Our own lives are the instruments with which we experiment with truth.
Thich Nhat Hanh

We humans are natural storytellers. We describe our lives in terms of the stories that we tell – the memories of how we grew up or what we did on our summer vacation, how our day went at school or at work, and what our plans are for next Christmas. It is through stories that we put our past in perspective, describe the present, and plan for the future. Of course, these stories change as we experience new things in our every day lives.

However important these stories, or narratives, are to us, they have more significance if we share them with someone. If given the appropriate opportunity, we tell our stories to people who are interested in hearing them. Funny things happen when we do this. First, the teller and the listener are drawn into a communicative bond that can bring them closer. Second, the listener has the opportunity to see and feel the stories of his/her own life in light of the teller’s experiences. Third, we become listeners of our own story as we are telling it. Sometimes, it might sound different from the one that has been bouncing around in our heads – we might hear plots and sub-plots we never realized existed. Fourth, the past, present, and future become more real as we describe them to another person. Fifth, the telling of stories combines both the analytical, logical aspect of the teller as well as the emotional, feeling aspect. Even the most analytical, logical chemist I ever knew could not help interjecting some emotion into the story of how he was able to create a new substance.

The characteristics of a storyteller/listener experience are not limited to just stories. We also construct narratives of our lives through writing, music, poems, painting, sculpture, other art forms, building things, and any other way of expressing something about who we are and what is happening inside of us.

So, how does all of this relate to mourning and building a new assumptive world? The answer is that after a significant loss, the narrative of our life is no longer valid. How we view the past, present, and future are affected greatly. At the same time, our taken-for-granted assumptions of the world, our place in the world, our core beliefs and values, and the purpose for our life are subject to varying degrees of review and modification. We have to re-construct the narrative of our lives. This reconstruction, meaning making, re-learning the world, and building a revised assumptive world are all ways of expressing the same thing – making sense out of the loss we have incurred and/or learning from it so we can integrate it into our lives and go on with living. The storytelling description above gives us some guidelines on how to do that.

Just like with telling our life stories, when we re-construct our life narrative, we have to conduct some logical analysis of our situation. In addition, though, we must be willing to do intense self-reflection and introspection – again, a combination of the logical and feeling aspects of our being. In another similarity with storytelling, re-authoring our life’s narrative is an iterative process that needs to be shared with supportive people. We need to “test” what we are constructing by sharing it with others so we have the opportunity to receive validation of the process, critically “hear” what is swimming through our heads, and make any necessary adjustments. As we continue to explore within ourselves the meaning of what has happened and share it with others, we may have feelings and thoughts surface that we did not know were in us. Occasionally, we may have an “ah-ha” experience where there is a breakthrough in our thinking and understanding. These revelations become vital elements of our new assumptive world. Eventually, we come to a point where we find peace within ourselves. As I have written previously, the grief never totally goes away, but we can make sense of the loss or learn lessons from it so we can tolerate any residual pain.
Besides telling the iterations of our narrative, there other ways we have for meaning making. Robert Neimeyer provides detailed descriptions of several in his book Lessons of Loss. Among them are:

  1. writing a biography of the deceased,
  2. drawing and painting,
  3. writing an epitaph of the deceased,
  4. keeping a journal of the thoughts and feelings,
  5. examining how we are like the deceased (also known as a life imprint),
  6. integrating objects that link us to the deceased into our lives,
  7. writing about the loss as if you are a third person describing it,
  8. constructing a memory book honoring the deceased,
  9. using metaphors to describe the loss and your reactions to it,
  10. expanding the metaphors into a metaphoric story,
  11. going on a personal pilgrimage,
  12. creating a photo gallery,
  13. writing a poem of the loss,
  14. reading about others’ experiences with loss such as C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed,
  15. creating and conducting a personal ritual about the loss, and
  16. writing one or more letters to the deceased expressing what you were not able to express while he/she were alive (but don’t send them).
Artists and non-artists have also used painting, sculpture, photography, music, and other expressive means to help them find meaning in their loss. If the task becomes too difficult, a trained counselor can be of invaluable help during this time of exploration.