Mourning into Daylight: The Place of Story in a Bereavement Group

by Fran Yardley.

Over the past ten years, I have been following the path of working with healing story often. At first, I wasn’t sure how this would manifest. The 22 years of experience I have had working as a storyteller has taught me that usually, we do not choose our stories; they choose us. Recently, I have begun to discover that in much the same way, we do not necessarily choose our life path, it chooses us.

In 1984, my husband died after struggling with cancer for over six years. Was it because of his struggle that I began to work on a story of a woman finding healing in the solace of the wilderness? Was the reason it took me ten years to feel that story was ready for the telling because during that time I was taking the voyage of the transition between his struggle, his death and my bereavement? Whatever the reasons, the telling of that story led me to work with numerous state hospice organizations. That experience heightened my awareness of and brought my focus more and more to healing story.

In 2002, I began a bereavement group in my hometown of Saranac Lake, NY. This was born out of many things, the two most salient being the lack of such a group when my husband was dying and a request by a psychiatrist friend of mine to start one. I struggled mightily with the fact that I am not a therapist and I lack any training in that field except for College Psych 101. However, I did know what I was; a storyteller with a great deal of compassion and some very intimate experience with bereavement. And so, I began.

First, I lined up my psychiatrist friend and another friend who is a very wise and respected social worker to be my backup if I got in deeper than I could handle.

Then I began my own preparation for this bereavement group. I innocently asked myself, “If I am a storyteller, what stories would be useful to those in bereavement?” With some amusement, I found myself pulling out my dog-eared copy of Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross; amusement because 17 years earlier, I found myself furious at her neat and tidy categories of bereavement. “What’s this?” I would rant. “Since when can someone I don’t even know tell ME that at this moment I am going to be in denial, and then at this point I will have acceptance?” (No sign of anger there!)

But 17 years and a good deal of perspective later, I realized the woman actually had some good points. So I took her five stages of grief (denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) and began to do some in-depth research on what stories would be appropriate for each of those stages. My goal here was to have a repertoire of stories that I could bring out at any moment during the group meetings to “deal with” any particular stage of grief.

The evening came for the first meeting. I marched in with my “backpack” of stories, ready, I thought, for any contingency. I knew how to set up a safe space and how to engender confidentiality and an environment for deep listening. What I did not know was exactly how these stories would fit into such a group. Fortunately, when I came in, I had the presence of mind to really listen to these people. It quickly became very clear to me that what was most important at this meeting was not for me to tell MY stories, but rather to provide a place where the participants knew that they could tell their stories with safety and confidentiality, they could get feedback for others in similar trenches and they could hear the stories of others.

I have learned about establishing a safe space. I make sure I do not have too large a group. I found 8 or less participants to be good. This way, everyone has a chance to hear all the stories and be heard by the whole group. I find a location where I know we can be private.

I establish guidelines, directly inspired by Doug Lipman and his coaching techniques.

  • Confidentiality – no referral to anything anyone talks about in the group without asking permission.
  • Quality of listening; I talk about understanding that the job of the one talking is to be in charge and talk and the job of the listeners is to hold the space open and listen delightedly. It is not about offering advice, solutions or stories the listener is reminded of.

I strive to be clear about my goals as leader.
I explain that I am not a therapist. I am a storyteller who believes in the healing power of being listened to well and that is what we will do in our group. I come into the meeting believing in the innate brilliance of every person and in their potential to eventually work through their grief.

I use myself as a role model. I tell my own story so they can see that I have been through grief, I have survived and I thrive. By showing my vulnerability, they are more willing to share theirs. I tell them this is a “come as you are” party. They are exactly where they need to be and we have no expectations that they “should” be, act or feel some other way.

It is now one year later. I am in the middle of my fourth group. I have yet to tell many of the stories in my backpack. The ones I do tell tend to be more personal anecdotes about experiences I had coping with my own loss. For a while, all of this left me clearer and also more puzzled.

I grow clearer and clearer about the need to be listened to and the power of listening well. Every time we walk into that room, they are practically bursting to tell us about what has happened or a breakthrough they have made or a new complication or a wonderful insight. If a new person has joined the group, they tell their stories over again and get to shake hands with their grief in a new way. It is fascinating and illuminating.

My puzzlement came from wondering how any storytelling I could do, any thoughtful tales I could bring in, might help them, for they are way too desperate to be telling their own stories. But at times, folk tales have helped the group members make sense of their chaos. Recently, I shared the story of “Bundles” about owning our problems and our strengths and putting our grief into perspective.

After hearing it, one woman said she had a visualization of all her troubles packed inside balloons and then letting the balloons go to float up into the sky. “Bundles” echoed her own image, but this folk tale offered more depth and balance. She loved how the story was about not only recognizing her troubles but also acknowledging her strengths and hopes. She went on to talk about reading Thich Nhat Hanh who says that suffering is not enough, we also need to be open to the wonder of the world.

