A Small Hope: Co-creating a Narrative of Grief - Part II

A Small Hope: Co-creating a Narrative of Grief - Part II

by Sasha McAllum Pilkington
Following the loss of her husband, a client finds her way back to living fully for herself and her children through narrative storytelling.


Get Endless Inspiration and
Insight from Master Therapists,
Members-Only Content & More


Bringing Memories to Life

“I want to remember the precious times we had together in those last weeks but already they are fading and I am forgetting,” Claudia said with resignation. It was now a month after Tom had died and the conversation had just shifted from the challenges of getting through each day.

I want to remember the precious times we had together in those last weeks but already they are fading and I am forgetting
“Is gathering up memories of the precious times something that you might like to do in this conversation?” I checked.

“Yes, those last four weeks,” Claudia said through tears. “From when we were told in the hospital Tom was dying and decided to come home. In the hospital, I asked one of the nurses, ‘How long does he have?’ and she replied, ‘Maybe a week.’ As you know, however, he lived for four weeks… Tom didn’t ask how long he had to live but I wanted to know.”

“Would it be OK to ask… what was important to you that you asked for the nurse’s guess as to how long he had to live?” I added the word “guess” as no one ever definitely knows and that uncertainty is often unfamiliar to people.

Claudia’s voice broke, “I just wanted to know how long I had with him. I think I was just trying to get a clear view of the future.”

“Did you have any hopes for what a clear view might provide you and Tom?”

“I was thinking this is valuable time. It clarified that we wanted him to come home,” Claudia affirmed.

“In this decision to go home, what kind of valuable time were you and Tom hoping for?” (22)

“It meant he could see the changes in the girls. They are so young they change rapidly, especially Libby who develops in small ways every week. I knew that visiting in hospital is just not the same. Everything is different, distorted and not in their natural state,” she explained. Visions of hospital rooms with their lack of privacy and noisy nights floated through my mind. I tried to imagine visiting such an unfamiliar environment frequently with a baby and young child.

“What does it say about Tom’s relationship with Imogen and Libby that he prioritised noticing small changes in them even when he was dying?”

Claudia smiled. “He treasured and valued every little thing about them. He’s been quite good at appreciating small things for a very long time,” she answered, speaking of Tom in the present.

I was aware that I was collecting memories
“Could you tell me a story of Tom appreciating Libby and the small changes in her perhaps? And then Imogen and what he enjoyed about her?” I was aware that I was collecting memories, not only for Claudia, but for her girls as well. Together we would build a document of memories she could keep. (23)

After Claudia had shared some stories, I became aware we had diverged from what she had originally said she wanted to discuss. “I notice we have moved away from speaking about the four weeks you said you wanted to focus on. Would you like to continue on this track or would you like to spend some time talking about the last weeks of Tom’s life? What would you like to do at this point?” (24)

“The last four weeks. It’s fading so fast. I’ve even forgotten subtleties that were routine to me, like giving him his morning wash, and that was something I treasured doing,” Claudia stated. I was glad I had checked. I didn’t want the conversation to end without it having been what she wished.

“Would asking you about treasuring his wash be a good place to begin?” Claudia nodded and sat back on the sofa. “Would you like to walk me through how you went about giving him his wash?”

Claudia began to recall previously unspoken details of the daily routine with me, inquiring into their meaning. Towards the end of collecting as many details as I could I asked, “When you were washing him, was there a particular way you touched him?”

“Yes. When he was moving less, I would give him a little massage, or I’d move his legs around. I could tell he liked it. After his massage, we’d put frankincense on his palms and the soles of his feet and he’d go, ‘Oh, Frank!’ and wiggle his fingers making a joke!” Claudia laughed.

“Did he keep his sense of humour even...”

Claudia’s words tumbled out in her enthusiasm. “Always, right up until that last night. A carer came for the night to help. When she saw Tom she said, ‘Still unresponsive,’ so he wriggled his eyebrows at me. It was our little joke! Frequently through the day I would wash his face and I’d say, ‘Would you like a cool flannel or a hot flannel to wash your face?”

“When you were giving him that choice… what was your intention?”

he had very little control over his life. He deserved respect,” Claudia explained
“He had very little control over his life. He deserved respect,” Claudia explained.

“What did you want him to know by giving him that choice and respect...and control?” In tender tones Claudia answered, “He was still just as valuable. Even though he couldn’t move or see much, he was still my Tom, he was still the same to me.” Moved by her love and respect I responded, “May I ask, what would have Tom noticed that would have told him it was you washing him rather than someone else and that he was still the same to you?”

