This has been a tough couple of weeks for my friends and family. We had two memorials two weeks in a row, one for a singer-songwriter friend, lovingly nicknamed MOS, in Nashville, TN, and one for a cousin, known fondly to his friends and family as Spin, in Birmingham, AL. Both were artists and both died way too young after long battles with cancer. MOS was very successful, one of the more successful songwriters out of Nashville, but his true love (other than his wife and songwriting partner) was performing with his band, flat out rock and roll. No one could play a slide guitar like MOS! His songs, heavily influenced by the blues, told stories of lost love and love requited, and listening to his music filled one with joy. Spin was also a musician, a drummer, but poured his soul into his visual art, photos, paintings, and installation art that explored issues of decay and resurgence. Looking at his art gave a sense of hope.
Each memorial celebrated these two remarkable men in their own ways. For MOS, Nashville elite turned out to play his songs, and for Spin, the Birmingham art community mounted an exhibit of his art. But the memorials have one thing in common. At both, everyone told stories. Sad stories of loss and desolation, but also joyful stories, stories of what MOS and Spin meant to their friends and family, the joy they brought into so many lives. This is what we do at times of great loss. Just as each of these young men used their remarkable artistic talents to tell stories through music, through song, through photography and painting, stories that touch us and teach us about what it is to be human, so we each tell stories about those we love and lose. Stories help us understand, help us share our feelings with others, and help us heal. Stories also keep those we love alive in our hearts and minds. MOS and Spin will live on in the stories they created in their art. They will also live on in the stories we tell and retell about them.
So how do stories help us grieve and help us heal? Bosticco and Thompson write, in The Journal of Death and Dying, about how stories may be particularly beneficial when we are bereaved, as we deal with the grief of loss of a loved one. Stories help us in our struggles to make sense of what happened, and may provide catharsis for our deepest difficult emotions. But stories also help connect us in our grief, to bond with others who also loved the deceased. Through sharing our stories, friends and family share a common bond and embrace each other to provide strength and consolation. The National Storytelling Network, which is dedicated to the power of stories in our lives, has a group focused specifically on the healing power of stories. The Healing Story Alliance, http://ift.tt/2yOPy8I, talks about how stories help us bridge rifts, create alliances, and, in times of despair, create communities of care.
Storytelling in times of bereavement is not just important for adults. Children and adolescents who face loss of a loved one may be particularly vulnerable because they often do not understand what is happening, and too often, families try to protect them by not talking about it. But we find just the opposite in our research in the Family Narratives Lab; we study how families share stories about difficult experiences, such as the death of a loved one. Families that are able to talk about these difficult experiences together, sharing their emotions, validating each other’s feelings and sense of loss, have preteens and adolescents who show fewer behavior problems.
So even though it can be painful, don’t avoid taking about lost loved ones — tell the stories about who they were and how they lived, share those stories with your children, families and friends. Let the stories recreate the joy amid the loss and despair. And let those stories be expressed through words, through songs and through art. It is okay to cry together. It is okay to laugh together too. MOS and Spin were both deeply loved and both will be deeply missed. But we will listen to and look at their stories and find solace in telling our own.