The death we die doesn’t have to define the life we lived

Death does not define life・Karen Mittet Narrative Therapy & Grief Counseling

When people come to see me for help grieving the death of someone they love, they often believe that they need to begin by telling me the details of the way their loved one died and the trauma surrounding their death. Although there is a time and place for these stories, they often become the defining features of the deceased’s life and leave little space for alternative descriptions of who this person was while they lived. I like to begin conversations by posing a question such as:

“I was wondering if you could introduce me to your (deceased loved one), their name, where they were born and raised, what they looked like, things they enjoyed doing, their hobbies or particular tastes that they were drawn to?”

This line of inquiry places the deceased front and center in the conversation in an exploratory manner that tends to be more healing. This avenue of discourse takes power away from the stigma of how they died and places importance on who they were while they lived. Movement towards embracing personhood opens doors into other pathways of expression, such as their endearing or quirky characteristics, their special hobbies, passions, or significant contributions to family, friends or community, or how they overcame obstacles in their life. The dead do not need to be left behind in our memories in the same state that they left this earth, such as a terminal illness like cancer, or a heart attack or stroke, an accident, suicide , or overdose. Space is created for them to be truly known for the person they are, apart from the complications of addiction or depression, and as respected and honored members of society.

How would we want our story to be told?

When the story of our ending days is told, what would we like this story to look like? Would we want the focus to be on the facts of our illness and suffering or would we like to be remembered in another way? Like who we were we while we lived our days on this planet. The things that were important to us. How might our life have made a difference to others? What stories would we like our family and friends to carry forward and share about us? What do we believe mattered most about our life? What would we want our loved ones to focus on when they think of us in the years that follow our death? This is how we can create conversations about our deceased loved ones. Honoring the stories that would be important for them and telling those stories to others.

Exploring a different pathway to make sense of our loss.

Conversations about the deceased are important. They lead us towards alternate routes of discovery that embrace practices of remembering, which often prove to be more healing than medicalized, stage-driven models that our culture has relied on for the past several decades. Grief isn’t a model, it’s a response to the emotional pain of experiencing the death of someone we love. Constantly focusing on the details of a person’s death can create more trauma for the bereaved as they relive the pain and suffering over and over again. Instead, great care is taken to bring the person who has died into the present with dialogue that upholds dignity and respect, showing that their life mattered and continues to matter. Although the life of ‘before’ is no longer accessible, this does not mean that we have to achieve a state of ‘closure’ . There is a place to craft another response, one that honors their importance in our lives and in the world.

‘I loved him to pieces,’ mom said.
’Love,’ I replied.
’What?’ Mom responded.
‘Love, not loved. We can still love him.’
— From ‘Tell The Wolves I’m Home’ by Carol Rifka Brunt

We never have to stop loving those who have died. We can bring them forth into our lives forever because we are forever changed by knowing them. Who we are, how we travel in life has, in some way, been impacted by our relationship with them. So, we give ourselves permission to ask important questions....In what ways have they influenced us, what lessons did they teach or demonstrate to us while they were alive? What things have we taken from their character that we continue to emulate or want to mirror? What parts of them do we wish to carry forward and embrace? We can imagine that there is beauty to be found in grief, that there are memories that sparkle in the midst of so much suffering. These memories are illuminated in the stories we tell in response to the questions we are asked.

How do we want our stories to be told? Karen Mittet Narrative Therapy & Grief Counseling

Conflicting, problematic or challenging relationships

Relationships all have their struggles, their ups and downs, their challenging, conflicted moments. When someone has died by a drug overdose or suicide, there is the possibility that they may have been battling some emotional, social or physical afflictions in their life for some time. This would inevitably place strain on the close relationships that they shared. Death often creates problems for the bereaved when grieving such a loss. People wonder how they can grieve properly when there was so much turmoil surrounding this relationship while the person lived. They may also feel a sense of failure, that they didn’t do enough to help or to prevent the death. When there is a sense that enough was not done, or constant rumination about ways the living could have prevented this death, or guilt about the intricacies of the relationship, it is even more important to have a practice of remembering conversations. Remembering practices can bring to light the stories that demonstrate the various ways the bereaved were there for the person who died. These stories can serve to build a continued bond and connection with the deceased. Rich questions play a key role in this kind of dialogue. For instance:

  • What did the deceased appreciate about their relationship with you? What qualities may have attracted them to you?

  • Did these qualities show up when the deceased was struggling?

  • Were these characteristics still visible in the most challenging moments in your relationship

  • Valuing these traits in you, could this be why the deceased stayed in the relationship even though there were problems?

  • What did your deceased loved one stand for by valuing these traits in you?

