those demands? The presence of grief needs no justification. Humans are shaped in a way that leads us to seasons of mourning and lament when we encounter loss. So let the tears flow freely, dear friend, and listen to grief’s stories, for this too, is part of life.

“So it’s true, when all is said and done, grief is the price we pay for love.” – E.A. Bucchianeri –

What is your Christmas Story?

To perceive Christmas through its wrappings becomes more difficult with every year.
– E.B. White –

Christmas! It’s here again. I am quite convinced that 365 days a year speed up the older you get, and here we are in another Jingle Bell Season.

I wonder what Christmas means to you? Amidst all the festive fuss that this time brings, what is the Christmas story that is read at your table of life? For many people, this is a season of festive joy and hope. Happy memories arrive at the door alongside family members and friends to celebrate and remember the birth of the Christ child.

There are others who have a friendly relationship with Christmas, even though they may be of a different faith or none at all. For many, it is a story of connectedness and togetherness, of eccentric family members and ancestral storytelling – if Christmas was an emoji, for many people it would be a happy one. But that is not everyone’s story…

The Christmas story for other people is not as joyful. Christmas, for some, is a trauma stalker, an uninvited guest that rushes in to remind them of loss, violence, grief, betrayal, or loneliness. Maybe that is your Christmas story? At your table of life, Christmas is not decked with holly but shrouded in black. You stare at it and tell yourself that this is not a ’normal’ Christmas story, and in a way that makes you feel even sadder.

I find it helpful to reflect on the ‘original’ Christmas story. A story that holds a context of political uncertainty and dominance; a tyrant empire that places burdens on people that many cannot carry. It is the story of a poor couple that birth a child in squalor conditions, a story of terror and having to flee for their lives… refugees… displaced… outcasts. The original Christmas story was a far cry from Melbourne’s Myer windows.

In a strange way, this story brings me comfort. What is a ‘normal’ Christmas anyway? What does it mean to ‘celebrate’ Christmas? So much of what we say and do is a social construct of behaviour and expectations that are then branded as ‘normal’. And all those who don’t fit that caricature are reminded in a thousand different ways how they don’t ‘fit’.

So, dear reader, if you celebrate Christmas with gusto – Enjoy! Merry Christmas!

I especially want to acknowledge all those who are reading this who don’t have a ’normal’ modern Christmas story. Your place and space and story are as valid as anyone else’s. ‘Normal’ can be a bully … and sometimes our Christmas story is a sad emoji.

The stories of our life are multi-tiered. Like a rich tapestry, there are shades of light and dark. Remember, you are not the sum of your Christmas story – your life has many, many stories: Stories of resistance, of skills, hopes, and dreams for the future. Christmas will come and go. Right now it may dominate the world you live in, but it is not the world.  So as you acknowledge your Christmas story, also acknowledge the many other stories around your table of life … for they are a fascinating company.

“As we become aware of ourselves as storytellers we realise we can use our stories to heal and make ourselves whole.”  (Susan Wittig Albert)

Life Atlas Therapy and the Reclaiming of Precious Memories (Part 2)

“There are, of course, many forms of memory, some of which are constructive, some of which are destructive and some of which are redemptive.”
-Fr. Michael Lapsley (The Healing of Memories: An Interview)

Dear Reader – if you have not already done so, please read Part 1 of this BLOG post in order to understand the context for Part 2.

Life Atlas Therapy is a method that was developed in collaboration with a team of people who were prepared to explore with me how this approach re-engages a person with their life stories in a ‘way that makes us stronger’ (Aunty Barb Wingard, Kaurna Elder). I am indebted to their generosity in sharing so many of their life stories. There were many ‘Aha’ moments along the way. One of them was the discovery and reclaiming of precious memories.

Over 90% of these collaborating cartographers of Life Atlas participants began to have memories that they had totally forgotten. Comments included:

“I had totally forgotten that.”
“I just need to sit here for a moment, it feels like waves of recollection are coming to me.”
“Working on this timeline … I think my subconscious thought it’s time to ‘burp’ this memory up.”
“This dream brought back so many forgotten moments … they are filling the gaps.”
“This memory came back – I suddenly don’t feel so ‘lost’ anymore.”

The memories and/or dreams surfaced shortly after a Life Atlas therapy session. Trauma has many diverse effects on an individual’s (or community’s) life. It can become the dominant narrative that, like a schoolyard bully, shoves the many multi-tiered, mosaic stories of someone’s life into the corner and demands silence. Trauma is also a thief. It steals the key to the filing cabinet of meaningful memories, leaving a person feeling ‘lost’ or ‘confused’.

As Fr. Michael Lapsley points out (above quote), there are many forms of memory. Whereas precious memories that align with our preferred narrative are often ‘hijacked’ by trauma, traumatic memories can often become ‘timeless’ memories. “These memories are apart from the storylines of people’s lives which are constituted of experiences linked in sequence across time according to specific themes. Being located on the outside of the dimension of time, these traumatic memories have no beginning and no end … These traumatic memories are re-lived as present experience and the outcome is re-traumatisation.” (David Denborough, Trauma: Narrative response to traumatic experience, 2006, p. 78). In Reclaiming Heimat, Jacqueline Vansant focuses on nine memoirs by seven Austrian reéimigrés. She observes how traumatic memories seem to have ‘a life of their own, dictating themselves’ (2001, p.70). This escalates the power of trauma memories.

