This is part three of a three-part series on building Remembering Convsersastions with clients and therapists*.
Grief counseling is always about at least two people, the living person and the person who has died (Hedtke, 2012a). In a sense then, a remembering conversation is always a family conversation, even when it is only with one living person. There are always others’ stories and legacies that shape and infuse the conversation.
Remembering conversations weave stories and events into future legacies, not only
for the bereaved, but also for future stakeholders, that is, for family members, as well as others in larger communities, who have yet to meet the deceased person.
Megan and her mother spoke about the art of crocheting as metaphorically intertwining them together. Paula had explained to me before her death, that crocheting and knitting were skills that all the women in her family knew. Paula’s mother’s mother had taught her to crochet. It was an action that connected the women together in one legacy and it was what Paula hoped Megan would teach her children some day. She hoped that Megan too would take up crocheting and “it would calm her and teach her patience”.
Lorraine: Your mom told me she was hoping there would be a place for crochet in your life. Not just because of making ‘blankies’. Do you have a sense of what she was hoping for?
Megan: Yeah, if I were stressed or worried, it would bring me into the present, by using my hands and creating something.
Here is an opportunity for multigenerational connections to shape Megan’s experience. Crocheting establishes interlocking loops that take on healing qualities, when we thread them between Megan and Paula and capitalize on Paula’s hopes for her daughter to have a calm and happy life. It is also is an opportunity to take a stand against patriarchal assumptions that have devalued women’s ways of knowing in life and in grief (Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1990).
Lorraine: Let’s imagine you get up at two in the morning. It’s one of the nights where you’re not sleeping, and you try crocheting, what would it be like to do something your mother taught you?
Megan: I’d feel closer to her, because she did that ever since she was a child right up until the end.
L: If she knew that you were crocheting as a calming mechanism, what would she say about that?
M: She’d be happy that she had given me a tool to feel better.
L: If you were crocheting, would you weave her into what you were making?
Remembering and future generations
Remembering conversations intend to help bereaved people find stories of strength at times of great pain. Such conversations seek out small acts and give the deceased’s words an ongoing audience. The audience can be made of people the deceased person knew but can also be enlarged by the addition of people the deceased is introduced to. In this way, the deceased person’s life is not over, as their stories and values continue to hold meaning for future generations.
Megan can keep her mother’s stories viable through telling them to her husband and friends. She can share stories of her mother with her father and brother to honor Paula’s place in their family. She can also imagine introducing Paula to her yet unborn daughter or any other future children. All of these actions honor the importance of Paula in the family system, even after death.
Lorraine: If you were making baby booties for example and you were saying, “Oh, this is a place where me and my mom connect”, how would that then be translated into the baby bootie?
Megan: It would be much more meaningful. The thoughts and the memories of us would be in there. There’s a baby blanket that I’m almost finished that I started right after she was diagnosed and I thought about that. That it was with me through this last year, because I took it one time when we went to San Francisco. I was crocheting and she was crocheting. That blanket went on our journey. And those booties, if I’m feeling connected to her, then they’re not just made out of regular yarn.
The simplicity of crocheting a baby blanket or booties becomes the vessel for meaning, not only between Megan and her mother. It is the linking object (Vickio, 1999) that also travels across distance and through time connecting Megan to her matrilineal lineage. In this way, what seems to be an “individual” counseling session becomes a something much more, where Megan is connected to a genealogy of female knowing.
Megan: There’s stories and memories and love in them [the baby booties].
Lorraine: Stories and memories and love given to you by your mom? M: Yeah and gifted from her mom and her grandma to her as well.
L: Is this connection actually a much longer lineage than just about you and Paula? Is it a lineage that connects her to her mother and
then your grandmother to her mother too? So is it like you’re the fourth generation of crocheters?
M: That we know of. Probably more.
This piece of conversation brings into focus years of crocheting skill that have been passed down. For each person it has had meaning about their place in this family and perhaps carried stories of patience and calmness. As Megan reflects, it is like holding a precious artifact. But it is not an artifact with a singular meaning but becomes a portal linking lives together. Its meaning can continue to grow and take shape. Historical time can be both collapsed into the present and expanded into the future, as Megan imagines the gifts this artifact will offer her daughter.
Lorraine: Let’s say you make these amazing little baby booties, and we have four generations, at least, of women who have had an experience of love through crocheting?
Megan: [nodding], Yeah.
Lorraine: What’s it going to be like for your baby to wear those baby booties?
Megan: I’d like to think that wearing them, she’d feel warmer and feel loved, because they were made from love and with a connection to my mom.
