What a Funeral Taught me about Stories

A year and a half ago at my grandfather’s funeral, I heard stories about him that helped me to see him in new ways. Stories that in my 28 years of being his granddaughter I had never heard before, or never heard in quite that style. I had thought I knew him pretty well, but after his funeral I realized that I only knew this little portion of him compared to everything that he really was.

I attended my great aunt’s funeral last week. It was a really nice service. The speakers–including my mom–said some wonderful things about her, and the musical number was beautiful and moving.

I loved my great aunt a lot, but on the way to her funeral it struck me that I didn’t really know her as a person. I only knew her like a little kid knows people like great aunts. She was someone who came to every family holiday, she gave me presents on my birthday, she played the piano really well but would listen kindly as I stumbled through songs she would have been able to play easily (and with much better technique).

I knew a lot of things about her, but just as with my grandfather I didn’t know who she really was.

At her funeral, people mentioned some of her characteristics. “She was adventurous.” “She was stubborn and independent.” “She always behaved like a lady, with grace.” These things were nice to hear, but what really helped me to feel like I was getting to know her better were the stories. Even quick little anecdotes with meager details told me more about my aunt than a huge list of her characteristics would.

I’ve been fascinated with stories and storytelling my whole life. I’ve tried many times to explain why I think stories are so important. They teach us to have compassion for others. They help us understand experiences we may never live through ourselves. They help us explore difficult ideas in as-near-to-real-as-possible contexts. They enlarge our minds.

The list goes on, and everything on it probably centers around the idea that, overall, stories can make us better people. Being at my aunt’s funeral made me realize one extremely practical reason that we need stories:

Stories are the way that we know others and know ourselves.

Every action we take in life is a little story; it just hasn’t been framed that way yet. Every memory we have is a story, even if it’s never been written down or told to anyone else. And it’s our memories that shape the way we understand people, including ourselves.

If I tell someone that my mom is really smart, they might believe me but they won’t know it for themselves. If I tell them that as a kid she would hide under her blankets at night to read the Encyclopedia page by page by flashlight or that nobody likes to play trivia games with her because she always wins, then the person will start to get a better understanding of who my mom really is.

I’m obviously not the first person to figure this out. After having this epiphany, I realized that I’ve heard the idea probably a hundred times before, but it never hit home so clearly for me. Now, my moment of enlightenment is a story of my own that will shape the way I see myself, and maybe the way you see me.

We live in story like a fish lives in water. We swim through words and images siphoning story through our minds the way a fish siphons water through its gills. We cannot think without language, we cannot process experience without story.

     — Christina Baldwin, Storycatching, Making Sense of our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story

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