Reconnecting With Shared Memories

People respond to separation in different ways. Some hold tightly to every memory, every momento. Others try to remove all things that remind them of the lost loved one. Coping strategies depend on individual personalities, the type of relationship, whether the loss was a surprise, whether the person mourning instigated the separation and and host of other variables. If you have been left by the person you assumed was your life partner, for example, you might want to forget everything possible that was shared. Some people take this approach, too, when someone dear has died and the survivor cannot cope with the loss.

Memories Reinforcing Pain

When I was first single, I tried to put aside every shared memory, but I discovered that these efforts created a massive hole in the middle of my life. I had been a dozen years with my partner, we had travelled to multiple countries, we had a son together, we had created several homes – so many parts of my life were intertwined with hers, that when I attempted to extract all memories of her, my life was incomplete. I mourned not only the loss of my relationship, but also a large part of my life. My memory is quite good and I can look around my house and remember when and where almost everything at home was collected from around the world. This sort of memory is not helpful when you are trying to forget. I found myself wandering around my home trying not to focus on the things around me.

Realising My Memories are Mine

Then I got angry. These are my memories! I did these things! Whether or not she was a part of it, I had lived this life in these places! I then realised that I did not need to forget about the past. I could hold onto what was mine. I could cherish the memories and moments. This is an important insight for moving on with your life. Your acts of kindness, your bravery, your adventurous abilities to jump into the future – all of those things that defined your past are still yours! For years, I dreaded various anniversaries, but now I am able to remember fondly the joyous parts of those events.

Taking Control of Your Future

Finding peace is not always easy, but it is within your grasp. No one else can give you peace. Others can hold your hand or listen to your difficulties along your journey, but the person who ultimately decides if you will have peace is you. Part of peace is gratitude and being able to compassionately, lovingly and gratefully remember the good times in your life is a step towards peace.

A Shared Memory for Me

An example from me? There are many, but one is this photo that I took on my anniversary a few days ago. It was the first thing my ex and I bought – two coffee cups – while travelling together across the USA to start our life together in 1996. We stopped in Taos, New Mexico, and saw these cups. It felt so strange to be buying something together. A symbol of our future. I don’t know if she still has her cup. I kept mine in the cupboard for years, but eventually dusted it off and when I see it, I can joyously reconnect with shared memories.

Taos coffee cup and shared memories
Taos coffee cup and shared memories

Counselling Assistance

There are a number of ways to help yourself reconnect with avoided parts of your life. A first step is to process your pain and begin to imagine a beautiful life of your own, without your loved one (or in which memories of your loved one are integrated into your life). If you need help, contact us.

Narrative Therapy for the Abandoned

I have been thinking of writing about grief for a while. I am interested in grief that is not socially sanctioned or is disregarded by others. There are many examples of this, such as the loss of a same-sex partner in a heterosexual community which doesn’t recognise same-sex relationships. Other ways to disregard the loss of others is to put an arbitrary “deadline” for grieving. While we tend to be tolerant of those whose life partners have died, it is not uncommon to be less tolerant when the relationship has ended by the desire of one of the people involved. While death is terrifying, relationship breakups are considered “normal”. Those grieving the loss of a partner who has left them are often not afforded the same compassion and understanding that we might give those whose partner has died. From the perspective of the grieving person, the loss can be just as significant.

What I am considering is working through a Narrative Practice approach to helping those who are grieving the loss of a partner through abandonment. Especially helpful could be the use of ceremony in the grieving process – perhaps comparable to a funeral – as a way of saying “goodbye”.

Still considering the possibilities, but there could be a chance to help those suffering the loss of a partner in a way that allows them to externalise, consider unique outcomes, develop new stories and say goodbye in a way that promotes future growth.

Lee Jordan, MBA, MEd, MCouns
Lee Jordan, MBA, MEd, MCouns

Grief Counselling and Narrative Therapy

In conceptualising and dealing with grief in the Western world, we have bought into concepts that are neither helpful, nor terribly well backed by experience. The book, The Other Side of Sadness, notes that our views of grief are distorted by input like Freud’s discussion of “grief work” (not researched, but something Sigmund considered reasonable in relation to a topic he only briefly considered) and the Kübler-Ross model, also known as the five stages of grief (posited by someone who had worked with terminally ill patients, NOT those who were left behind to grieve). These concepts have become cornerstones of working with those grieving.

What is wrong with having poorly considered concepts as the basis of working with people at their most vulnerable? Many people defer to those they consider “professionals” and when in distress, the views of the therapist can have considerable impact on the client’s ability to survive and thrive (I won’t digress into a discussion of the therapeutic power relationship here). In The Other Side of Sadness, Bonanno argues for renewed consideration of the resiliency of those in grief and in their abilities to come out the other side – often showing little compliance with the stages of grief. I have been reading this book and then I began to read about grief work in Narrative Therapy, as I prepare for my course at the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide this month.

In Chapter 8, “Saying Hello Again When We Have Lost Someone We Love” from the book Retelling the stories of our lives: Everyday narrative therapy to draw inspiration and transform experience (accessed 02 November 2019 at https://dulwichcentre.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Saying-hullo-chapter-from-the-book-Retelling-the-Stories-of-our-Lives-by-David-Denborough-2.pdf), David Denborough discusses an approach to grief that does not center on “moving on” or working through stages of grief:

Narrative Therapy and Grief Counselling Quote
Narrative Therapy and Grief Counselling

Rather than the Western norm of adjusting to life without the loved one, there are other options for dealing with the pain of separation and loss. In some cultures, our ancestors remain with us in some way. Many Western therapists would argue that moving on is “healthy” and that a person can get “stuck” in grief if the loved one is not assigned a place in the past. The Narrative approach to grief therapy promoted by Denborough (quoting Narrative Therapy founder Michael White) looks for ways to remember the relationship in a positive way, allowing yourself to imagine the love the other person had for you. Pushing your loved one and memories of them into the “past” can mean for some a dismissal of who they were.

There is not only one way to grieve and dominant Western approaches fuelled by armchair discussions of Freud and tidy stages do not fit either the progress or needs of many who have struggled with the loss of a loved one. If you are struggling with the loss of someone close to you, sometimes it helps to remember the joys you shared, their feelings for you and other positive experiences. Not only can these make your loss more bearable, but on a physiological level, these positive emotions can stimulate areas of your brain that are part of your compassionate mind (see The Compassionate Mind, by Paul Gilbert, for discussions of stimulating the compassion centres of the brain).

Here’s to finding more compassionate and loving ways to progress through grief!

Lee Jordan, MBA, MEd, MCouns
Lee Jordan, MBA, MEd, MCouns