Everyone carries his or her own weight of grief. We each have a different story, perhaps with a different context. But grief is universal. We all experience the death of a family member. We all lose a loved one. Death does not visit you alone. It is helpful and comforting to remember that we are not singled out. We are not victims. This death is not a personal punishment against you. Death is universal. It did not happen just to you.
Someone once wrote that how we handle our deepest wounds is the equivalent of how we will approach our dying. We can accept our death and the death of a loved one, by searching for growth, meaning, and transformation; or we can recoil, denying and angry about the inevitable, and miss the opportunity to stretch into our greatest potential. It is a choice. You can make life and death less difficult, and more peaceful. You can find the peace now, by finding meaning and using it in your life.
We make meaning in order to change the quality and our understanding of what has happened, the legacy of one’s life, and what is now possible for us going forward. It is not what happens to us that matters, but how we come to make sense of what happened that predicts our emotional health and future. We tell stories to bring what is inside of us to the outside, so that we understand the meaning of events. In this way, telling the story of our loss over and over is how we create a more positive, healthy understanding from a potential tragedy. If we can make sense of our pain, we can change.
We make meaning in order to construct how we will remember our loved one, and how we will remember our relationship with that person. We make meaning to change the events that are remembered, how it is remembered, and with what or whom those memories will be associated. The meanings that we attach to the event of the illness, dying process, or dying moment will color how we live in the world and in the future.
We can help mourners by encouraging them to tell their story over and over. Every time a memory is reviewed, the intensity of suffering has the potential to be softened. Recent research suggests that memory is “plastic” and that each time we bring a memory to mind we may alter it in some way. Our story may change over time as our understanding changes. How we perceive the events, understand the context and the connections, and how we articulate the narrative changes. Research and interventions used in therapeutic settings for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, show that exposure and recalling traumatic events, such as the death of a loved one, does not erase a memory but can change the quality of the memory. The memory becomes weaker, and has less of a hold and negative impact on the survivor. Telling our story and finding meaning keeps us from living in the past.
What is mentionable becomes manageable.