“He would have felt my love in the way I washed him. I was given a choice of washing him or having a carer do it. There was no way I was going to let someone else do such a personal, private thing for him,” Claudia stated, flicking her hair behind her. (25)

“What were you valuing, do you think, when you prioritised this loving moment with him and protecting his privacy even as you were parenting two small children and doing everything else that was required of you?” I reflected on the exhaustion that comes with parenting very young children. Such a choice was not right for everyone. Claudia lowered her voice, leaning towards me as she spoke, “I wanted to protect his dignity and have that intimate time with him.”

“May I ask, what did you experience as meaningful in the relationship when you managed to get that time together and share love and intimacy?”

“It felt like this was why we had him at home. It meant I was the one changing his nappy... And I did feel proud and honoured that I could do that for him. It’s not something a wife normally does for a partner, but I guess it was a new intimate thing we could do where there were precious few of those new things.”

Struck by her ability to generate such a deeply loving experience in something so far from what couples ordinarily do together, I responded, “What does it say about you that you felt proud and honoured to do that care for Tom ... that you could find intimacy in changing his nappy for him rather than seeing it as a chore?” (26)

Thoughtfully Claudia answered, “I think I understood what he needed. I understood the best way to do that for him.”

“What was it that you understood about Tom in those last weeks that was important to you both?” Claudia pondered. “We were able to slow things down a bit.”

“How did you do this slowing?” I wondered. Claudia spoke slowly as she considered, “Just focusing on little things. I’d go and get him milkshakes and I’d say, ‘So what flavour milkshake do you want today and where do you want me to get it from?’ It was treasuring very small decisions. I got great pleasure from him eating or drinking something and he got to make decisions and think about that milkshake and what he wanted. Life zoomed in and focused on those nice moments.”

“What did you know, Claudia, perhaps about living with such a serious illness, or about Tom, that had you recognising that making a decision about the flavour of a milkshake was worth treasuring?” I couldn’t help but notice her extraordinary sensitivity to Tom’s experience and I hoped that my questions might draw Claudia’s attention to her wise and gentle care.    

choices in his life were dwindling. He didn’t have a lot of control
Claudia laughed. “Tom knew his own mind. I would never make that decision for him, particularly around food,” she said, reminding me that Tom was a skillful and passionate cook. “Choices in his life were dwindling. He didn’t have a lot of control.” She dropped her head for a moment, reflecting. Tears glistened in Claudia’s eyes as another thought occurred to her. “Tom knew how much it would hurt me when he went.” The tears gathered and a sob escaped but she went on speaking. “He didn’t want to go but most of all he was worried about me...” Claudia started to cry unreservedly. Her face reddened as more of her body joined the experience of grief. Rather than a break in the conversation, it was as if these tears spoke what words couldn’t as we reflected on Tom’s love for her even as he was dying. (27)

Quietly, I eventually asked her, “What were these worries Tom held for you?”

Claudia was barely able to speak yet she persevered, wanting to express what the emotion meant in words. “He just knew how hard it was going to be… he cared enormously about me being alone.”

We were quiet for a time as Claudia continued to weep.

“He was sad for himself and the girls, but he was really sad for me,” she eventually explained.

I thought about Tom worrying about Claudia even as he lay in bed so sick. “What does Tom’s compassion mean to you? …. that he couldn’t bear to think of you being on your own...that he cared so much about what might happen to you...?”

“It was a demonstration of how much he loved me,” Claudia choked out. “I usually cried,” she explained, smiling at herself through the tears. “I felt guilty every time I cried and got comfort from him but he’s the person I turned to when things were wrong. He said comforting me was something he could do.” She stared at me with her eyes wide waiting for my response.

“Do you have a sense of what it was to Tom that you chose him to seek support from?”

Claudia exhaled, “I think he was thinking about the time when he wouldn’t be able to support me, and he was doing what he could.”

“How would Tom have understood the way you saw him when you sought comfort from him?”

he was my best friend, and we were there for each other. It didn’t change when he was sick
Claudia considered, speaking what seemed like newly formed thoughts. “He was my best friend, and we were there for each other. It didn’t change when he was sick. I think it was hard but very important for him. It allowed him to show support for me, I guess. He saw it as something he could do for me when he could do so little, when I was doing so much for him. I didn’t feel the need to protect him.”

“What do you know about Tom that you knew you didn’t need to protect him?”

“He was strong. He said he wasn’t scared of dying.” Claudia let out a big, long sigh collapsing in on herself in seeming resignation.

“Would it be OK to ask you one more question about the way you shared your grief together?” Claudia nodded.

“What did you know about the relationship that told you that talking would be best for it?” I wanted to bring forward Claudia’s knowledge of their particular relationship because I knew that this kind of talking wasn’t best for everyone.

