How Remembering Conversations Strengthen Family Ties – Part II

This is part two of a three-part series on building Remembering Convsersastions with clients and therapists*. 

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The Theory Behind the Practice of Remembering

Remembering shifts how we think of identity and grief. The term, “re- membering”ii, was coined by the anthropologist, Barbara Myerhoff (1978, 1982), to describe her community work with elderly Jewish people in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s. Following the death of a community member, Myerhoff observed how, in the telling of the deceased person’s stories, others gained a renewed sense of agency (Myerhoff, 1978, 1982, 2007). According to Myerhoff, remembering is not passive or solitary, but the active conjuring of a person’s importance for personal, and sometimes political, meanings.

Rememberingiii conversations are a springboard into relationship with a deceased person that transcend time and space. We are not bound by the limits of biology or theology as we invoke the “voice” and stories of the dead (Hedtke & Winslade, 2005). We are free to speak the deceased into existence (Davies, 1991) to establish renewed connection with them after their death.

Remembering offers Megan new kind of continued relationship with Paula, albeit with different kinds of interaction, but a relationship nonetheless. It forms the basis for a future, where Paula’s values and teachings continue to matter to Megan and to provide solace against the pain of grief. Remembering Paula helps Megan reincorporate her mother’s stories into her own life. These stories pluck from the many possible versions to remember, what is most usable and sustaining.

Lorraine: As you reflect on the last couple of months, what stands out that she’s taught you?

Megan: That I need to not sweat the small stuff and not get upset with work situations, or drama with other family members. No matter how

bad things are, there are always things to be grateful for. Even towards the end of her life, she was grateful that we were around her, that she could enjoy a cup of tea. It’s just such a reminder that I don’t want to get caught up in parts of life that down the road you’re not going to remember.

L: You said something last time we spoke, about how she was teaching you about dying. You said you were doing better with being frightened about death, because she was teaching you.

M: My whole life, that’s been my biggest fear. The time and energy I spent worrying about what it would be like to lose a parent! Although I’d give anything to have her here, it wasn’t as bad as I thought. A big part of that is because of how she handled it.

L: Your biggest fear was of her death, is that right?

M: You know, if she had been questioning, “Why me?” or been upset and despondent it probably would have been worse. I feel like I can go through anything in life now, because I’ve been through that. It was hard seeing her decline and thinking, “I should have had twenty more years.” What makes me feel better is knowing the time I’ve had with her was a gift.

L: Since her passing, I know it’s only been a few weeks, have you had a sense of those blessings continuing? Where have you noticed her calmness and her patience continuing with you?

M: Yes, I ask myself what she would do in a situation.

L: How is this for you?

M: I will talk to her too and try to think of what she would say, give me advice, and use that to get through.

L: When you do that, when you’ve been asking her questions, what is the effect of that for you?

Remembering picks up on the threads of relationship and sews them into a befitting meaning. The focus shifts from what was lost to what continues to be viable. Stories can embellish memories in order to find an ongoing voice for the deceased person. Often this person’s “voice” can be invoked to act as guide through challenging terrain. For example, Megan explains how “listening” to her mother’s advice is helpful.

Paula does not obviously speak with Megan. Nor does Meagan actually listen to her mother, other than perhaps a recording. Remembering draws upon memories to conjure Paula’s presence in her preferences for how Megan should address hardships. These conversations are at first virtual but become actualized (Deleuze & Parnet, 2002) as a basis for action.

As the conversation continues, Megan develops more of a sense of her mother’s posthumous influence in her daily life. It is not unlike when Paula was alive and we are engaged in a family dialogue in which everyone’s voice continues to matter and has the possibility of influencing others. Had the conversation focused on Megan’s internal feeling state of loss, or encouraged her to move on from her mother’s life lessons, it would cut Megan off from critical relational resources and not reflect how families form meaning, before and after a death (Nadeau, 1998).

Reconnecting her to her mother’s stories and life lessons helps Megan to find her way as a newly bereaved woman and a soon-to-be young mother.

Megan: I’d like to be able to recall her voice more still, but when I even just pause to think about her, it changes my behavior. It would be easy for me to miss this pause between being newly pregnant and just having lost her. There are situations where I could get really upset about something, or get upset with my husband. If I just pause and think, “What would she do?” it helps. It can change the way I react to a situation.

Lorraine: How does it change the way that you react?

M: Stopping and asking what mom would do helps me say, “This is not something that’s going to be a big deal in five years.” I don’t need to overreact and be angry.

