Crafting Life Stories

The Healing Power of Biography-Making

Steven Waldman


October 1, 2017Oct 1, 2017

“The life of the dead consists in being present in the minds of the living.” – Cicero

Insights from modern psychologists and grief counselors confirm and expand on that ancient wisdom: crafting biographies of those we’ve lost – keeping the deceased in the minds of the living – can actually help family and friends grieve.  Here’s why:

Preserving a relationship with the departed —  Rather than urging the bereaved to “move on” or gain “closure,” grief counselors now say that maintaining a relationship with the departed – through remembrance – can be appropriate and helpful.    Consider this advice from counselors Eleanor Haley and Litsa Williams:

“When your loved one dies, grief isn’t about working through a linear process that ends with ‘acceptance’ or a ‘new life’, where you have moved on or compartmentalized your loved one’s memory.  Rather, when a loved one dies you slowly find ways to adjust and redefine your relationship with that person, allowing for a continued bond with that person that will endure, in different ways and to varying degrees, throughout your life.   This relationship is not unhealthy, nor does it mean you are not grieving in a normal way.”  

They suggest writing letters to the deceased, and observing anniversaries.  Keeping a loved one alive in your mind and heart is not only inevitable but helpful.    

Crafting Biography – The purpose of grief, says counselor Tony Walter, is  “biographical reconstruction” that “enables the living to integrate the memory of the dead in their ongoing lives….We are who we are in part because of who he was and we are denying reality if we try to leave him entirely behind.”

According to Walter, the deceased plays at least four roles in the lives of the living: “as a role model, as giving guidance in specific situations, as clarifying the values of the survivor, and as a valued part of the survivor’s biography.” Activities that encourage us to reflect on those roles help us process our loss.

Permanence and nuance.  For centuries, epitaphs on tombstones have served the purpose of preserving a person’s essence over time.  But a tombstone limits its character count to Tweet-lengthed statements, which rarely capture the life of the person. One ancient Greek epitaph of a musician declared:

“The musician Terpis met his end Singing at banquets in Sparta. No sword slew him, no flying rock. As he sang, a fig in a food fight Passed his lips and choked him. Death never fails to find a way.”

True enough, and kind of hilarious, but perhaps not the way Terpis would have written it – or wanted to be remembered.  More important, the names and memories of most people in human history do not survive at all.  Economics prevented it.

No longer. Thanks to the digital memorialization tools, now anyone can have a biography that will persist for many generations.  Knowing that grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have a better appreciation for the personality of someone who has just died can provide comfort to the grieving.

Creating Ritual – We have centuries of evidence that rituals help survivors deal with the traumatic loss of a loved one.  Whether it’s the practice of saying special prayers, dressing in black, or lighting candles at death anniversaries, the world’s folk and religious customs have long emphasized the taking of concrete, repeated steps to memorialize a loss.   Grief-related rituals help provide meaning, a sense of “stability and structure,” reduce helplessness and strengthen a sense of community.

Some of the actions that can help most are exactly the kind that can be facilitated online via tools, according to modern social scientists. For instance, one study found that among the “very helpful” rituals were “creating something (memory book, collage, quilt, painting etc.) in honor of the deceased and “sharing stories about the deceased with others.”

Enlisting the Community – Digital tools make it far easier for friends and family – including those spread around the world – to contribute stories and pictures to a shared memorial. Involving others in this effort provides a grieving person with a sense of support and strength. The shared sorrow of others validates our own feelings about our loved one – and sometimes deepens them in surprising ways. The chief mourner may hear stories from different parts of the deceased’s life — work friends telling unknown stories to church friends who learn something new from school buddies.  Amazingly, everyone may come to know their loved one in new ways.

Taking Action – Friends of the bereaved often feel profoundly powerless.  While flowers will ultimately wilt, taking the time to recount memories – or offer photos, videos or audio – is a durable, loving and useful gift. And it gives us something to do.

Stretching Time — The traditional approach to commemorating is, when you think about it, cruelly unrealistic.  Those closest to the deceased are expected to write a eulogy and obituary within a few days of the death. An inherently difficult task under the best of circumstances must now be completed rapidly when we are exhausted and in shock.  An online commemoration enables you to take time, build the biography gradually, returning to it over time. Indeed, at LifePosts we recommend spreading it out over the course of a mourning year, adding memories slowly and regularly.

The grieving often benefit from a surplus of support in the days after a death but a deficit in the months after, when the growing weight of their loss often feels even harder to bear. Inviting friends and family to craft the story of someone’s life throughout the first year of a loss can help encourage a steadier flow of support.

Strengthening Memories – Describing memories helps engrave them.  Recent insights from neuroscience have shown that far from being a computer that records events like a video camera, our minds absorb, distort, enshrine and discard memories in complex ways.  One thing is clear: the telling of a story, the recounting and repetition of a memory, strengthens it.

The very process of gathering materials for a digital commemoration can strengthen memories. Writing them down, reviewing pictures, editing videos, soliciting contributions from friends  and family – these steps will sharpen the memories, as will returning them regularly.  

Nothing substitutes for face-to-face human interaction.  A hug, a touch on the arm, just being there for someone. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the digital revolution has provided new, powerful ways to remember and celebrate a loved one.  And in doing that, we can help a survivor grieve well.

Categories: Crafting Life StoriesTags: ,