The Healing Power of Stories

I attend a bereavement group every week, which surprises me, considering that I’ve always been a do-it-yourself sort. I only started going to the meetings because I wanted to know how to survive the terrible agony of grief I experienced after the loss of my mate. I didn’t learn how — it’s something no one can teach another — but I learned that one could survive those first unbelievably painful weeks when I met people who had survived them. I keep going to the group because of those same people. We have something in common, a shared understanding, a survivor’s respect. And now, after five months, I am one of those who, just by being there, show the newly shell-shocked bereaved that one can learn to live with the devastation of a major loss.

Each meeting begins with a lesson, and today’s lesson was about the importance of stories and how they help us heal. The people who attended the meeting today all happened to be women who had lost their mates after decades of being together, and the counselor asked each of us to tell the story not of our mates’ deaths, but of how we met. We all knew the end of each of our love stories — over the months we have told the story of our grief many times. But this is the first time we talked about the beginning of our love stories, and in those stories we found hope, comfort, smiles, a reconnection to our past.

According to the handout we were given, the benefits of telling stories are:

  • Searching for wholeness among our fractured parts
  • Coming to know who we are in new and unexpected ways
  • We can explore our past and come to a more profound understanding of our future direction
  • We can seek forgiveness and be humbled by our own mortality
  • We can discover the route to healing lies not only in the physical realm, but also in the emotional and spiritual realms.

An unexpected result of today’s lesson was a new understanding of the importance of writing. For me, anyway.

These past months, I’ve spent a lot of time reading. I have always tried to lose myself — and find myself — in fictional worlds during periods of trauma, but this time it’s not working the way I hoped. I’m not finding healing in current books. The authors seem to be going for the shock effect of not-so-good versus unbelievably-outrageous-evil, for story people who have identifiable characteristics but no character, for fast-paced stories with little substance or truth. How does one find wholeness in such stories? How do we come to know each other or come to a more profound understanding of our future in trite mysteries and unrealistic thrillers?

Perhaps it’s not important. Maybe entertainment is all that counts when it comes to fiction, but I want something more. And I especially want something more when it comes to my own writing. I don’t know where grief is taking me — it is changing me in ways I cannot yet fathom — but I hope I will end up writing stories of truth, of understanding, of healing. I hope I will make people smile. I hope my words will matter.

Do You Want People Studying Your Book in School?

After watching the movie, “The Jane Austen Book Club,” which followed several couples whose stories mirrored those in Austen’s books, I decided to reread Sense and Sensibility. While plowing through the incredibly long and obtuse introduction to the book, I couldn’t help wondering what Jane would think of it. Did she really mean to say all the things the author of the introduction said she meant to say? How would she feel if she found out that kids were studying her book in school and adults were studying it in book clubs? Did she mean her books to be studied? Or did she mean for them to be read?

I can’t think of anything more terrible than having my books taught in school. Well, of course I can think of a lot of worse things. On the list of world horrors, it comes pretty far down on the list. And, on a personal level, not being read at all would be worse. But still  . . . I think it would be dreadful for kids to sit in a stuffy classroom, bored out of their skulls, trying to figure out what I meant.

On the bizarre off-chance of that every happening, I’ll tell you right now what I meant. I meant for people to enjoy the stories. I meant for people to be taken away from their mundane lives for a couple of hours. I meant for people to read themselves to sleep and to wake up thinking about my world. And after all that, if I got anyone to wonder about the truth of anything my characters say, so much the better.

Did I have a theme? Did I use words in a certain way to create moods? Did I use symbols, such as lemon drops, as shortcuts to explain emotions? Of course I did. But including those was more for me, to keep me focused on the story. Because that is what I write. Stories. Not books to be studied, but stories to be read.