September 2012

Before and After Events

An exercise that is sometimes used with groups is to do a lifeline or graph of one's life. On the horizontal axis is the passing of time and the vertical axis is the perceived quality of one's life-the lower the line the more difficulties and challenges we experienced at the time and the higher the line the more happy and content we were at that time. What is produced is an intriguing perspective not only of how we see our past life but also how the present compares to where we have been. It can also give us a sense of how we are trending into the future. When we label what was happening at the peaks and valleys of our lifelines, these are what we might think of as "before and after events."

We all have them-those events which mark the beginnings and endings of particular periods of our lives. A good argument could be made that our lives have no clear beginnings or endings. We ultimately come about as the effect of multiple causes and factors which far predate our births. It is this reality that feeds our interests in our family histories and genealogies. And if this perspective of our origins is true, then our lives also continue to have both causes and effects long after our physical bodies are gone. But as storytelling people, we need chapters in our stories to help us organize and make sense of our gloriously messy lives. We need some beginnings and endings, commas and periods, new and preceding paragraphs, and perhaps most of all, the reality of new chapters to help us sort out and make whatever meaning there is as we reflect upon our lives.

Many of our before and after events can be predictable and sometimes even planned. Births of our children, graduations, weddings, moves to new places and changes in jobs. Many before and after events, however, defy prediction and control and come to us as new diagnoses of serious illness and deaths of those we hold dear. For so many of us, the lowest places in our lifelines are connected to a death. Life cannot continue the same after a significant death (can there be an insignificant death?), and the current chapter must end. What follows is at least one chapter of pain and struggle and sometimes it can be a very long chapter indeed. Our lifelines and our chapters do not exist in a vacuum, of course, and they are intersected and influenced by those around us. When there are contrasts-when we are in a low place and others are on a high-life can seem especially lonesome. When we are low or high together, there can be a special comfort found and we often seek out these experiences as we need the sense of solidarity in these after-death chapters. This connection to others in the valleys can have the paradoxical effect of pushing us onward to a better, higher place and to the possibility of a new and brighter chapter.

It's some time after a death that we have the challenge of recognizing when a new chapter has begun. We know that life is different when we learn of the death by phone call, visit or witness. But after a dark following chapter, we eventually can find that in turning a page we have started a new chapter, accepting and integrating a newly revised version of our life story. In movies and books, it seems that there is often a dramatic event which marks the turning to a new chapter, the undeniable start of an upturn in our lifeline. In reality for most of us, the change is generally more subtle and nuanced and we recognize the change only in hindsight as we reflect on where we have been and where we are now. We realize that we are different. We are not who we were before the last big event but we are also not who we were just following the event. We are something new, someone who has never existed before now. We carry the loss within us but it does not wholly define us-our loss does not get to be the title of this new chapter, although like any important event in any good story, it does not go away and its influence continues. And so our lives and stories continue, and not our lives alone, but the lives and stories of those we have loved: before, after and always.

Greg Adams
Center for Good Mourning

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Lessons from Lions: Using children's media to teach about grief and mourning is a creative resource for helping children understand ways to cope with a death in their lives. It is available only from the Center from Good Mourning for $3.00 per copy, plus shipping and handling.

In Arkansas, we have Good Mourning Grief Support Groups, Alliance for Grief and Loss brown-bag education, and two events related to suicide prevention and survivor support. Nationally, there are excellent educational webinars and resources from the Association of Death Education and Counseling, the Hospice Foundation of America, and the National Alliance for Grieving Children.
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After the death of a child, it can be difficult to sit and read even a very wise and helpful book. But what if a wise and helpful book was read to you as an audiobook?

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Two compelling and new juvenile novels about living with loss: One has real-life grit and magical elements for a girl caught in the hard-to-imagine challenge of Hurricane Katrina where not everyone survives; the other is the very realistic and insightful account of the first year of life for a middle-school girl following the death of her mother to cancer. Two different tales of survival and both are good reads.

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How do I help my child when talking about the person who died doesn't seem to help?

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When dealing with a life-threatening illness, we need to know our options but we often also need guidance from healthcare professionals who know the territory. A caring and well-considered recommendation can be more helpful than asking us, "What do you want us to do?"

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Arkansas Children's Hospital - Center for Good Mourning
1 Children's Way, Slot 690 - Little Rock, AR 72202
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The Center for Good Mourning is supported by the generous support of the Arkansas Children's Hospital Auxiliary.