Welcome to Grief Set Free, a place for open exploration of the many and varied thoughts, feelings, and beliefs surrounding the death of a child or children.  I’m grateful you’ve found your way here with perhaps a question, a hope, an idea to share, some thoughts on the book, or simply to be connected to others along the pathway of grief.  In this first blog I wish only to present the power of story to heal.  Several years ago while in parish ministry a member of the church approached me one Sunday morning after worship needing to share a story.  It was winter in the Chicago area and living on a small lake he had wandered out onto the ice and eventually fell into the icy, frozen, waters.  Desperately holding on to the slippery ice surface, and laden with the weight of his heavy winter clothing, he began to slowly slide into and nearly under the water.  He shouted for his family time and time again and eventually one heard, rushed over, but could not get him out by himself.  As hypothermia began to settle in, he returned with three others, and they were able to pull him out just as the ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital.  Clearly, he lived because he was telling me the story.  It wasn’t so much the story as it was the way he told the story.  While he was the main character in the story he was speaking as if he was narrating what had happened; as if he couldn’t believe the story was actually about him; that he was within a hair’s breathe of dying.  Once he finished and I acknowledged what he shared, he proceeded to repeat the story in its entirety again.  Once more I was reminded about how we tell the story time and time again as a way of integrating what happened into our lives.  Whenever I see this man, and I’ve had occasions to share many family celebrations with him and his family over the years as a priest, he still recalls the story and how grateful he is to be alive.

That’s what stories do; they help us integrate difficult experiences.  One might say that PTSD could have more to do with the difficulty, if not impossibility, of integrating an extremely painful story.  Stories are meant to be shared.  The power in story isn’t simply in telling the story but in having someone listen, empathize, and understand.  It doesn’t matter how many parents have had a child die, each child and every parent form the nucleus of a unique story never to be duplicated.  We may all share some common experiences, feelings, hopes; but each story remains unique and must be told on its own for the first step of healing to take place which is integration.  Painful stories appear at first on a horizon.  They move towards us at various speeds.  We wish to keep them at arms-length, but that proves impossible.  The story has a life of its own and screams to be shared out loud.  When we speak not only do others listen, but we listen as well on at least three levels and all three levels are the key to integration with the analeptic, or deepest, soulful level, of greatest importance.

When my parishioner told his story the first time, he offered the manifest level of the story.  The manifest level is the level which simply conveys a series of events that took place in which he was a participant.  He was on the ice, he fell through the ice, he shouted, one person came, then other people came, he was removed from the water and placed in an ambulance and off to the hospital.  Anyone watching this experience unfold from 100 fee away would have been able to describe the same thing.  In the looks on the man’s face and the tone of his voice he hinted at the symbolic level of the story; the level of what does the story mean, what meaning does the story hold for him?  He felt vulnerable.  A powerful man quite accustomed to getting his own way, he was vulnerable.  His own strength could not save him.  A strong Italian man with significant machismo, he struggled to grasp the meaning of his inability to save himself.  He repeated the story to comprehend what had happened. 

Several days later he stopped by the church wanting to talk.  Once again, he told the story of his near drowning.  Very little changed in the manifest content of his repetition but what did change were his pauses and his tears.  At one point he finally traveled to the analeptic level of meaning; he said he thought he was going to die; that he nearly died.  And after saying such tears ran down his cheeks as we both sat in silence. 

Over the years he would reference the story with a joke or a smile, but we both knew.  That story captured an experience that took him to the brink of his own human existence, a level of meaning he didn’t perceive until he had told his story time and time again.

Let’s all agree to keep telling our stories.

Next up:  the listener.