Finding Courage & Healing in Storytelling

Journaling picture

The human mind likes to categorize events. When we have new experiences our brain searches for matches in order to help us formulate the proper response. Particularly when we have previously encountered danger the brain gives these events high priority and quickly activates if there is a match—to warn us to take caution if there might again be danger—to fight, flee or hide if necessary.

Our mind’s system of pattern matching also helps us to make sense of new experiences—placing the memory of new ones alongside others like it.

But what about if we encounter something completely new—a threat we never expected could strike us?

What if it’s childhood cancer and we have neither a match for that in our past experiences nor any expectation of cancer striking one of our young and beloved family members?  What then?

The mind, when confronted with any serious threat to life or limb, or witnessing of such a threat to others, goes immediately into high alert and tries to find a way to categorize it. But if there is no pattern match and the emotions are horrifying enough we either: freeze in numb dissociation, flee in attempts to get away from the bad news and events, or we put up a fight.

This project is about journaling via film and it’s an opportunity to address all three of these responses and help us to shift out of the ones that are no longer working for us.

Fighters will tell about how they are putting up the good fight and give courage to others who are also in the battle. But when the fight becomes overwhelming and loss looms too near they may also need to move through the painful stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and ultimately acceptance.

When death occurs there are again the painful stages of grieving and accepting loss.  Parents and siblings need to talk through how hard it is to face letting go of dear attachments and while still honoring and remembering, finding a path to slowing filling up the gapping hole that is left behind.

Life constantly requires us to let go but this is so hard when it’s letting go of one’s own child. Telling our stories can help to share the burden, to put words to this overwhelming grief and to find ways to rebuild when one just wants to withdraw and give up.

Those who have taken flight or who are numbly frozen in place—having fallen into depression, grief, avoidance, alienation or a numb dissociative state can find their way back into relationship by talking through their experiences and listening to others. By doing so they learn that they are not alone, that others understand, and that they can draw courage in community. They will find words for what they’ve been feeling and in doing so work through the confusion of being emotionally overwhelmed by a threat and potential or actual loss that seems too large to bear.

Traumatic news and traumatic bereavement often causes us to feel like we are experiencing life in little snippets of horrifying news and experiences. Narrating the journey can help us pull those snippets together into a coherent story that we can then search for answers to make sense of it, share with others, mull over and eventually come to peace with—no matter the outcome.

By telling our stories we will find our way through this experience, place it in the context of the human community and hopefully make friends, encourage each other and honor the ones who are in the battle and those who have moved beyond it.

Recently, a young person in the Washington, D.C. area succumbed to a type of childhood cancer. In the wake and aftermath of that person’s death the school’s counselor expressed concern that that there weren’t more parents of classmates seeking grief counseling for their children who were also deeply affected. Perhaps the parents felt a stigma, were overwhelmed with other priorities, or simply didn’t see the need.  But the truth is—when cancer strikes, whether a death occurs or not—it impacts more than just the family. It also causes a ripple effect of concern, confusion, sadness, and even horror through the ranks of classmates—close friends and acquaintances alike—who may be too young to make sense of this difficult experience.

Life continually challenges us. Journaling is one approach and outlet to advance healing within families and classmates as well. Telling our stories and finding community and coherence by doing helps us to stay centered and heal from the things that are so silently piercing our hearts.

Pick up your journals and i-pads and join us on a healing journey!

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School. This is first in a series of blogsfor Donna Speckhard’s My Truth in 365 – A Virtual Journal Project on Pediatric Cancer!Finding-Courage-Healing-in-Story-Telling/cke9/B75436BB-E716-4D13-BF7A-447C9F84E58B

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