Lorraine: How can you have a sense of certainty about that?
Megan: I do have a sense of certainty about that. They’re definitely more meaningful. They definitely are filled with more love and time.
Lorraine: If you tell your daughter, let’s say you save the baby booties, and when she’s five, or ten, or fifteen years old, you tell her the story about how she wore these baby booties that you imagined had the love of all these women channeled into that yarn, what difference would you hope that would make for your child?
Megan: She would know that they did, because I would be making them with the craft that I was taught, and that she will be taught. But also the connection I feel to my mom and my daughter, while I’m making them. So with that explanation, she would feel love from generations of women.
The folds of the conversation traverse time and space. Each fold of action and meaning produces a future history that enlivens generational connections, lessening the pain of grief. It is what Lambert (2002-2003) suggests as “extending biographies”, as the stories of the ancestors are assimilated into the lives of the living and carried into a new future.
Lorraine: As you tell your daughter of this connection to her grandmother and how her grandmother loves her, how does that settle for you Megan?
Megan: My mom loves the baby. She got to hear the news that we were pregnant, a few times. Before that, she had told me, “I’m going to hold that baby.” And so I know she already loves her.
The conversation can move vertically through time to fold in multi-generational attributes and stories. It also moves horizontally between people who share a love of Paula. Adding people from previous generations and from the present solidifies Paula’s place in her posthumous identity.
Lorraine: Would we want to bridge bits of this story with others? Because won’t your husband, your brother, and your father and others also introduce the stories of your mom to your baby?
Megan: Yes. Stories, photos, her voice. I want our child to know her, because it enhances her life to know about her grandmother.
L: What in particular do you want your daughter knowing about Paula?
M: I want her to know how kind and patient and happy she was. I want her to see that in me and to know that it definitely came from my mom.
Grief has the power to gut a person’s life and make everyday events challenging. Remembering offers antidote to this in that stories are intentionally garnered for strength.
Lorraine: Every day that you connect with your mom or think about her, are those places where you are living what she gave you?
Megan: Yeah. I guess I am [pause]. I didn’t think about it that way, but I am.
L: What’s that like?
M: It feels really good. At night when things are tough and I’m thinking, she’s just gone, she’s gone — to remind myself that she’s very
much present in what she’s given me makes me feel stronger. It makes me feel better.
L: When you’re thinking that she’s gone, particularly at night, and you’re feeling that sense of void, what do you tell yourself to feel stronger?
M: What I’m going to tell myself is that she is still there with me. She didn’t just raise me and give me those things. When I call upon her and think what would she do in a certain situation, right then, she’s with me.
This is a palpable shift for Megan. To sense her mother as able to be called upon provides a balm to the sting of grief. She experiences the resource of relationship that has carried her in life and will continue to carry her. This is achieved by focusing on what remains, rather than on what is lost.
Lorraine: Tell me about the shifts that are taking place from this conversation, Megan?
Megan: It helps me… It’s shifting me from, “She’s just gone and you have to look at her photos and kind of remember her.” and it’s brought her more into the present with me on a daily basis, which I haven’t thought of. I’ve only thought of her not being here and the loss that my kids aren’t going to know her. Yeah, I thought I’d tell stories, but it was not the same. But I never thought about her shaping how I react in the present, or how I’m going to parent, or being with me when I crochet. It’s honoring what she wanted. It’s calming and reassuring. Gosh, I’ve been going through this pregnancy without her and it’s like, “no, her love is there.” In a way she’s still there guiding me. She’s still teaching me.
I asked Megan to read this account for accuracy and to add any comments about what reading it was like. We spoke after and she shared the following reflection of connecting with her mother’s memory. Megan shared how her mother was “there” for her when she gardened, when she traveled, when she held her newborn daughter, or when she simply calmed her mind. “Sometimes I get frightened that she won’t be there when I need her. I need to counter this with the love I have felt from her since she died. I had this sense of her telling me that she ‘loved me enough for a thousand life times’ when she was here, and this comforted me.”
Megan, like many others in the face of grief, sustains herself through holding tight to the love and legacy that her mother created with her. It is this remembering practice that stands firmly against the stories of loss. And it is this practice that shapes a future, where the historical stories of the dead and the stories of the living are interwoven to craft an exquisite tapestry.
*Hedtke, L. (2016). Constructing matrilineal connections in a remembering conversation.
In, Dickerson, V., (Ed.), AFTA Springer briefs in family therapy. NY, NY: Springer