Monday, June 21, 2010

The Healing Power of "The Story"

Father’s Day Hell. Done. Kids Okay. Check. Memorial service for my neighbor….What??

That’s right, my friends.

Most of us have been just trying to get through Father’s Day weekend. Whether it’s because we have kids, we wanted to have kids, or we’re thankful we dodged that bullet…we’ve all been wading through our own you-know-what (I’m trying to keep this PG just in case my mom reads it).

But somehow, this weekend, I got a double helping of grief. Because not only did I have to jolly my kids through Father’s Day, I had to come home to a memorial service going on next door. My very sweet next door neighbor passed away a few weeks ago. He went into a doctor’s appointment on a Tuesday, was diagnosed with cancer, and by the next Tuesday he was gone. We were all shocked, to say the least.

Anyway, I always think it’s important, when it comes to these kinds of things, to just show up and acknowledge the passing. You know...give the wife a hug and let her know that how well liked her husband was. I mean, nothing makes us feel better than knowing that hundreds of people thought so much of our loved one that they decided to come over and pop open a beer with us.

Now, you would think having experienced what I have, that I would be a person who would know what to say. That I would have some magical words of comfort. That I wouldn’t be as stupid as some of the people I have encountered during my meandering walk through the Grief Canyon.

Yup. You would think.

But because of the experience I’ve been through, it makes me more self-conscious than ever that I’m going to say the wrong thing. Because if there’s one thing I know by now it’s that what one person finds comforting will make another person want to smack you. Most of the time, I just try and keep my trap shut.

So after my exhausting day with the kids, I trudged over to my neighbor’s house for (hopefully) a quick glass of wine and a pat on the back. And in my attempt to keep my foot out of my mouth (so that I could drink more wine), I started asking my neighbor questions about how they met, how long they’d been married…you know general things like that.

And then something interesting happened.

My neighbor’s face suddenly lit up (as much as it can when you’re fighting against the rip-tide of grief) as she told me their story. She talked on and on about meeting him in college and how crazy and fun he was. She asked me to go with her to watch a slide show that someone had put together of their life and as I followed her into the living room, the most obvious thing hit me.

We all just want to tell our story.

In everyone’s attempt to “say the right thing” in times of grief they’re ignoring a very simple fact that would save everyone a lot of aggravation. They don’t have to talk at all. They don’t have to worry about whether saying, “I’m sorry” is going to annoy someone. They shouldn’t even attempt to look at the bright side and say, “Well, at least he went quickly.” They shouldn’t make a pathetic stab at philosophy by saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” Or our FAVORITE: “He’s in a better place now.”

They just have to ask one simple question about the person who is gone. And listen.

When I think back to when I lost my husband, I still realize that the most healing time I had was just sitting around with friends while they asked me questions about us and our life. Even in my darkest hour, I enjoyed strolling down Memory Lane with anyone who would take the time to listen. Don’t we all? I LOVE it when people ask me how I met my husband. I love it when they look at me in my younger and more attractive days and ask what we were doing then. I love it when they ask me if all of my kids were fathered by my husband.

(Now, in reality, if you had ever seen my husband and seen my kids, you would never ask that question.)

This realization has been such an “ah ha” moment for me. That listening has more healing powers than saying something that you think is comforting while making the other person feel like they’d rather be walking on glass than talking to you. It’s probably something that you all have known for years, but I’m always a little behind on the grief train. So the best thing you can do is smile politely and nod your head while you let me ramble.

‘Cause it will just make me feel better.

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© Catherine Tidd 2010


  1. Talking about Mike is one of my favorite things as well. There is comfort in it and for a brief moment I can relive the joy in some of those moments as I describe it to someone. It may be bring tears, but I may be smiling while I'm crying.

  2. Yes, that's what I've said all along. Listening is the best thing you can do for someone in our situation. I hate talking about how Alex died, but I love talking about Alex and I wish I had one person to talk to about him.

  3. Oh, wow. That is a great insight - one I will remember.

  4. You've identified the most important thing I've ever learned as a bereavement counselor ♥

  5. Good insight! I've noticed the "I've been here before, but I still have no idea what to do" feeling.
    Though I did *not* want to talk about my husband for awhile - maybe b/c it was suicide - at the time I did notice that was the most healing thing for his father was to talk about him & hear stories about him from his friends.
    Then I went through a phase where I talked about him all the time - to the point where people I had just met thought he was alive! (Thanks to all my patient friends & family for putting up with that!)
    Now - it depends on the day.