I haven’t contributed to this blog for quite some time, having taken a complete break from all things work-related to help care for my much-loved father, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness in the early summer of last year. Dad, 86, died at the end of November after a difficult time, particularly in the final few months. We cared for him at my parents’ home for as long as possible, before he had to be moved for palliative treatment to a nearby care home, where he spent the last six days of his life. Fortunately we were able to spend much of that last week by his side, and were with him when he died.
Although I wasn’t working during this time, I did manage to write a book – albeit a very short one. With all due respect to all my past clients(!), I can say that in purely personal terms, this has been the most useful piece of writing I’ve yet done. It’s also one which has helped me understand better than ever the value of storytelling and of my own work in helping others to commit their lives and experiences to paper.
I wrote this ‘book’ for my wonderful 84-year-old mother, who was diagnosed with vascular dementia four years ago. From the outset of her diagnosis, she and my father were always adamant that whatever the future held, they would continue to live together at home. They were always a remarkable – and at times formidable! – team. For that reason, as well as the rare ability Mum has always had to accept what she cannot change, she has managed to negotiate the vagaries of her condition as well as humanly possible.
Throughout my dad’s illness and especially in its final stages, Mum was a tireless support and companion to him. Most of all by just being there for him as much as possible – by his bedside, chatting with him into the early hours; sitting with him on the sofa watching a favourite film and holding hands; enjoying an evening drink together.
On that dark afternoon in late November and immediately afterwards, my mother seemed to completely take on board the fact and circumstances of Dad’s death. However in the weeks since, she sometimes loses sight of these and is left, bewildered and nonplussed, wondering where her spouse of 62 years can possibly have got to. For those of us who remember everything as yet only too well, it can be painful to have to repeatedly give a fresh account of it all, as if for the first time.
And so I decided to write a little ‘book’ for my mum – the length of a very short novella – transcribed by hand in a journal-type notebook with a decorative floral binding. She keeps it on the small bookshelf on Dad’s desk, and can reach for it whenever she wants to refresh her memory or revisit certain details. It has really helped all of us.
For Mum, there seems to be something reassuring about seeing everything set down in print: it’s something concrete, something she can hold in her hands. Everything she most wants to know is there in black and white, and available for her to look at whenever she needs to. And some of it is of comfort to her, as she’s reminded that Dad always maintained even to the last that he wasn’t in any physical pain; that she was with him as much as it was possible to be; that his final hours were peaceful as we sat holding his hands, the only sound his quiet, shallow breathing as he appeared to be sleeping deeply – until, finally, all was silence.
However my mother’s need to revisit the details of Dad’s story again and again is, I believe, not purely a symptom of her cognitive problems.
Some years ago, when I was working with a client on a book about her work as a grief counsellor, she said something which really struck a chord with me, about how we humans cope with a bereavement, or indeed any kind of difficult or traumatic experience: ‘What someone most needs to do in the early stages of an important loss is to tell the story. To keep telling the story, and to know that those around them will hear and bear witness to what they have been through…’
This need to ‘tell the story’, my client further explained, is how our brains help us to deal with trauma, to take in the impossible, to start to comprehend the unbearable. In the last few months, these insights have taken on a whole new meaning for me.
All of this has brought home to me once more how important, vital even, the telling of our stories is. Not only does recounting what happened enable us to survive the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, but later – perhaps much later – it can help us to put a shape on things, to regain some sense of control over our lives (as illusory as that may actually be). And this holds true of course not just for very difficult experiences in our lives, but for all kinds of altogether more positive and enjoyable ones too.
In his recently published book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, the renowned bereavement therapist David Kessler – who worked with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross on her famous template of the five stages of grief – proposes that there is a sixth stage of grief: that of finding meaning. He argues that it is only when we find meaning in what has happened that we’re able to move beyond pure pain and allow grief to be transformative in our lives. Telling your story, relating what happened, can enable you to find that meaning, and, with time, help to ensure that what you have suffered has changed the way you live in a positive sense.
This is why I so much enjoy working with clients whose stories go beyond simply relating what happened, but offer a narrative which can give hope, help and inspiration to others who may have experienced similar things. This, to me, is the ultimate act of bravery and of creativity in the face of the things we have suffered, and the often random way life can throw such difficulties in our path. It also feels like the best way to honour the memory of the people we have loved who are no longer with us.