It’s a cliche to say that life is about the stories we tell ourselves—but there is a lot of truth to this one. How we understand things that happen to us and that happen around us is determined largely by the narratives we create and repeat to ourselves. How we understand the trajectory of our lives depends on the narrative we think we are following.
A major loss disrupts our narratives in many ways… all of them unpleasant. As we start moving our lives forward, we have to change the stories we tell our self and build a new narrative as we continue on a new trajectory.
What We Say About Death
The first story we often need to change is the one that we tell about death. In our society, it’s not uncommon for people to equate death with ‘giving up.’ We like to feel like we’re in control of our lives—and to a certain extent, the lives of our loved ones. So, regardless of how your loved one died, it can feel like not only did they ‘fail,’ but that you did, too, by somehow not preventing their death.
It’s important not to let this narrative around death take over. Redefining the stories we tell ourselves about death is something we need to work on as a society, but it’s something those of us who have lost a loved one must do on our own if we want to move our life forward.
Where Our Life is Going
Whether it was visions of your children playing with their grandma or dreams you and your spouse had spent a decade working toward, losing a loved one can shatter our expectations for the future. In the immediate aftermath of a death, many people find themselves unmoored—the future they had always envisioned is no longer possible and but they haven’t yet found something to replace that vision with. There’s a reason we used the word ‘unmoored’ to describe this feeling. It’s like floating in the open sea and feeling totally unable to see any destination or even steer.
Creating a New Story
As you move forward, you’ll have to create a new narrative not just for where you are going in live but also about your past and present. It involves telling a new story about everything in your life, often including things that are central to your identity. You might have been the person who married her high school sweetheart or the young adult who climbed mountains with his mom. Losing your person means losing a little part of who you are—and you’ll need to build a new story and identity. Now this thing you thought would be ‘you’ forever is gone, and so is your vision for the story of your life.
There’s no set time in grief, but most people don’t start creating a new life narrative until at least six months after their loved one’s death. Gradually, you start thinking about goals and ideas for the future. The story of your life has changed dramatically—you probably never would have written a major loss into the story of your life on purpose. A major loss will always change what is possible and what you want for the future. It will also always be a major plot twist in the story of your life. But it doesn’t make your entire story a tragedy.