“It’s what we’ve always done,” she readily replied.

Our time was coming to an end. After I summarised what we had been discussing, I checked with Claudia, “How has our conversation gone today? Has the experience of reflecting on the last four weeks connected you with anything that is helpful or important to you?” (28)

“I think it’s highlighted how we did it according to our values. That’s incredibly important to me. It eases the pain just a little to know that,” Claudia responded.

“How might you carry that knowledge do you think? That you did it according to your values?”

“I guess by carrying on doing that with the girls,” she replied thoughtfully.

“Perhaps we might come back to that next time if it interests you…. but could I ask you something else? As you reflect on the last weeks of Tom’s life, was there anything that happened that moved you a little closer to being the person you want to be?”

With some energy and perhaps surprise in her voice, Claudia answered, “Now that I talk about it, lots of things. Doing it our way and speaking up to make that happen. The way I was able to show him how much I love him through what I did. It was so hard, but I was there to support him die the way he wanted to do it. I hadn’t really thought about it before.”

Turning Towards Pain

Claudia and I met each week until I was scheduled to be away on leave. (29) Before I left, we planned who Claudia might turn to in difficult times for support and what she might do. Not long after I returned, we were once again sitting in her home. After greeting each other warmly, Claudia brought her cup of tea into the living room, and we sat down.

“We had a fortnight gap this time, how did that go?” I inquired.

Claudia let a rush of air out. “My sister said, ‘Have you seen your counsellor this week?’ And I said, ‘No we couldn’t make it. Sasha was away.” And she said, “I always know when you haven’t seen her.” I thought I’d be fine, but I’ve had a really awful fortnight.”

“What is it that you do differently in the week when you’ve had a chance to talk?” I inquired, but I was off track. (30)

“I was thinking about what it was that changed. You know how I was feeling numb? Well, I’m raw now. I can’t seem to stop crying...” Claudia’s voice broke, and she could no longer speak. The pain gathered and eventually she sobbed, “It’s all the time... just crying all the time. I’m right back to raw and where is he? And how can this be happening?”

I listened, feeling the echoes of her pain. (31)

Claudia bowed her head and tightly wound her arms around her body. It was as if she was holding herself together. “I’m right back there... and that lovely numbness... that I was feeling has just gone,” she stuttered through the sobs. “It’s horrible... just that relentlessness... And I went to see a clairvoyant and she was just ghastly. I think that tipped me over the edge a bit. I realised I had a lot of hope riding on it.” She looked up at me with wet eyes.

many people search for connection with someone who has died through spiritual understandings they hold
My voice was soft. “May I ask …what were your hopes in seeing the clairvoyant?” I wasn’t surprised Claudia had visited a clairvoyant. Many people search for connection with someone who has died through spiritual understandings they hold.

“I didn’t realise until afterwards that I was hoping that it would be for real. I would have got a feeling of peace knowing that he is somewhere and can be with us. I didn’t get that at all. I just felt duped. I was already feeling quite low but hopeful, I realised afterwards.”

“Would it be okay if I ask a bit more about these hopes?” Claudia nodded as she blew her nose. “Would you mind speaking a little about what you were hoping for?”

“That he’s somewhere...And he’s not just puff gone. That he is somewhere and sometimes, somehow, he is around...that’s what I really want to believe...I need a message to say, ‘I’m OK, I can never see you again but I’m OK...and I know you are OK.” It is one of the hardest things I think, the not knowing.” I reflected on how much not knowing there could be surrounding illness and death.

Claudia’s anguish layered her words as she again tightly encased herself with her arms. “I’m stuck in this awful hole...I don’t know how to go on. I just don’t know how to hold on. I feel like I’m clinging on to a ledge. I have to but I don’t know how to keep going and going and going...” (32) I tried to imagine the relentlessness of continuing on. Her words created a vivid picture of the ledge. I made sounds of empathy as I listened, a witness to her pain and sorrow. “How important was knowing where Tom is in this holding on?” (33)

“Very important,” she cried.

“Yeah… yeah…,” I replied, almost crooning in my compassion for her. “What would it have given you in the holding on?”

Claudia cried, hiccupping as she answered, “Some sort of peace that he’s OK...that he’s with us...and that I might see him again...It’s so hard. It’s not like breaking up with someone and you know they’re OK. Somewhere they’re alive...”

“Completely different,” I affirmed.

Claudia voice was husky, “I just can’t get my head around it. It’s the absolute worst that could happen to me...I’m really struggling...” Her tears took over and we paused, neither of us hurrying or censoring her expressions of grief. “…and I’m sure having less help this week is making a difference. The family have been away. I’ve actually been feeling OK with my parenting.”