Life Atlas Therapy can assist an individual (or community) to reclaim the key to the filing cabinet that holds the memories that speak to their preferred sense of self and identity. One client had a specific memory that showed her she was not a ‘shadow child’, but that she was happy and skilled at resisting the trauma that visited her childhood home. Another client was extremely surprised at the positive memories that began to emerge of her brother and their childhood relationship. The trauma that visited the family after a horrific accident and that negatively affected her relationship with her brother had her convinced that it had ‘always been like that’. The precious memories that returned to her of ‘funny, silly’ childhood moments dramatically changed her perspective and the story about her brother (and herself).

The research and discussion surrounding memory and how they shape our sense of self is extensive. This short post is simply to have the reader consider that Life Atlas can be useful in reclaiming precious memories that the individual (or community) gives shape to and invests with meaning as the expert story-teller of their own lives. These precious memories serve as a witness to the person’s preferred story, their skills of resisting trauma and connect them to the hopes and dreams they hold for the future.

“The past beats inside me like a second heart.”
-John Banville –

Nicole Conner is a qualified Narrative Therapist working in Elsternwick, Victoria. Nicole’s work is built on the premise that the stories we hold to shape who we are, what we do, how we think and how we feel. In other words, our stories give meaning to our lived experience. For more information visit the Defining Stories webpage.

Life Atlas Therapy … and why You may find it Helpful (Part 1)

“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.”

(C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination)

The many ideas and methodologies that comprise Narrative Therapy have me regularly intrigued. I witness their effects as I work with individuals and groups. Perhaps one of the most noticeable reactions from clients comes as they consider how their life narrative has taken shape by the greater social and historical context in which they exist. What they realise in this exercise is not only that they (clients) are not the ‘problem’, but that the ‘problem’ is carried and propagated in the imagined social construct of their culture and history.

I was curious about how this recognition of one’s own experiences can be traced back to one’s location within a system of power relationships – “the personal is political” (attributed to Carol Hanisch, 1970). It was this curiosity that contributed to the development of Life Atlas Therapy.

Life Atlas Therapy draws on a timeline concept. Instead of a linear trajectory that maps the positive and negative influences on a client’s life, it maps out a person’s life stories within ‘countries’ of culture and history. This approach considers problem-laden stories within a ‘country’ in which that ‘problem’ originated. For example, ‘Jay’ (not their real name) wanted to discuss a part of their story that they drew in black. They called it ‘Disaster Cove’ – a place where they felt they had been hijacked by trauma and grief and which continued to have a negative influence on their life.

‘Disaster Cove’ was richly described. We use this conversation to externalise ‘Disaster Cove’ with the help of a metaphor. It now becomes a ‘country’ with politics, culture, folklore, themes, and song. Narrative questions included:

  1. What colour is this place?
  2. Does it remind you of any actual country?
  3. What government is in place?
  4. What parts would you avoid visiting?
  5. What parts would you recommend for sightseeing?
  6. Tell me a story that made this place meaningful to you.
  7. Who was someone that impacted your life in this place?
  8. Etc, etc, etc.

A rich description of Disaster Cove assisted Jay in understanding why Trauma and Grief had such a dominant voice in their life. We also discussed the ‘sparkling moments’ (White, Re-authoring Lives, 1995) that began to emerge out of Disaster Cove. Jay identified unique outcome stories, strengths, hopes, dreams, and skills of resistance that they teamed up with in this place. In Jay’s words, “It seems like Disaster Cove is not all black … it has a starry sky.” The ‘starry sky’ had been rendered invisible by Trauma and Grief, but now Jay began to uncover alternative landscapes on their Disaster Cove narrative.

Disaster Cove was a ‘country’ that had emerged out of their social and historical context. For example, Jay discovered that it was the ‘stiff upper lip’ cultural norm of this place that allowed trauma such a loud ‘inner’ voice in their life. “I remember being reprimanded for my tears in a public place … it shut me down.” Later on, Jay would remember stories of ‘angry crying’ – a skill of resistance against a social norm that sought to silence them. Jay was beginning to write their Disaster Cove narrative from a whole new perspective.

Life Atlas Therapy is a method I have developed (and am developing in different contexts) that assists individuals and communities to re-engage with their life stories and histories to bring about rich, double story development. In the words of Kaurna Elder, Aunty Barb Wingard, it is a method that helps us remember stories in a way that makes us stronger and connects us to our hopes and dreams.

One of the astounding findings in this research and practice has been the re-emergence of precious stories and memories that been hidden by trauma… a topic for the next post (TBC).

The problem is the problem; the person is not the problem.

– Michael White and David Epston –

 

Nicole Conner is a qualified Narrative Therapist working in Elsternwick, Victoria. Nicole’s work is built on the premise that the stories we hold to shape who we are, what we do, how we think and how we feel. In other words, our stories give meaning to our lived experience. For more information visit the Defining Stories webpage.