What Really Feeds Our Grief?
Learning to Tell Ourselves a New Story
My two grandmothers died at ninety-nine and ninety-five. No one could argue that their lives had been cut short.
Growing up, the back door of our house faced my paternal grandmother’s garden. I spent hours at her house as a child. She taught me to read music, gave me my first piano lessons, helped me embroider, plait, read and ride a bike. If I close my eyes, I can still see my grandmother on her knees in the garden, showing me how to use my finger to make a hole in the soil for a seed.
My other grandmother lived on the top floor of a downtown hotel. She woke me up to cinnamon toast and shirred eggs delivered from the hotel kitchen via the service elevator. I spent hours in the hotel linen room where the head housekeeper outlined my hand so I could decorate it with rings and bracelets. I especially loved sitting at the switchboard, pulling the cables up and sticking the metal end into the small holes to connect a call.
I went away to school at sixteen and never lived at home again. On holidays I visited my grandmothers, and although they were not part of my daily life, when they died only three days apart, I unexpectedly found myself in deep grief. Flying home was not an option. I was living in South America and Pan Am was on strike.
Unable to sort through the depth of my grief, I went back to my trusted therapist. Through our work I came to understand that my grief was not about my grandmothers, it was about me, and the death of my role as a granddaughter. My grandmothers had held the story that my future contained endless possibilities. By age thirty-nine those possibilities seemed limited. I could no longer be a concert pianist, a prima ballerina, a film star or the mistress of a grand garden. The story I held was that my possibilities had suddenly disappeared, and that story was making my grief deeper.
From the death of my grandmothers, I learned that the stories we tell ourselves can make a difference to our pain. My possibilities had not died with my grandmothers, they had morphed and transformed. The opportunities open to me now were different, but not limited.
A few years later, my house burned down. Again, I noticed a story I was telling myself that exacerbated the grief — I will never again have a house I love. Once I found a different story, it left space for unimagined events to unfold, and the grief began to let go.
Then, just this March, I lost the love of my life. Losing someone with whom I felt deep contentment, someone whom I had known and loved and someone who had known and loved me for decades has been hard. I have wept, wailed and wallowed in grief. Sometimes the grief overcame me when I least expected it. The only story I could tell myself was I will never be able to fill the void in my life and in my heart.
It’s been six months now. Do I miss him? Yes. The sadness has been a constant reminder of the incredible love we had. But I also have choices about the story I want to tell myself going forward. And I’m still composing that story, a story I never thought I would be writing this soon.
A friend who lost his wife this year wisely said, “I wasn’t sure I could create new memories that would be meaningful in my life. It seemed like something I could not grasp and now I believe I can.”
If you are moving through grief, you may be telling yourself a story about that grief that isn’t actually accurate. That story has the power to make the grief feel more acute, more overwhelming. Sometimes those stories are hiding in deep emotion. You find the hidden stories that are augmenting your grief by writing them out. Talking to someone who you can be vulnerable with can help to tell the truth about these stories is very intimate and can be embarrassing.
The big question is: What are you telling yourself about what happened? Can you change that story?
I did, and I believe you can too.
Your grief is not the end of any story. Your story is just beginning.
Elizabeth B. Crook is the bestselling author of Live Large: The Achiever’s Guide to What’s Next and has helped hundreds invent and reinvent themselves after their early career success. She helps people thrive — integrating their work and their lives, especially for the 40+ crowd. She is also the CEO of Orchard Advisors, where entrepreneurs, business and community leaders, and philanthropists turn when they want to Live Large and grow both their enterprises and their impact. She is a mother, grandmother, and ardent hiker. Download a free chapter from Live Large here.