My ears pricked up. “Yeah...?” We had talked a lot about the impact of grief on her parenting as Imogen and Libby were Claudia’s top priority. However, I didn’t want to move Claudia away from her talk of the struggle sooner than she wanted so I resisted asking a question and kept my query very small.

“We’ve found a routine and I’m not shouting. I’m not feeling desperate about those times,” Claudia told me with an energy that conveyed to me she might have a possible interest in speaking further about her parenting.

“Is this something you would be interested in talking about?” When Claudia indicated, she would like to follow this direction I continued, “What’s allowed you to be OK with your parenting especially when there is so much struggle?”

“I think routine has helped. It’s soothing. And I’ve got really, really good at filling in the time now. Those girls are bloody tired by the end of the day because I’ve worn them out. Like last Sunday, we went to the markets and met a friend for breakfast, then we went to a school children’s art exhibition which was a couple of hours and then we went out west to see another friend. We got home at 6 P.M.” Claudia sighed, sounding exhausted even by the thought of what she had just relayed to me.

While being so busy was not Claudia’s preferred way of parenting prior to Tom’s death, this was a survival strategy she was using. “I’m really tired but that’s how I cope. Just fill in every hour possible. It’s not because I don’t want to think because I like to think about him. It’s just the only way I can cope with the kids. It’s helped.”

I returned to the aspect of parenting Claudia was feeling good about and, remembering Tom’s belief in Claudia’s parenting, decided to bring him into the conversation. (34) “And what would Tom make of you doing your parenting in a way that you felt good about? Finding a routine and being more how you want to be with the girls. What would he be thinking about that?”

“He’d be saying, ‘I knew you could. I’m proud of you.’”

We both smiled. With a lighter voice I asked, “What might Tom have known about you that allowed him to know you could do it?”

intensity and what sounded like determination entered her tones of sadness
“That I put them first...,” she replied as tears trickled down her face. “...That I’ll always look after them...” Intensity and what sounded like determination entered her tones of sadness “...and I’ll hold onto that ledge for them...hard as it is...”

“Is Tom under your feet helping to hold you up a bit too?” I asked, wanting to add his support if it was there.

“I don’t know...I hope so...He would if he could...if he can he will...I forgot about the rawness. It’s so horrible.” I nodded.

“It’s only three months since he died,” Claudia told me with emphasis.

“No time at all and yet perhaps a long time too. How would you describe it?” I reflected, slowly waiting for what else she might be about to share. Claudia replied, crying as if her heart would break, “No time and yet forever. It’s part of why I hurt so much. How’s three years going to feel since I saw him? And thirty years? I feel like I’m only living for my girls...to give them a good life...and not enjoying any of it myself. The hole just keeps getting bigger.”

is it hard to imagine that the hole might stop expanding and steady a bit? That it might be less gaping one day?' I said, offering a future possibility
“Is it hard to imagine that the hole might stop expanding and steady a bit? That it might be less gaping one day?” I said, offering a future possibility.

“I can’t...”

I nodded.

“Is your wanting to parent the girls so they have good lives...” I began to ask as I looked to connect Claudia to parts of her life that might help support her keep holding on. Her virtuous desire to care for her children in spite of the pain of living stood out to me.

Claudia interrupted me, staunch as always in her love of her girls. “I want them to have good happy lives, absolutely.”

“How would you describe a good, happy life for your girls?” I invited, seeking to connect her with a future for them that might be possible to envisage.

“Doing things that stimulate them and interest them with me...positive times with me and ...being strong in themselves...able to weather some storms... and get enjoyment out of things...and finding passions. I want that for them but not for myself. I don’t believe in having that for myself. I can’t see it again. It feels like it’s all gone...”

We paused together for a time and Claudia wept. (35) “I feel like something in my soul has gone... an intrinsic part of me.” Her description touched me as I murmured a quiet acknowledgment. After a pause I added, “May I ask what part of your soul would that be?”

“All of my adult self...is connected to Tom. Everything I do and think is influenced by him and our relationship. All my memories of being an adult...are with him. The way I view things is because of him. It is lovely and I’m very glad. But it’s such a wrench.”

“Was your soul entwined with his?” I wondered. Claudia nodded. “And was his entwined with yours?”

She nodded vehemently. “I don’t know where he is! It’s just so hard.” Claudia’s body shook and she put her head in her hands. It was my turn to nod as we both acknowledged the hardness. It was so hard (36). As we sat there for a time, I considered Claudia’s disappointment with the clairvoyant and how it had made the pain worse.

