The Power of Story

sunflowersAfter my dear friend Marianne died, my husband George and I spent a couple of months clearing out her apartment and storage lockers. It’s an interesting process sorting through the accumulation of a lifetime, a little like an archeological excavation.

Marianne had been a private person and we discovered details of her life we had never known – some surprising, some even disturbing. Respecting her privacy, I destroyed many letters, photos and videotapes that I knew she would have wanted to keep hidden. I sifted through boxes of her photos, throwing out bags of images as I gradually created a photo album of her life. The album, of course, was my own version of her story, a public one with a hint of something deeper. The act of throwing out so many of her photos was powerful and also painful. It felt like I was letting pieces of her story slip away.

Marianne had been a great shopper. Her body and her space were her canvases and she was a consummate artist of color and taste. Being a Sufi student of Adnan Sarhan, she had veils, hip scarf, belly dance costumes, jewelry and boxes of Middle Eastern CDs and tapes — in quantities that that astounded a frugal buyer like myself. We had two give-aways, one shortly after she passed — an impromptus memorial service for those who accompanied her in her final days, and one a few months later to distribute her clothes to closest friends. Marianne fluctuate greatly in her weight over the years so there something for everyone, large and small. It was a time of wearing Marianne. We all wore Marianne and kept her close to our skin.

In the summer, George and I packed the remainder of her things in his van along with the photo album I had created of her life and drove to Sufi camp. Sufi camp was her second family, the family of her spirit. This family also needed to mourn. I put out the word that I was distributing some of her things and for her friends to stop by. In the process, I learned more of who she was. People I barely knew came to claim a piece of her legacy and share the special tale of their acquaintance.

As a final closing, we all gathered together in a sunflower field to cast away her ashes. It seemed fitting, a beautiful place where she would love to go. I shared the story of her death — the final moment of her passing when she suddenly sat up and stared in wide eyed wonder at empty space, and her contented smile after we replaced the ugly hospital gown for an attractive dress, combed her hair and put lipstick on her lips. Other stories were shared by her friends–some bawdy, some witty, others loving and kind — all quintessentially Marianne. Together we wove a greater picture of her life.

In that time of sharing, I realized that Marianne was not just my loss, a notion I had fallen into during the intimacy of her final days. No, she belonged to all of us. In accepting this, I let go a little more. We laughed, we cried and we said good-bye.

Tomas Pinkson, a psychologist and expert on sacred ritual and empowered aging, encourages the celebrating of a person’s life before they die. Wouldn’t it have been lovely for Marianne to have heard the stories of the people she impacted, to know how important she had been to them? And yet, maybe not. I believe she would have resisted such exercise, as it would have too graphically heralded the coming of her death, an event she did not welcome at the age of fifty-three.

When I think of the many life passage that are celebrated in later life – the retirement party, the 50th wedding anniversary or the 80th birthday, I can see the dangers of prematurely wrapping up a person’s life. In summing up their achievements, we may inadvertently convince them that they are done and rob them of their purpose for continued being. Like the cells of the body that have no further use, such people may whither and die.

It was this sort of reasoning that motivated Marianne to refuse the offer of her brother to spend her final weeks of life in his home in New York. She could give up her work and be free of responsibility of earning a living. She said to me, “What would I do there, just hang around in bed and wait to die?” Instead, she chose to keep working at her craft as an esthetician until her cancer swept her from her feet and sent her to the hospital for the last time. Sometimes I think that’s sad — that a person as sick as she, was forced to go on working. At other times, it seems perfect.

I do not mean to suggest, by the way, that life celebrations are bad, but only that we must be mindful of the power of story and make sure that it is only a portion of a person’s life that we are celebrating and not the whole book.

Bob is another friend who, like Marianne, held on to living with both hands. He had a heart condition that could take him out at any time, yet he kept on making dates and planning for the future. First he just wanted to live until his first grandchild was born. Then it was organizing one more event for the math department at UC Berkeley. He kept on adding chapters to his book. Perhaps it was because he had no belief in an afterlife. He wasn’t sad or bitter of even afraid of his impending death; he just wanted to make the best of what was left. He had a weekly social schedule that would have challenged a thirty year old and I was surprised each time I visited him and he was still alive. He told me that as a child, he survived a near brush with death from some deadly infection and his grandmother dubbed him a weed. With this moniker she acknowledged his ability to cling to life under the harshest of circumstances. “I’m a weed,” he said. I believe that story kept him alive for a long time.

The griever’s own story is also part of healing process. This is especially true, when the person or being who has died was deeply intertwined in the fabric of that person’s daily life — such as a partner, child, parent or even a pet. The overarching story suffers a serious shock. It’s a bit like driving down a road and suddenly coming upon a place where the road breaks off and the land falls away into a huge and bottomless chasm. It is so easy to latch on to a victim story of desolation and ruin or to get caught in replaying the past because there seems no possible future on the horizon. In the journey of grief and healing, a new story must eventually develop that makes sense of this devastation so that the person can reengage in life. Ideally the chasm becomes the hero’s challenge. The loss is recast as a life test or lesson that leads to deeper self-discovery, power and fulfillment.

For me, the breakup of my first marriage became the impetus for my personal and spiritual transformation. The loss of my parents compelled me to produce three films about death and drew me into my work with grief. Many books, artwork, films and music have been created in response to loss. We do it with the intention of helping others; in the process we heal ourselves.

Not everyone is able to make the story shift, to invent the next chapter in their book of life. Many widows and widowers quickly follow their loved ones to the other side. My mother died only six month after my father died. In my film Caring for Dying, Christine’s mom followed her spouse a mere ten days later. This is not uncommon. However, it is not always a pining away or a broken heart that causes them to go. In the case of my mother, it was more likely that she stayed alive as long as she did in order to be there for my father as he died. Sometimes couples are so energetically intertwined that they age, get ill and die in tandem.

In the case of my friend Bob, he managed to do both — to extract an important life lesson and to follow his wife, not too long after, to the other side. Because of his heart condition, Bob always assumed that he would be the first to go. His wife threw a wrench in this plan when she suddenly and swiftly became ill and died from cancer. She was an amazingly accomplished woman with many friends and associates. At the memorial service and in the weeks that followed, Bob was drenched in the outpouring of love and admiration people expressed for his wife. He wondered in the midst of this deluge, whether, with her passing, he would be abandoned. Whether, in fact, all their friends were really her friends who only tolerated him. Over the next year and a half after her death, out from under the shadow of her brilliance, he came to discover through his many social activities that he was lovable all by himself.

We live and die by our stories. They make sense of our world, our relationships and the flow of our lives. They give us purpose, hope, and perspective and provide closure for our endings. It is good to stay in touch with your story, to reflect from time to time on where you’ve been and where you’re headed. You are more likely to end up where you want to go.


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

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