A few weeks back, I went to a funeral to support some dear friends who had lost a man they loved. The day was full of grief and love, as I knew it would be. It was difficult, sitting there listening to the stories of his life knowing the book was over, partly for the way loved ones are left to grieve, but also for the ways it makes us address our own mortality. Funerals are always sobering. We can’t help but put ourselves there, wondering what people will say about us as they stand at that alter — what stories will most define us, what our lives will have been for, and what, in the end, will be left.
A couple of years ago I was talking with my friend about the death of her father. It was the type of heartache one finds it almost unbearable to live through, the final days being particularly gruesome. She said, “Every time I left the room, the nurse told me to say goodbye to him in my heart. And all I thought was screw you. If I say goodbye to him in my heart, then where is he?”.
They have stayed with me forever, those words, because every time I replay them, I can actually feel the way in which love and pain are two sides of the same coin. There is a heartache which follows every person we love around like a shadow, and the most confusing thing of all is knowing where to find them after they have gone.
We all become stories, in the end, and as much as this can feel diminishing — like the accumulation of all we are gets reduced to a simple beginning, middle and end — the beautiful thing about it is that we realize we are the story keepers of each other.
We hold each other’s biographies. We store each other’s stories. We give them a place to land and stick. That is, after all, what intimacy and closeness is – communication. In an intimate relationship, each conversation builds on the last. What each person shares is what binds them. We know what the other will do because we know what they’ve done in the past. We know what they are thinking because we know what they’ve thought in the past. We communicate whole chapters simply by a raised eyebrow, or a glance. We become records of each other’s life, the stories filling our insides, making us rich, making us us.
These stories are gifts because they matter to the people whom they belong to. They are gifts because they turn into bridges we walk upon, directly to the hearts of each other, and this makes us feel known. To feel known is very important. To feel known is to feel loved.
My job is to pay attention to the lives of the people I love. My job is to be their biography, to record their narrative. Because the thing is this: I came across some research recently which answered some questions I ask myself often:
What is the secret to holding a family together?
What are the ingredients that make families effective, resilient, and happy?
The answer shocked me a little bit, because it seemed very simple.
The answer was this: Develop a strong family narrative.
Research shows that the more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more resilient they are, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.
“The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” researchers said. They said that children who have the most self-confidence have what they call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.
“The most healthful narrative,” researchers said, “is called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”
The researchers then recommended that parents pursue similar activities with their children. Any number of occasions work to convey this sense of history: holidays, weekends away, big family get-togethers, even a trip to the shops. The hokier the family’s tradition, they said, the more likely it is to be passed down. These traditions become part of your family.
When we think we are not doing enough, loving enough, giving enough, it is enough just to know our people. To pay attention to their stories.
Because one day my children are going to ask me about their births, about their first day of school, about what they used to do at Christmas as kids, and I am the one who gets to tell them those stories — because I am their story keeper. One day my parents will pass away and I will have the responsibility of passing their legacy and traditions and tales onto their grandchildren, because I am their story keeper. One day Joel and I will face hardship we don’t even know about yet, and it will be the stories we’ve spun with each other which will ground us to something good and beautiful.
Stories are important. To tell and to listen to. In the end, we store them in our hearts long after they are over — long after bodies have failed the people we love — their legacy providing an anchor point for those of us left, allowing us to belong to something bigger.
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