“I wonder if we can think about that a little bit…if we could figure something out, away from the experience you had with that particular clairvoyant...”

Claudia laughed heartily through her tears, “…Who believes in herself even if she is a complete fraud. I can’t accept that he’s not somewhere or not existing.”

what are your understandings of possible places or ways that Tom could be existing
“What are your understandings of possible places or ways that Tom could be existing?” I asked. People I meet with often have very different ways of understanding death even if they identify as belonging to a well-known faith tradition. They also often re-evaluate beliefs they’ve held for a lifetime in moments of illness and loss. I can never assume I know what someone believes.

“That he is part of the energy, the finite energy of the universe… that’s scientific,” Claudia explained to me. I listened attentively as she continued, “Or he could be in a different realm or a different world which is potentially scientific as well.”

“… like a parallel universe?” I inquired, noting her tears had stopped. “Yes. Or in some heavenly place, someplace souls go where there’s peace. I’m sure there are other frontiers but those are the ones I think of…I want him to be conscious somewhere and aware of us. If I think about another world or a heavenly place, he would be conscious of us.” She stared at the sky out the window. “What would a sense of Tom’s presence give you?” Claudia returned her gaze to me. “I would know he’s with us, present in our lives”.

“Do you think you have any impact on that sense of presence or how that presence could be felt?” I inquired. Claudia looked at me quizzically. “Clairvoyant people say we do, don’t they? If we can be open to it or not open to it.”

“I don’t know...Can you influence the way you feel Tom?” I wondered curious.

“I don’t know. I’d like to,” she affirmed. I cast my mind back to a previous conversation. “When we met last time, you mentioned you had felt him.”

Claudia confirmed, “I felt him really strongly.”

“May I ask what you were doing at the time?”

“I wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. I was probably having a laugh which was unusual as it was maybe two or three weeks after he died. The girls were playing around so a bit of a lighter moment and I was laughing with Libby playing peek-a-boo.”

would it be possible for you to have faith in yourself even if you can’t have faith in the clairvoyant you met
“Would it be possible for you to have faith in yourself even if you can’t have faith in the clairvoyant you met?” (37)

“I’ve tried very hard to separate those two. It’s where I came to on Saturday. I didn’t have a very good experience with her but that doesn’t mean it’s all out. I didn’t pin my hopes on just one person. I booked two clairvoyants. I’ve booked the other one for August and I’ve heard she is authentic and very good. I’ll keep that booking. I’m not giving up on it altogether.” Claudia sounded calm.

Laughing, she added, “I can spare another $120! If she’s good!” I laughed in response before inquiring, “What about your own experience of feeling Tom was with you?”

“It was very strong. But it’s very easy to doubt myself. That’s what’s hard I think,” Claudia explained. “I had another experience where I was looking for a necklace and I felt Tom very strongly. I was looking and looking and then I found it one day and I had a very strong feeling that Tom had helped me find it. I know that sounds strange. But it was such a strong feeling that I said, ‘Thank you Tom! That’s for Imogen.’ It just came out. I need more! Greedy, greedy!”

“When you feel Tom with you, what does that feel like?” I asked curiously.

“Normal! The old normal,” she explained with energy.

“How do you know he’s there? When he helped you find the necklace, what happened that told you that?” I wondered, keen to learn more.

“It just felt like everything’s OK again.”

“Ah.” I sat back in my chair.

“And I don’t have to have this new normal. Both times I just felt lighter and happier. This nightmare is over or maybe not what it seems.”

“If you met with another clairvoyant whom you did or didn’t find authentic, could anyone take away those experiences that you’ve had?”

“No. They’re authentic to me,” Claudia stated.

“You said you want more of them...”

In a sing-song voice Claudia interrupted, “I do!” She was grinning.

I returned her grin. “On demand!” I echoed in the same sing-song tones. Claudia laughed. (38)

“They felt authentic to me and I’m a big believer in going with your gut instinct. I’m quite in tune with those things. They felt real.” Claudia sat back looking steady.

I drove back to the hospice some time later reflecting on the many understandings people hold about what happens to a person after they die
"I drove back to the hospice some time later reflecting on the many understandings people hold about what happens to a person after they die." (39)

New Understandings

Claudia returned to work and, as the routine settled and time passed, the pain of Tom’s death intensified. As Claudia explained to me, “It is now not just days or weeks since I last saw Tom, but six months. The longer it is since I last saw my Tom, the more I miss him.” I wasn’t surprised as many other people have described a similar experience to me.

