The power of storytelling in the grieving process

Written by J.M. Bergman

I met a couple recently who had lost their daughter in a car accident. I blinked back tears as I heard their story. The woman held my gaze with a sincere but heartbreaking smile.

“It’s okay,” she said. “It was God’s will.” 

The day marked two years since their daughter’s death. She went on to tell me how they were spending the day honouring her memory by doing the things she had loved. The mother talked about her daughter’s loves and adventures in such a way that I could almost imagine her presence there with us.

Grief moves on with us even after we adapt to loss. How we carry it will shape the rest of our lives. In grief expert David Kessler’s book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, he writes, “Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint. But what we have in common is that everyone longs for their grief to be witnessed – this need for someone to be fully present to the magnitude of their loss without pointing to a silver lining or trying to reframe their perspective.”

Yearning to regain what has been lost can perhaps never be satisfied in this life, so sometimes it’s easy to wonder: What’s the point of talking about it? 

While I’m not trained in grief therapy, I think that talking about loss allows us to honour our pain’s plea to be heard and witnessed. What this couple taught me is that they were not looking for me to comfort them. They didn’t give any sense that they wanted me to try and explain away their pain. They simply wanted to share their story. 

What if as a Christian culture, we were intentional about being present with one another in grief and honouring the painful stories we carry? This kind of response communicates: I see you and I believe your pain; I’m listening if you want to share about what you’ve lost. It’s a regenerative response, as opposed to pity or dime-a-dozen sentiments like, “at least your loved one is in heaven.

Robert A. Neimeyer, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis, writes as part of his grief theory that, “a central process of grieving is the attempt to reaffirm or reconstruct a world of meaning which has been challenged by loss.” 

Sometimes this reconstruction comes through the power of exploring new life through story. How did life look before loss? What could possibly fill this new void? 

Acknowledging and addressing grief isn’t easy. I have at times pursued what appears to be the easier and less painful option—trying to forget the pain and just move forward. But just as our bodies can’t ignore broken bones or wounds, our minds can’t ignore emotional pain. 

In his book, The Body Keeps The Score, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk explains the incredible connection between our emotions and our physical health, both in suffering and in healing. Grief can reshape our brains’ and bodies’ capacity for pleasure, daily physical functions, and maintaining a healthy immune system. 

Although we can’t control how grief affects us, by sharing our grief and intentionally pursuing healthy forms of healing, we may be able to impact how long our season of grieving lasts.

Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, became sick and died, as John 11 relates. Even though Jesus intended to raise him back to life, when He saw the dead man’s sisters and friends weeping and consumed by grief, our Lord, the miracle worker, was moved by deep compassion and wept with them and for them. He loved them by validating their pain and sharing their sorrow.

Just as it’s important to express our grief, it’s also important to be a safe place for our loved ones. Whether that’s through being a wordless presence while the tears flow, long phone calls, or intentional hugs that linger as long as they need to, these are powerful ways of respecting grief and helping each other heal. We can continue to show up, reminding loved ones we are still here, even if they feel too broken to respond.

This helps us learn to carry sorrow forward without bitterness. What a beautiful appointment to be called to: to be part of grief’s healing journey! 

Philippians 2:1-16 says the world will notice Christians are different through our love, compassion, and unity. Let’s show this radical love by being present and intentional during life’s valleys.

J.M. Bergman is an internationally-read author and creative content writer who has also worked in editing. She has published two novels and has written for a number of Christian magazines on topics such as trauma, grief, recovery, and wellness. Her upcoming release, a poetry collection dialoguing her journey from chronic pain to identity, will be available soon. J.M. lives in Manitoba with her husband and their exceptionally cute black lab.

Read more from her “Body and soul” column.