  • Can you imagine taking these characteristics with you going forward, as a way of honoring your loved one, knowing that others may also benefit from receiving these gifts from you?

By asking these types of questions and reaching into the heart of a relationship, dialogue often becomes meaningful and alive with stories of sustenance and strength.

What if I don’t want to remember parts of my troubled relationship?

Remembering conversations are about legacy and continued bonds. However, there may be stories about a person’s relationship that are too painful to recount. In this case, discourse can be geared towards a discussion of what not to do in life. This means being respectful of the deceased, honoring their choices, but openly recognizing that there is the possibility of another way. The bereaved can be the editor of these stories and include the ones that are more healing, while leaving the ones that are too despairing behind. Distance can be created in conflicting relationships if that is what the bereaved would find more helpful. Perhaps further on in their grieving journey, they will choose to revisit these stories and process them in a new light. However, it is sometimes necessary to subdue a deceased’s influence and downgrade the position they held, which may help a person take back control of their life.

Making meaning in our lives・Karen Mittet Narrative Therapy & Grief Counseling

Making meaning in our lives by valuing the lives of those who died

When we are given space to talk about our deceased loved one in ways that give the relationship meaning and purpose, we move away from the defining characteristics of the ‘event’ of the death and into stories of who they were while they lived. We rescue the narratives that drew us to this person, the parts of them that we value and want to carry forward in our own lives. When someone we love dies, we are forever changed and the death often brings people to act differently, to fight for a cause, to change a career, to volunteer, to pave a different path. All of these changes create meaning, they represent ways of wanting to make a difference in the world, opportunities to carry the legacy of our deceased loved one into new realms or spheres of influence. How this looks is unique to our experience. Everyone’s grief journey is different because our relationships are different and our experiences in these relationships are different. After a death, making our way in the world is particular to the diverse ways we choose to grieve our loss.

We don’t need to banish our deceased loved one to a forgotten place.

We all come into this world the same way but our upbringing influences the way we view death and what we believe happens after we die. Whether it’s a religious concept of death, a humanistic or scientific perspective, we know that the dead do not return and cannot tell us where they are. We may have dreams and visions and voices in our heads, but we don’t know for certain where the deceased can be located.

Conversations can help bridge this distance we have with our deceased love one. We can speak in ways that keep their memory in the present tense instead of regulating them to the past. They can continue to influence our lives even in death. We can connect to the memories that are shared and the things that they value that we want to continue. The deceased can have lifelong membership (Myerhoff, 1986) in our Club of Life (Hedtke & Winslade, 2004).

What did they teach you about life? Karen Mittet Narrative Therapy & Grief Counseling

My mother is my role model. She has been a guiding light in my life.

My husband likes to garden. He taught me how to plant tomatoes from seeds and the ways to take care of them. My garden is a testament to his devotion in teaching me this skill.

My daughter has the most beautiful red hair and freckles. She has the Scottish and Irish genes of my grandparents.

Continuing a person’s membership in one’s Club of Life can also include conversations of possibility. Questions such as, what meaning would they hope others would understand about their life? How might our love grow for them over the years and in what ways can they still make a difference? What might be useful for others to know about this person and your connection to them? What ways could your loved one continue to travel with you even though they are physically absent? Honoring their life and the relationship through stories gives the deceased unconditional love and the relationship continuity. Valuing our loved one’s life and their legacy

Bringing a person’s life into the present instead of relegating them to the past can lessen the power that surrounds a stigmatized death. Feelings of shame lose its grasp on the bereaved when the focus moves away from the details of the death and towards who our loved one was while they lived. What did we appreciate about them, what did we value about their lives that others may not be aware of? How did they impact our lives in ways that make us stronger? What stories can be found when we dig into the compost of their lives or of our relationship together? What qualities did they possess that may require a rake and hoe to locate? What were their hopes and dreams while they were living? What may they hope and dream for you now that they are gone? What would the deceased person say about how you are handling their death? Composting can be messy work but it builds nutrients in the soil of our soul because it accesses stories that need tending to and plants a garden of possibility for an ongoing relationship.

If your loved one knew that you were going to share stories of their life mattering, what do you imagine they would think about that?

What do you believe your loved one would want people to learn from their death?

What do you think your loved one would say about their stories continuing after their death? Do you think they would appreciate you honoring them in this way?

Do you believe your loved one is thankful for you telling the stories about what they valued rather than focusing on the details of their dying? If so, why do you think that would be important to them?

If your deceased loved one could teach people something about substance abuse, what do you envision their message would be? If you carry this message with you and share it with others who are struggling, do you believe that your loved one would be grateful and value your efforts?

What do you think it means to your deceased loved one that you are talking about them right now? Do you think they would appreciate that you are honoring their life and legacy?

Kerstin Martin