It was a rainy day. Claudia had finished breastfeeding Libby and had returned from laying her down to sleep. She walked up the stairs with a heavy tread and sat down. “It feels like we are now in a new normal. The new normal makes me so sad. I don’t want a new normal. I want the old normal. I’m feeling guilty; sad and guilty.”

I made a few acknowledging sounds as she talked, “It is so tough. Who would want this normal when comparing it to having a partner they loved alive?” I paused a moment as I looked at Claudia’s drawn face. “Would it be helpful to share with me some more about this sadness and guilt?” I continued, wondering if it might be useful to get to know the experience in more detail. I didn’t know the meaning of the guilt Claudia had spoken of .(40)

Claudia sighed. “I associate the amount that I’m crying with the amount of love that I feel for Tom. So… if I’m crying less, I know it’s silly, but I feel guilty as it seems like I don’t care. Then I feel really sad.”

I guess we often make an association between our love for a person and the amount we cry
“Hmm, I guess we often make an association between our love for a person and the amount we cry and sometimes, perhaps for some of us, it does represent some of what we feel. What ideas do you have about how the amount of crying that you are doing to express this loss got linked with the amount of love you have for Tom?” For just an instant, my mind turned to the gendered nature of how we express grief, as I pictured some of the men I had met with who were experiencing enormous grief without a tear. My attention returned to Claudia, “I think it’s from trying to explain to Imogen why I am so upset. Why I’m so tired or frustrated or short-tempered all the time or...I was trying to say to her it’s because I love Daddy — that’s why I’m feeling so much.”

“Would it be OK to consider that idea for a moment? Could I ask you a little more about how you do this grieving for Tom and how it shows up in your life?” (41)

“Sure. I cry all the time when I’m feeling the pain. I can’t seem to think or do anything else.”

I listened to Claudia intently and nodded. “You mentioned that you said to Imogen it was why you were feeling so tired or frustrated or short-tempered. Do you think you express the pain and loss in some other ways as well as crying?” Claudia began to reply thoughtfully, “It’s mostly crying…or…a feeling of stress…or…not feeling able to cope, not being able to sleep, not enjoying food much, not enjoying much,” her speech speeding up as more possibilities came to her.

“Would you say you interact with people in the same way, or is the loss colouring that?” I inquired, inviting her to consider additional possibilities.

“Definitely. I feel much more reserved, and I’m generally reserved anyway. It does effect everything!”

can you think of any part of yourself which is not touched by this loss
“Can you think of any part of yourself which is not touched by this loss?” I wanted to acknowledge the enormity that is so rarely named or acknowledged in Western societies.

 “No, not any part,” Claudia affirmed.

“If in the moments when you’re not expressing the loss by crying, is it possible you could be expressing it in other ways?”

“Yeah…” Claudia sat back on the sofa with a slight frown on her face as she reflected.

“If we consider the last few days, where you said you’ve been feeling a bit better; how do you think you’ve expressed the loss of Tom’s physical presence in your life in these days when you’ve felt less in pain?” The frown disappeared and energy came into Claudia’s voice, “Ah, now that’s interesting. Gosh! Actually, when I think about it, those two days are workdays, and they are very busy. Up till now, work has been filling my hours but it hasn’t been filling my mind. I’d frequently run to the bathroom and cry, but I was almost too busy to do it, I got distracted. It’s maybe what it was. How I express it.”

“Did the busyness of work distract you from connecting directly with the pain?”

Claudia gave an emphatic, “Yes.”

“Would it be OK to ask…how did you carry the loss that was different?”

Claudia readily described her experience. “It felt pushed aside and I didn’t like it. It’s possibly where the guilt was. It felt a little bit shunted off to the side…away…I wasn’t doing it on purpose. Work was busy and I was quite focused.”

“What does your ability to focus at work and...to even do work (!)...your commitment to work...What does that represent in terms of your family going on?” I stuttered, in growing awe as I again connected to what Claudia was managing.

“Earning money! Surviving!” Claudia asserted.

“What part of your life would you say you are prioritising in the times when you focus your attention on earning money and surviving rather than on your own experience of this pain and loss?” (42)

“The girls...maintaining my employability, that’s how I’m doing work. It fills in the hours and maintains my employability so I can provide for my family. I guess I’m making sure we can go on,” Claudia explained thoughtfully, as the implications of what she was saying seemed to sink in. Claudia lent back in her chair with a look of wonder on her face.

“OK. May I ask, what might Tom make of that?”

“He’d be saying .... ‘keep the standards up at work,’” she responded imitating Tom’s voice.

Slowly, giving weight to my question, I asked, “In the moments when you carry the loss in different ways so you can keep going and provide for your family as Tom wanted you to, do you think you are loving him less?”

