Perhaps it was Barbara Bush’s funeral that triggered the conversation my husband and I shared over lunch yesterday. It wasn’t the former U.S. First Lady we talked about, but rather the loss we all suffer when family, friends, family or colleagues, disappear from our lives, whether due to illness and death, physical distance, passage of time, moves to other cities, or circumstances unknown to us. With some, there’s simply curiosity, a question of “I wondered what happened to…?” But with many, especially those who have died, there’s sorrow. Grief is the emotional state that accompanies loss, and although normal, when there is no explanation or rationale for the loss or disappearance of people once close to us, we may discover the kind of sorrow that resides in one’s heart for a very long time. Sorrow. Grief. How do we make sense of the losses we suffer? I thought about Mrs. Bush’s funeral, the tributes and stories of her life and presence shared by her family and friends. Then I recalled Judith Cofer’s The Cruel Country, a memoir about her return to her native Puerto Rico when her mother is diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. A deeply moving book, Cofer offers hard-earned wisdom on how we come to terms with loss and grief. In it she writes:
…I have learned that story assuages grief, and it also grants the chaos of our emotions some shape and order…Even as I watch my mother become more and more distant from the lives around her…I am doing what I have been preparing all my life to do: listening again to the old stories and committing them to memory in order to preserve them. I am still doing my work in terms of what I have come to believe defines immortality. Being remembered. (From: The Cruel Country, by Judith Ortiz Cofer, ©2015. University of Georgia Press)
Perhaps no one truly ever truly masters the sorrow that comes with loss, because death and the loss of loved ones and friends forces us to learn and re-learn what it means when someone’s life ends or they disappear from our lives in other ways, whether anticipated or unexpected. Loss of those dear to us forces us to consider mortality–theirs and our own. How do we remember the people who have mattered in our lives, and how others will remember us?
Nearly every year since I’ve been leading my “Writing Through Cancer” programs, cancer takes the life of a group member. It’s something I worked to prepare myself for before I first began the groups nearly eighteen years ago, yet as I’ve learned each time a life is lost to this disease, I must confront my own grief as well as the collective grief of the group members. In 2014, three individuals with terminal cancer died within weeks of one another. It was emotional time for the group, yet they demonstrated such care and support for their colleagues, despite the fear that a colleague’s death ignites for those who are also being treated for cancer. Everyone had forged a strong and supportive community through the many weeks of writing and sharing their stories of the cancer experience and of their lives. And in death, their hearts heavy with sorrow, many in the group were present at memorial services for our lost colleagues, listening to and sharing their stories of remembrance.
After the third memorial service that year, I was listless and sad, awakening with sorrow weighing on my chest. As the group leader, my task is to hear and hold the sorrow of the members, to make it safe for them to express what they feel in the privacy of the group. I hadn’t really allowed myself to grieve openly, and a day or two later, as I leashed up my dog to take early morning walk and stepped outside, I saw my elderly neighbor walking down the street toward me. I smiled and waved, but I noticed that his normally smiling face was grim. Something wasn’t right. I walked down the porch steps and met him as he came up our walk. He stopped and looked at the ground. “I wanted you to know,” he said, “M. (his wife) passed away in the hospital this morning at four a.m.”
I hadn’t expected this news at all. I had visited with both of them only a few days earlier. Without warning, tears streamed down my face. “I’m so sorry,” I said, sobbing as we embraced. And then, I apologized, horribly embarrassed that my neighbor, who had just lost his wife of more than sixty years, was comforting me. The sorrow I’d been carrying inside welled up and spilled out.
I am learning the alchemy of grief, how it must be carefully measured and doled out, inflicted—but I have not yet mastered this art.”–Judith Ortiz Cofer
We attended M.’s memorial service a few days after her death. Her husband, two sons, daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren sat in the front row, and behind them, the pews were filled with lifelong friends, and many of the people who lived in our little neighborhood. M. was remembered with affection, tenderness, and pride. We watched photographs of M. flash on a large screen, smiled as her family and friends recalled stories of her life, remembering her for her loving spirit, guidance, humor and faith. Her life was celebrated with remembrance and stories — something I had also experienced at the services of our deceased writing group members. …What I have come to believe defines immortality. Being remembered.
I want to be remembered
As a voice that was made to be singing
The lullaby of shadows
As a child fades into a dream…
I want to be remembered
With a dark face absorbing all colors
And giving them back twice as brightly,
Like water remembering light.
I want to be remembered
With a simple name, like Mama:
As an open door from creation,
As a picture of someone you know.
(From: “Cover Photograph,” by Marilyn Nelson, In: Mama’s Promises: Poems, 1985)
I thought a lot about my father later that same afternoon, remembering how, after the funeral of one of his oldest sisters, he had excused himself from the parlor where a few of his siblings and other relatives were weeping and instead, sat in the living room next to her bereaved husband and shared a few fond and funny stories of the woman each had loved. My grieving uncle relaxed and smiled, remembering along with my father, perhaps enjoying respite from the sadness and sorrow in the room. Sometime later, my father made it clear how he wanted his passing to be celebrated. “I don’t want any tears and crying. Promise that when I die, you’ll have a party. Invite all my friends, serve them Jack Daniels and tell some good stories.” That’s exactly how we honored his death after he died from lung cancer several years later. I won’t say we didn’t shed some tears, because we did–we loved our soft-hearted Dad. But a defining characteristic of his was the love of a good story, and the more humorous the better. My father wanted to be remembered in the way he enjoyed his life–with a chuckle.
“Death steals everything but our stories.” This was the final line of a poem by Jim Harrison, “Larson’s Holstein Bull.” It’s stayed with me. We remember stories, and our stories help us remember people; they are an important aspect of healing from loss and grief. In her article, “The Importance of Telling (and Listening) to the Story” Kirsti A . Dyer, MD, describes why stories are an important way to help us understand and cope with loss and grief.
- Stories are a way of translating memories in verbal or in written form, helping preserve culture.
- They help us make sense of the world and the difficult events in our lives.
- Storytelling is one of the oldest healing arts; used to help people to cope with loss.
- Stories offer a way for doctors and patients to communicate, discover the meaning of illness and ways of coping and healing
- The creation of personal stories helps us deal with and assimilate loss.
- Telling (or writing) the story about your life experiences has beneficial effects on illness and physical and mental health.
- Life stories are a way to make sense of and find meaning in loss; telling one’s story of grief helps the loss become real.
- Personal stories of loss can inspire and provide hope.
- Listening to a person’s story of loss or illness is central to grief support and helps healing & recovery.
Even now, when I think of my father, I remember his stories, the chuckle and wink of his eye as he told them. And when I read through some of the writing shared in my groups in our end of series booklet, the memory of the writer comes alive, and I remember their faces, voices, and the many stories they shared. It is our stories that keep alive those we’ve loved and lost. We remember them as our grief is softened and transformed. We begin to heal from the loss. As Cofer reminds us: Writing transforms. And on the page, it is always now.
- What has helped you navigate the dark ocean of grief in the wake of a loved one’s loss?
- Write a story or poem inspired by the memories you have of a lost friend or family member.
- Answer the question, “How do you want to be remembered?”