Monday, January 19, 2015

Voices of Experience: When Narrative Heals

Our future is not ensured through the transmission of our DNA, but through the transmission of our stories.  ~ Carl Hammerschlag, MD

Katherine Thome is a freelance writer in Northern California, currently at work on a memoir about discovering her father. Here she describes the costs of hidden grief, and the benefits of sharing her story. She blogs at I Remember That Night

The words to the R.E.M. song, “Everybody Hurts” come through my radio as I drive up the 880 freeway. I remember the music video from back in the days when MTV was still Music Television. People sit in cars as their interior monologues roll inside their heads. Until they walk away from their cars, the story exists only in their own mind, an alien kernel burning inside them. Unspoken words have enormous power.

It’s true that everyone hurts and that the same event hurts everyone differently. It’s also true that while sadness and grief are universal to the human condition, each instance of grief is unique. It becomes part of each person’s personal story, part of who you are. That’s why grief must be felt and experienced. One way to do this is to tell the story.

Before I decided to leave my well-constructed corporate life to write about it, my grief lived inside me for more than two decades. My father died when I was eight. I hid my grief, moving forward with this unnamed otherness never more than a few steps behind me. Some days, I succeeded. Others, the tiny kernel of condensed fog expanded inside me. The fog’s outward pressure on my mind and my body frightened me. If I acknowledged it and felt it, it would swallow me whole. I fought for twenty-five years to keep it inside me, to control it, and to keep the world from seeing it. The greatest fear in my life was fear of losing control of the fog. All that time, I grew more and more terrified of it. I let it have power that it didn’t deserve. This fog, this kernel of pain sitting under my ribs, is part of who I am. Everything I’ve ever done or become flows through and rises out of that fog. How does anyone live life afraid of who and what they are?

It’s not easy. Most of your time is spent waiting. You eventually realize that you’re waiting for yourself to stop being afraid. Bravery is facing the kernel of deepest hurt inside you, letting it expand and inhabit your world. I am taking a year off to write a book about the weeks leading up to my father’s death and about my journey to interview his friends, colleagues and family members to meet his as an adult. Now the fog and I live together. It still haunts me but it does not scare me into inaction.

So what does it mean to tell the story? It means deciding to no longer be afraid of trauma and grief. It means taking back your power. It means living even though someone you will love for as long as you live has died and the worst thing that ever could have happened has happened. This is a terrifying realization.

Grief doesn’t come with good reasons, explanations or instructions. It’s lonely. But you cannot move on until you tell your story. Until you do, the event, the loss and the grief are separate from you. They exist as a parasite, eating at you, stealing your present and your future. When you decide to give your own words to your own grief, you make it a part of you. No longer a thief of time.

No one knows you better than yourself. No one can love you as you can love yourself. No one can help you as you can help yourself. You are the only one who can literally put one foot in front of the other and walk into your future. Your grief isn’t alien anymore; it is part of your life story. You can begin to live again. Like Anias Nin, I promise that a day will come when the risk to remain tight in the bud will become more painful than the risk it takes to bloom.

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© 2015 by Katherine Thome

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