“No.” Claudia was attentive.

“Would it be OK if I summarised a little of what we’ve been talking about? Would you mind helping me out if I don’t get it quite right or as you understand it?” (43) Claudia nodded her head, her eyes alert.

you said earlier in our conversation that you had been experiencing some feelings of guilt because you haven’t been crying as much
I cast my mind back over the conversation. “You said earlier in our conversation that you had been experiencing some feelings of guilt because you haven’t been crying as much. My understanding was that you thought this was because of an idea that the amount of crying you were doing showed how much you love Tom. Is that right?” Claudia immediately acknowledged our shared understanding, so I continued. “As we know that your love for Tom is unquestionable, we then explored the idea that you might be expressing or responding to the loss of Tom’s physical presence in your life in different ways…not just by crying. We’ve uncovered some different ways you express it besides crying and one of these is by attending to your survival and that of the girls — Something that Tom would very much support. How am I going so far?”

Claudia sat forward and speaking quickly replied, “Good. I do express it in many ways, and I always love him. I think it might be that I feel a bit less close to him in those times when I have to concentrate on other things.”

“Is that a useful understanding in view of the guilt you were experiencing before?”

“Yes, it’s more helpful and I don’t need to feel guilty. I wish he was here though,” she added wistfully.

“Of course,” I acknowledged.

Sometime later I left, having made a new plan with Claudia to meet at the hospice. While it was usual in my practice as a counsellor working with the hospice community team to visit people who were unwell and their families at home, it was not usual for me to visit people who were grieving. However, for Claudia, who was breastfeeding a baby and parenting another young child as she lived with the profound loss of Tom, trying to arrange to see me at hospice had previously been too difficult. Now, however, as we explored different ways Claudia could get some breaks, it had become possible without adding another burden.

The Ebb and Flow of Time (44)

Week after week Claudia shared her experiences of living with loss and the ways she found to endure and live according to her values. It was inspiring. I was in no doubt that she was teaching me.

One day stood out to me nine months after Tom died. It was pouring with rain, and we had struggled to find a private space for our conversation. Claudia and I had been talking about Imogen and Libby.

“I’ve been doing some new rituals with Libby to keep her close to her Dad. People say she’s too young to remember him and won’t remember any of this time. It’s so sad she won’t know him. I don’t want her going through her life with that idea. It creates an identity that is so powerless and unhelpful.”

relationships last beyond the life of our bodies and are not frozen in the past. They can even grow if nourished
I reflected that this chronological description of Libby and Tom’s relationship was an unhelpful one as Claudia had easily recognised. Relationships last beyond the life of our bodies and are not frozen in the past. They can even grow if nourished.

“What have you been doing with Libby to keep her close to her Dad?” I asked, as the idea of ‘not knowing’ churned in my mind.

Claudia eagerly began to share all the rituals she was doing with Libby to keep Tom present and an active part of her day-to-day life.

“If Tom was only relegated to the past and all his influence ended when he died, then maybe Libby wouldn’t know much of her Dad. But what if you were to continue to keep kernels of memory alive, as you already are, and grow them through retelling them to the girls and the wider family?”

Claudia was emphatic. “I want to!” she exclaimed. I reflected that Claudia was in fact already doing all she could, however the idea ‘relationships end in death’ surrounds us, and it’s hard to step outside dominant ideas.

We spent some time reflecting on what Claudia was already doing to support the girls’ sense of knowing their Dad. “I think it will make all the difference,” Claudia told me. I considered who might support Claudia and the difference that support could make.

“If you all as a family spoke of Tom’s influence on the girls and their lives as they unfolded, what might Libby and Imogen say about their father and their knowing (45) of the relationship then? Would they have an experience of ‘not knowing their father’?”

“Tom’s Mum has some beautiful ways of talking about him to the girls. She tells stories of him as a boy and reminds the girls of ways they are like him. I think if we all do it as an extended family, they will know their father perhaps better than many children whose father is alive. It’s not the same as him being here but they will ‘know their Dad,’” Claudia said with determination. I noted her quick grasp of such a concept.

“Would you mind sharing a memory you have of Libby with her Dad and then Imogen with her Dad so that we might explore them a little further?”

I have six selfies of him with Libby on his chest sleeping with messages saying, ‘Baby’s sleeping well
“Tom putting Libby to sleep stands out. Libby was born in the evening and the next morning she went to sleep on her Dad’s chest. I would breastfeed Libby to sleep, I know the books say not too…but he couldn’t obviously. So, he would lay her down on his chest and she would go to sleep. When I went back to work, he knew I was missing Imogen who was at school, and Libby and him at home, so he would send me messages and photos telling me how they had got on. It was so lovely. I have six selfies of him with Libby on his chest sleeping with messages saying, ‘Baby’s sleeping well.’”

