Healing Grief Through Story

Kips cats - Healing GriefMy sister Kip and her husband Richard had two adorable brown sable Burmese kitties — Mina and Clovis.  They were litter mates, housemate, and playmates.

Last November, during that terrible Sandy storm that left parts of Lower Manhattan without power, Mina stopped eating. At first they assumed it was the stress of the storm. But a week later, when she was still not eating, a vet was consulted.

She had a mess of tumor in her innards. Not very optimistic interventions were described. They tried a “maybe it will work if it’s lymphoma” drug without success. Then a kindly Brit lady vet came to their home and assisted Mina out of life. She was buried beneath fall leaves, flowers and earth.

Clovis, her brother, was in shock. Where was Mina? He wandered the house yowling. “Mina! Mina!” He was inconsolable. He repeatedly sought the comfort  of his humans. But they could not stop his pain.

Yes, animals grieve! All social animals grieve because of the bonds they form in order to survive. When the bond is broken, there is a physical pain — a profound longing for what was and is now lost. It has an impact on the nervous system. Neural networks in the brain related to the bond are severed. It takes time to replace them with new networks. In the interim, there is grief.

Clovis was not alone. Kip and Richard also grieved the loss of Mina. Whether this is an unintended consequence of our social bonding imperative, or there are actual survival benefits, we often form very deep emotional connections to our animal companions.

Eventually my sister got a new feline companion for Clovis and in time his crying abated. A new social bond was created and new neural networks replaced the old.

Mina angel - Healing GriefFor Kip, however, the replacement did not work so well. The new kitten is nothing like Mina. Humans often have a more difficult time with grief than animals because they inhabit a symbolic as well as material world. Thoughts and memories repeat the experience of  loss over and over, keeping it fresh. There may be resistance to developing new relationships or having new experiences that would help build the new neural networks, because, in the world of thought, the one who has died is still very alive.

While symbolic thinking can extend our grieving, at the same time it provides a great tool for healing. STORYTELLING! It helps the griever to make sense of the loss and to gradually create a new reality. When the story is shared with another, social communion is added. The griever is comforted, validated and confirmed. This is one of the reasons for storytelling at memorial services. We provide each other with social support and in community weave together a new reality for the loss.

Healing through storytelling is an ongoing process particularly for the deeply bereaved. Unfortunately, this process is often cut short by a culture that denies and avoids death. Friends disappear because they were never taught how to handle loss. Others may be supportive for a time but eventually fall away under the fatigue of carrying an emotional load that should really be borne by a community. In consequence, the griever is often encouraged to bury feelings and get on with life.

The months of Autumn provide us with an opening for un-burying our grief and giving it some healing attention. We can follow the tradition of our Mexican neighbors and celebrate our own Day of the Dead. Bring out the photos, create an altar, tell stories. It’s magical as well as healing.



WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Grief Transformation Coach Michelle Peticolas, Ph.D. helps people transform their grief with a holistic approach to mind, body and spirit that heals trauma, reframes past attachments and releases limiting beliefs while uncovering a true life purpose and direction. If you’re ready to shift into a whole new way of being with death and loss, a new way of living your life, get Michelle’s complimentary guide, Essentials for Grieving Well at www.secretsoflifeanddeath.com


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