At fifty-seven, I am at an age where most of my friends and contemporaries have lost one parent, if not both. We have all lost all our grandparents. Sadly, we have started to lose each other.
Death is a part of life, and grief is a part of death. I had never experienced profound, life-altering grief until the death of my father in early 1999. He died from cancer when he was 64 years old, at an age young enough to be considered very sad, but not so young that I would call it tragic.
One way we process grief is by sharing stories of those we are grieving. We do this at funerals, celebrations of life, and other gatherings immediately following someone’s death, but also in the years that follow those events. In telling these stories of those we’ve lost, we pay homage to them, honouring the role they played in our own lives, the lives of others, even the larger world. But those stories also serve as therapy for the storytellers. They fill our hearts with the memory of the person we’ve lost, but also replenish our lives with the meaning we glean from the simple pleasure, the privilege of having known them.
In December 2023, I was reminded of just how powerful storytelling in the wake of death can be. I was visiting my aunt in Atlanta before conducting a business storytelling training workshop there. Several months before that visit, my aunt said good-bye to her older sister while my siblings and I, by her side, said good-bye to our mom.
On the second night of my visit, my aunt and I found ourselves sitting in her kitchen drinking beer and wine, while she told me story after story of my mom. Some were stories I had never heard before (e.g., about my mom bringing my dad home to meet her family for the first time). Others were stories I had (e.g., about my mother, at eight, deciding she’d had enough of my grandmother and was running away, taking her younger sister and brother with her): stories told many times by my mom, a familiar element of her oral history, but now refreshed by the moment and enriched by their new source.
I, in turn, also shared stories about my mom and growing up with her: some my aunt had heard, others she hadn’t. In sharing these stories, I realized how much of an opportunity it gave me and my aunt to live with my mom, with her sister, once again. I also recognized how therapeutic telling stories about my mom was for us both: a sentiment articulated perfectly when we hugged goodnight and my aunt said, “This was just the tonic I needed.”
The Paradoxical Nature of Grief
Very often when we’re hurting, we want to remove ourselves from the cause of our pain. This feels like the right thing to do in many situations and is the reason we walk away from abusive relationships, toxic friendships, or soul-sucking jobs. But I discovered that the grief I experienced over my father’s death was a different sort of hurt: one that can enrich as well as deplete, that makes us aware of what is precious while it reminds us of what we’ve lost. More than anything, grief reveals how much of an impact a person (or a pet) had on our lives while it recognizes and respects the hole their death has left behind.
It’s hard to think of another life experience that is this paradoxical. The reason we feel pain in someone’s death is because we have felt so much affection for them during their life. Said more simply, we hurt because we love; we miss because we cherish.
The actor Andrew Garfield had the most beautiful way of looking at the paradoxical nature of his grief when he was talking about the recent death of his mother on the Stephen Colbert Show. “It’s only a beautiful thing, because [my grief] is all the unexpressed love…because we never get enough time with each other…so, I hope this grief stays with me because it’s all the unexpressed love I didn’t get to tell her.” Stephen Colbert had the opportunity to share his own views on his grief on Anderson Cooper’s phenomenal podcast, “All There Is.” Talking about losing two of his brothers and his father in a commercial airliner crash and, more recently, his beloved mother, he acknowledged the need to embrace grief instead of running from it. “It’s a gift to exist. And with existence comes suffering. But if you are grateful for life, you have to be grateful for all of it.”
In thinking about my own experience with grief — and taking into account the many stories I have heard from others about their experiences — I have realized one key thing. In living the stories of those no longer living, we keep our loved ones alive. We also feel more alive in the process because we are able to relive, if only for a moment, how the lives of those loved ones have enriched our own. We are recharged in a way, like a jolt of nostalgia electrifying us with meaning. In the spirit of this idea, I want to encourage you to do two things:
Invite Those Still Living to Tell Their Stories
In the latter years of her life, my mother started writing down her personal reflections and memories in small spiral notebooks, like the ones TV-show detectives whip out of their pockets for note-taking. We found dozens of these notebooks while cleaning out her apartment after her death.