Folds, Landscapes of Meaning, & Landscapes of Action

It is not enough to ask about a deceased person’s voice. Remembering is, as Myerhoff (1982) wrote, more than the “fragmentary flickerings” (p. 111) of memories passively floating by. Remembering is the active development of a relationship that sustains and grows over time. Achieving this requires the crafting of a conversation that ebbs and flows between what Jerome Bruner (1986) spoke of as landscapes of action (the events that shape a narrative plot) and landscapes of meaning (the themes and values that give the plot depth). Weaving the two together develops a story pulsing with vitality. This bimodal conversation pattern is different from a dual-track model of bereavement (Stroebe & Schut, 2001) that

suggests a simultaneous letting go and reincorporation of the deceased person. Rather, a narrative model enlists plot developments alongside identity punctuation to create rich descriptions between the living and dead, where the dead continue to have an important role in the family.

As a counselor develops narrative remembering conversations, it is important to not only ask landscape of action questions as this produces a lopsided conversation; one without reflection about its significance resulting in shallow, meaningless narratives. Conversely, only asking reflective questions about meaning invites the potential for profound stuckness. Alternating between action and meaning, however, generates a rich narrative. Not only do the deceased have a say in the construction of the future actions of the living, but this say creates substantive meanings.

The layering, or folding of stories in on themselves, permeates remembering practices (Hedtke, 2014; White, 2007). Questions invite the telling of what happened in a linked series of events. Landscape of action questions invite Megan to situate her mother in her life but are only half of what is needed to generate a well-formed narrative. The other half involves reflecting on what such events mean and how this anchors Paula as continuing to be important in the family. This inquiry cements what would otherwise remain easily forgotten or could be intentionally overlooked in individually-based counseling practices. Through this reflexive generating of signification is formed a newly folded crease in their relationship, connecting simple actions with meanings.

The advantage of thinking in terms of dual landscapes is that each fold (Deleuze’s, 1993, term) is like a switchback in a path that wends its way up a mountain. There are repeated opportunities to incorporate discrete aspects of relationship into the narrative. Each turn opens to new vistas, but there is still an upward motion in the apparent backtracking. We might even say the living become the eyes and ears of the dead, and the dead live on through stories told on their behalf.

Lorraine: Do you have times or places where you think about her more often? [Landscape of action]

Megan: I’ve been finding I think about her constantly. L: In what ways? [Landscape of action]

M: All day, every day. It’s pretty tough at night – I’ve been not sleeping well. And I’ll wake from two in the morning until four-thirty and second-guess myself and think about the last few months that were tough for her. Whenever I start doing that, I try and go back to a vacation we took together.

L: I see.

M: I went to her remembrance mass. We were praying and I imagined reaching up and hugging her. And I did feel that at that time. I don’t want to overuse it [the sense of being hugged], so I’m afraid to close my eyes and imagine hugging her again.

L: So what would happen if you grabbed that sense of hugging her? [landscape of meaning]

M: Oh, it gives me chills, and it feels really warming.

L: So where was it that you felt this? [Landscape of action] M: In church.

L: When you were at church, you were imagining connecting with her in heaveniv?  [Landscape of action]

M: I was reaching up, and she was reaching down, and gave me a hug. L: The warming sensation – did it stay with you? [Landscape of action]

M: Yeah, for a while after. I just felt calm. I felt I had been given a hug by her.

L: Is that how her hugs felt in life? [Landscape of action]

M: There are so many photos where we were hugging each other.

L: Yeah. So tell me more about this hug from heaven? Where did she hold you when she was hugging you from heaven? [Landscape of action]

M: Around my shoulders; around my back.

L: Did your arms reach all the way around? [Landscape of action] M: Yes.

L: What do you think it would mean for her, to hug you from heaven? [landscape of meaning]

M: She said if she could find a way, or do something, she would. It would make her feel good to hug me. She loved taking care of people, and comforting people, and so she would know she had comforted me.

Moving between the dual landscapes builds the feeling of being hugged. It folds throwaway comments, into the story and renders them sustaining and comforting. It affirms Paula life as a mother who cares enough about her daughter to send a hug from heaven. A posthumous intention, expressed in response to a subjunctive question (What would it mean to her?), is grafted onto Megan’s stories. Megan’s story is relationally positioned in response to who her mother has been, and continues to be.

Megan: The last words she said to my father were, “Thank you,” because he had given her a drink.

Lorraine: Does it have meaning for you that those were the words, as opposed to anything else?

M: Yeah, it shows how appreciative she was. For anything and everything.

In such a simple thankful statement, Megan again folds her mother’s appreciative ways into her future story of Paula. Whenever Megan herself is appreciative, she can now connect with her mother’s legacy.

*Hedtke, L. (2016). Constructing matrilineal connections in a remembering conversation.
In, Dickerson, V., (Ed.), AFTA Springer briefs in family therapy. NY, NY: Springer