Choosing a Story of Love
How memory can help us grieve.
Posted Mar 02, 2019
Yesterday a therapy client tells me that she has noticed that the details of a traumatic loss are out of reach. Her voice is laden with guilt. “I tried to remember what the doctor said, but I can’t. I remember dinner the night before really clearly, but I can’t bring up his words.” She suffered a horrendous loss several years ago, and has been aware of the unpredictable recurrence of intense grief. Now she is focused on memory, that colleague of grief.
“I wonder if it might be beneficial, protective, to not remember exactly what he said,” I suggest. She looks startled for a moment, and I realize that perhaps everything associated with the baby who died has been kept close, indiscriminately invaluable. It has hurt too much to sort consciously through the details, because to do so would be to allow the loss to be real. Even the pain, perhaps especially the pain, has kept the baby close.
After a moment she says, “The night before, we ran into one of my husband’s old co-workers. We went to dinner at a noodle shop. I remember the restaurant, I remember the noodles.” She takes a breath. “I remember the doctor talking to us the next day, but I don’t remember any of the details. And the rest of the day is a blur.”
I nod. “Do you need to remember?” I ask quietly.
She turns her head and looks at me directly, body language defensive. “I need a story, it’s part of my history.”
“Yes. But maybe the details are gone because they are too painful.”
She considers this. “I thought about writing about it a couple of years ago, when the details were still clear.”
I wait to see if there’s more, and then prompt: “But you didn’t. Do you know why you didn’t?”
A little shake of her head, and then, “It felt too hard.”
“Maybe it was too hard. Maybe it still is.”
“But I’m losing it, losing the details of the story.” Her voice is full of anxiety, the threatening loss of the story signifying abandonment of the baby. If she holds on to the pain, holds on to the confusion, shock, and anguish in the doctor’s words, the baby won’t be gone.
“Maybe those details, the doctor’s explanation of what happened to him, aren’t his story. Maybe there’s a different story, and you get to make that story, your story of him.”
She sits still and silent for a moment. Her extraordinary beauty, I realize, has changed before my eyes: she is suddenly ageless, motherhood and parenting her life's work.
After a long moment of decision-making, she meets my eyes again. “There are always different stories about things, aren’t there?” she says.
“Yes,” I say.
She relaxes suddenly, and I imagine the doctor’s words floating away, and the beloved baby boy held close to his mother’s heart, soothed by the story of her enduring love for him.