Interestingly, one of the personal stories I recently shared has a similar message to “Bundles”; the idea that everything is relative. The chance to tell it sprang from a feeling of hopelessness I was getting from a new participant. I noticed that another woman who had recently been very down was actually gaining strength from helping this new woman out. So, I told this story…

When I was 23 and newly married, I moved with my husband, Jay, to Tunisia. He was working for CARE. We first stayed in an apartment in Tunis provided by CARE until we could find a house. From the first moment, I was in culture shock. I had never been anywhere but Canada and the US. I wasn’t going to see my family for 2 years. I could speak only a little French and no Arabic. I was tall and blonde, Tunisians are short and dark. I was sick when we arrived. Jay had to go off to work and I was left in an apartment building whose whole sewer system emptied into our bathtub. It was not a good time.

Fast forward to three months later. I was well. We were living in a lovely house outside Tunis, complete with a lemon tree. Jay came home one day and said there was a new CARE doctor who had just arrived and perhaps I could visit his wife. I went back to the very same apartment we had first stayed in and rang the bell. The door opened. A wan face above a bathrobed figure stood before me. I felt like I was looking in a three month old mirror at myself. “Hi!” I said. “I heard you just got here and I wondered if you’d like to go shopping.“

It turned out that fortunately she hadn’t had the exquisite sewer-in-the-bathtub experience I had, but she was newly pregnant, spoke no French or Arabic and was as bewildered as I had been. I swooped her up and took her to the market. I introduced her and said hello in Arabic to all my merchant friends. I brought her to our house for lunch. I showed her how to ride the bus,  oriented her about the new and old parts of Tunis.

That night as I told all this to Jay, I realized for the first time how far I had come in three months and how much I had learned. Without being able to look into this other woman’s “bundle” I am not sure I would have felt so grateful or so aware of my new strength.

When a member of my bereavement group shares a story, it is not a performance piece. There is no preparation other than the whole life of the teller preparing for this particular telling at this particular moment. It is not about refining or developing the story, but rather making sense out of the chaos of her life at that moment in time.

When my participants do tell their stories, there are many benefits that occur. They are telling warrior tales. “Here is what happened to me and I survived.” The very act of saying those words, of relating the bad event, and also of claiming their strengths in dealing with the event can be empowering. The teller may actually begin to believe her own words. As they tell and retell their stories, they renew acquaintance with it from the perspective of they are at that moment. It becomes a measure of how far they have traveled since the event happened. They can change anything they want in the retelling. Through that act comes a sense of control. When we hear someone else’s personal story, it gives us perspective. “Wow! I thought I had it bad!” We begin to understand that the bundle of troubles we are carrying is perhaps the one that fits us the best.

There are appropriate traditional stories to tell, some perhaps already in my “backpack,” but the timing of the telling is crucial. When I find that moment and I do tell a story, there are definite benefits that can occur:

  • The story can create an internal framework in which the listener can safely experience, face and feel things she finds too difficult in her “regular” life.
  • The listener can identify with a specific character; for instance, the hero. “If she did that, maybe I could.”
  • The story can provide a jumping off point, give impetus and courage to tell one’s own story. “That reminds me of…”
  • A story is like good oatmeal. It sticks with you. You can assimilate the images at your own pace.
  • A story allows the listener to digest it on many levels; to name just a few; as inspiration, enlightenment, education, provocation or just plain good entertainment.

Even with the awareness of the benefits of a good story told at the appropriate moment, I am now very clear that my role in working with people who are bereaved is not so much as a storyteller but more as a story evoker. I would hesitate to use the word “coach” as there is not one word of what they say that I would presume to change, but in a way, I do coax out of them their brilliance; I let them see that they do after all still have strength and purpose and qualities that are beloved.

Losing someone you love can be a great destroyer of self-confidence. What people in bereavement need most is to tell their story in a safe place with no judgment or advice. They need to be heard over and over so they can make order out of their chaos and  begin to find the path not back to who they were before, but to their new identity in acceptance of all that has happened to them.  when they have the opportunity to be well and deeply listened to by not just one person but by a whole group, they begin to reclaim and trust their true and best selves and reemerge as deeper and more compassionate human beings.  for those of us fortunate enough to guide them on their way, we can remember that we may start out as the healing storyteller, but in the final analysis our real contribution lies in being the healing story listener.

A small backpack of other stories to use in a bereavement group setting:

The Mustard Seed; Buddhist, the version I have used is from “Doorways to the Soul”, ed. by Elisa Davy Pearmain; about accepting the loss, knowing we are not alone, embracing death as a part of life.

The Cowtail Switch; West African, by Harold Courlander and George Herzog: about literally remembering one who has gone and not allowing them to be forgotten.

Nadia, the Willful; by Sue Alexander; also about keeping the memory alive through stories.

The Sword of Wood;  Jewish, from Afghanistan; also in ‘Doorways to the Soul”; we have a choice about our attitude towards whatever happens to us; also about trust, faith, what keeps us going.

Annie and the Old One; Navajo; by Miska Miles; about  accepting what will be, recognizing death as part of the order of things.

This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 4, Summer 2003.

Fran Yardley  tells stories and presents workshops for students, teachers, hospice and social workers, librarians and prisoners.  She facilitates a bereavement group in her community and is also the founder of an Adirondack Retreat for women with cancer and chronic illness.  She specializes in giving participants in her workshops confidence and joy in their own telling.

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