“Look up narrative therapy.”
I was standing in the parking lot of the church, having just attended the monthly Hope and Healing support group for those dealing with grief and sorrow over the loss of a loved one. I had attended the group a few months prior to share information about a mental health support group I help to run in the local area, as I know first hand how depression and anxiety can be unwelcome friends to grief and sorrow in the lives of those undergoing significant changes after losing a loved one. As the Holy Spirit so often does though, I quickly discovered that first night that my reason for being there went a lot deeper. My loss was that of my mother to cancer seven years ago and being present to people who had also lost a significant other touched a part of me that I had conveniently buried along with her.
This particular night, a local college professor with an extensive background in mental health and grief counseling, attended the meeting for support and guidance. From the conversation among those gathered, it became very apparent to me that we all suffer grief in as many ways as we are all unique. Yes, there are the clinically identified “stages” of grief, but there is no prescribed or anticipated way that anyone will work through any or all of those stages. Grief and sorrow are as mysterious as depression and anxiety and, as much as we would like control over them, many times we are startled by their intrusion into our lives at those inopportune moments when we least expect them.
As I listened to other people’s experiences, I was secretly hoping for my own “ah ha” moment, something that would shed light on my confusion over my seemingly belated grief over my mother’s passing. At the time of her death, life was bustling with the activity of our large family. I delved into assisting my dad as much as I could and then when it was all over, our family life swept me back into its busyness. Over the years, as tiny bits of memories surfaced, I dealt with them as best I could, frequently turning to the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques I had learned through the local mental health support group. It was a real consolation to hear the professor state “life has changed and it will never be the same … nor should it be.” A reality that is obvious, but seldom one we give ourselves permission to accept as truth, thus allowing us to navigate a new “norm.”
My “ah ha” moment wasn’t in the form of any type of knowledge based assessment of the grieving process I had assumed I would garner from conversation and/or guidance given. It was partly in the stark realization that I had dealt with her death just like I had dealt with any other traumatic event in my life – I got through it as best I could and then tucked it all away into what was referred to by the professor as “the memory box.” The box was then closed and sealed, quite securely I would add, with duct tape. Out of sight, out of mind. But not quite. Those mysterious moments of memory resurface, challenging us to peel back the duct tape to peer inside. Sometimes we are ready. Most times, not. But when we do, I believe that is when God can do His most wonderful work of mercifully assisting us in working through our humanity to see the spiritual side of grief. The question in my mind as I left the gathering was “now what?” Now that I was aware of this box and its insistence that I peel back that duct tape and take a good look inside, how was I to approach it? How would I handle the raw emotions I was sure to unbox?
Narrative therapy is a form of psychotherapy where one looks at their autobiographical narrative, or story, with personal reflection into the areas that need to be re-written. In the TEDx talk, Change Your Story, Transform Your Life, John Sharp, psychiatrist and therapist, provides key tools for editing our personal documentary, which then sheds light on what can become of our future history. Looking into the past with a more mature, adult perspective, helps to determine what “inner truths” were based on misconstrued reality. His threefold re-writing approach is a very practical visual analogy – what story have you been feeding yourself? (your fork) What can you add to the story? (spoon in your strengths to reassess truths) What do you need to cut out? (your knife)
Being a writer with a love for things that “make sense”, I set out to examine the story of “mom and me.” Starting with my earliest memories, all the way to her last days, I delved into what I knew, or at least what I thought I knew. I looked at all of it – the good, the bad, and yes, even the ugly. For as many fond memories there were, there were equally as many difficult moments where we stuborrnly butted heads. Bottom line was, we were two strong-willed women who loved each other, but we were also flawed human beings in need of God’s grace.
But the story changed drastically the last month of her life. Three years prior, she had been diagnose with multiple myloma, a typically debilitating, painful cancer. Truly by God’s mercy, she was graced with three years of manageble symptoms and was able to continue her daily activities, including working at Catholic Charities where she had worked for over 30 years. The last few months though, the cancer took over and my mother, refusing to “give up the ship” decided to try more aggressive treatment which required hospitalization. In my heart, I knew that decision would be the deciding factor in how she would spend her last days.
That last month changed everything. It was God’s providential timing that my children had just finished their school year and I was able to be of help to my father by taking the “morning shift” with my mother. Meeting with her doctor, helping order breakfast for us both, tending to her physical needs, etc., became the new reality. Where I would have liked to have had a few in-depth mother-daughter conversations, especially about faith and what we were going through, it was apparent that my mother was going to cling to her belief that she would beat the cancer and such conversations were therefore taboo. There were many times we just sat quietly, her lost in thought, me lost in prayer. As she became weaker and the chemo took its toll on her aging body, those daily small acts of mercy were my way of telling her I loved her.
There was only one time I saw my mother waver, crying out asking for God to help her. That day she asked me to come back in the evening to pray with her before bed. Holding my hand with one hand and my fathers with the other, she would close her eyes as I let the Holy Spirit lead me in vocal prayer for her. I would bless her forehead, walk with my dad to the parking lot, and head back to my family. At times it seemed almost surreal, at times it was far too real. Before I knew it, our time with her was over and I was kneeling in the wee hours of the morning by her bed in hospice, again praying out loud, palms upraised, as the Holy Spirit prompted. The feeling of her presence as my dad, my brothers, and I were gathered there, will forever be etched in my heart and soul.
The real “ah ha” moment came as I worked through the story of my mom and I recalled my surprise one day when I discovered a book of my mothers, its pages well worn and highlighted. The title of the book was Divine Mercy Triumph Over Cancer by Ronald M. Sobecks. While cancer took her earthly life, I know her real triumph was trusting in God’s Divine Mercy. What transpired between my mother and I over the course of our years on earth is unchangeable history, but the story is still being written. Every day is an opportunity for me to witness to that Divine Mercy in her memory and an opportunity for me to practice the spiritual work of mercy in praying for the repose of her soul. And if my mother, by God’s infinite mercy, is already singing His praises among the Church Triumphant, I know, without a doubt, she is praying for me.
As we approach the Feast of Alls Souls, let us continually re-write our stories, witnessing to and praying for God’s mercy upon all those who have gone before us. May their souls rest in peace, O Lord.
Food for Thought
- What has been your experience with grief over the loss of a loved one?
- Are there parts of the story that need to be evaluated and perhaps re-written?
- What can your future story with that individual look like?
- Can you move from an earthly story to a spiritual story, trusting in God’s Divine Mercy?
- How can your story now incorporate Divine Mercy in memory of your loved one?