Each notation, on its own, revealed something important to or about my mom, giving us a glimpse into her psyche and the thoughts that filled it: individual musings keeping company with the growing certainty that she was approaching the end of her life. All of these notes, taken together, painted a richer picture of my mother: who she was, what she believed and valued, and, I think, how she wanted to be remembered.
These notes ranged in tone and topic, from the philosophical to the pragmatic, from marriage and parenting to what makes for a good chicken salad and Donald Trump. Regardless of what she wrote, what became clear to me in reading these notes is why she wrote them: to be able to put her story onto paper and put it out there into the universe, to the benefit of herself in that moment, and possibly the benefit of children and grandchildren in the future. As she wrote in one of the last notebooks we found:
“I do these notes for my benefit because of a need to express, and writing them down calms me. It makes my thoughts real even if it is only for me. Maybe someday you will go through all these notes I write. There is a part of me that hopes that you do…and there is a part that doesn’t.” (She then went on to proclaim, in her classically blunt style, “Your father was a good man, and your mother was excellent. So, you four have absolutely no excuse for whatever f*cked up experience you feel you suffered as a result of your childhood. My last word — I doubt it.”)
In the past two decades, I had a multitude of opportunities to be one-on-one with my mom, to get her talking and hear her stories. But in the aftermath of her death, I wish I had had more times to do this and/or made better use of the times I had. And I deeply regret not creating or finding opportunities to do this with my father while he was still alive, especially since I was just starting to get to know him, adult-to-adult.
So, as cliché as this will sound, I encourage you to make time with your loved ones and make more of the time you have by getting them to share their stories. You can do this casually, or make it more official by recording them, or helping them use great storytelling tools like Storyworth. In doing so, you’ll quickly understand how valuable and comforting this storytelling can be for them and how precious and enlightening it will be for you once they’re gone.
Keep Telling Stories about Those You’ve Lost
When my father left this world, only four of his eventual eight grandchildren had entered it. Those four were still too young to really remember him, much less benefit from his insight, wisdom, and stories. So, my older brother decided to make a storybook of my father so that his grandchildren could, in some way, get to know him and understand the profound impact he had on others. He asked friends, family, and former students to send him stories of my father, which he then assembled, along with photos, into a wonderful book that he gave to the grandkids, to my mother, and to me and my siblings.
I read through this book every January (the month of my dad’s birth and his death) and am always glad that I did. I am glad, in part, because it reminds me of what a special person my father was. But reading through this book also, quite frankly, reminds me that I had a father. My father’s death 25 years ago still makes me sad. But what often makes me sadder is how much I have become accustomed to life without him. In the years following his death, I used to think about him every day; I don’t anymore. Still, when the memory of him resurfaces, often through stories I tell or hear about him, he comes alive, making me miss him all over again, but also making me appreciate how important he was to me and so many others.
I was told when father died that we never really get over grief, we learn to live around it. There is survival in that, but there is also sadness, as you let go of someone over time and become familiar and, dare I say, comfortable with life without them. He has gone from being a living person in my life to being more a fading memory from it… more conceptual than tangible. I sometimes feel guilty about that, but I don’t beat myself up over it and try, instead to bring him back into my consciousness in some way. Because as comfortable as I now am with my father’s death, I don’t want to become negligent in remembering his life.
I want to encourage you to keep telling stories of those you have lost. Do this at their memorial services, funerals, or celebrations of their lives, sharing stories and anecdotes in the tributes being given, told in tandem with that person’s history or list of accomplishments. If you can, think about doing the same in social media posts or dinner party conversations acknowledging the anniversary of someone’s death. You will bring to life for others that person who was such an important part of your own, and you will keep their memory alive.
My father would’ve turned 90 years old today. He’s not a physical presence in my life anymore, but he was, is, and always will be a driving force behind it. And though I don’t think about him every day, he still crosses my mind a lot, especially when I think about all the great stories he’s missing. Still, I feel him around me when I watch his grandkids joke and laugh with each other, or read a great op-ed in the NY Times, or ski down a field of fresh powder, and a single thought skates gently across my mind, “God, he would have loved this.”
Bill Baker is the founder and principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling. For over 15 years, BB&Co has been providing Business Storytelling and Effective Presentation Skills training to organizations such as Coca-Cola, Cisco, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, GE, Dell, Novartis, ICF International, and others.