“What do you think he gave Libby by having her sleep snuggled into his chest?”

Claudia spoke without hesitation. “Love and comfort. He soothed her and relaxed her. She was a content and happy baby.”

“How might that love and soothing have seeped in and influenced her, do you think?”

“She’s always been a happy baby. I thought of it as entering her very cells,” Claudia laughed, before responding to me with a story.

“Do you have a name you give to Tom’s love and soothing entering her very cells?”

Claudia furrowed her eyebrows but then her face relaxed, “Could that be what people mean by ‘embodied?’”

“Does an ‘embodied memory’ fit?” I checked, thinking of the extensive knowledge Claudia brought to such a conversation.

“An embodied memory,” she affirmed smiling.

We were both warming to the topic, and I asked another question. “Sadly, we often hear of the long-term effects of neglect and abuse on a small child, but what about the opposite? How might the love and soothing Tom gave Libby and the happiness it generated in her influence how she will grow up and the person she will become?”

This drew an enthusiastic response from Claudia and we spent some time canvasing the topic. I am always curious about reciprocity in relationships, especially when it is usually invisible. (46) Consequently, I then asked her, “What do you think Libby gave her Dad when she slept on his chest each day?”

To Claudia it was clear. “She gave him love and connection. And a reason to stop. As Tom got sicker, I remember him saying, ‘I feel so weak and tired and old’ and he didn’t want to feel like that. Libby gave him a reason to rest without having to think, ‘I have to lie down because I’m weak and sick.’”

“What difference would this gift of Libby’s have made to her Dad; the gift of drawing Tom’s attention to what he was doing for her by resting, rather than being forced to think he was lying down because he was weak and sick? What difference would that gift have made to him and his life?”

she protected him from the pain of knowing how tired he was and of thinking about himself as a sick person
Claudia pondered as I watched her. She then answered thoughtfully, giving weight to her words. “She gave him dignity. She protected him from the pain of knowing how tired he was and of thinking about himself as a sick person.”

I was struck by the beauty of such a gift as the words of many people I have met with swirled through my mind. “What difference did it make to Tom and the way he thought about himself, to have his dignity and not be thinking about himself as a sick person?”

Claudia’s voice softened. “He would have liked thinking of someone else and not focusing on himself and how he felt.”

“What was important to Tom, that thinking about someone else would have been helpful to him?”

“He would always put the children first, so not only would it have given him dignity, it meant he was able to be the parent he wanted to be.”

“If you were to tell Libby the story of what her Dad gave her and what she gave her Dad, what kind of understandings might she have of their relationship do you think? How might she describe herself as a daughter?”

“I think one day she will be happy to know she did that for her Dad. She was the only one who could have done it which is very special”.

“….and if it was retold both by the family and by Libby herself, how might it influence the way Libby described herself as a person and her relationship with her Dad do you think?” (47)

“I think the family would add details and their impressions. I guess it could become one of those stories that gets told at family parties and special events and everyone would know it. The story of Libby’s gift to her Dad. I bet it would get longer each time too! She would be proud to know she had done something so meaningful and kind.”

“What kinds of knowing of her Dad and herself might she glean from this story of how she slept on his chest as a baby?”

After we had talked about Libby, we then easily moved on to a story of Imogen, but this time I wanted Claudia to think about how she might go about thickening the story. (48)

“Last week I was in Tom’s Garden with Imogen. We saw a button from one of Tom’s gardening clothes in amongst the dirt. Imogen picked it up and she said, ‘This is a magic button! Maybe it will bring my Daddy back.’”

“Wow! How might you retell this story, so it spoke even further of the relationship Imogen had with her Daddy?” “What a poignant story,” I thought. I began to wonder how Imogen had learnt about magic and what role her Dad had played in helping her gain such knowledge but I remained quiet as I listened to Claudia add what was important to her.

Claudia had lots of details and stories to add to the moment she had described and quickly it began to grow. I then asked her, “What might Imogen have been treasuring about her relationship with her Dad in that moment when she wanted to use the magic button to bring her Daddy back?”

“They spent every Friday together from when she was very little. They’d usually go off on an adventure together. It might be local or it might be catching the ferry somewhere, to the museum or go and eat Chinese food in a food hall in town. They had whole days together, which was lovely. And they were always interesting adventures. Maybe she was thinking of having another wonderful adventure.”

After we had talked for a while, I began to summarise some of the ideas we had been considering and added some final questions.

“When someone talks about a child not remembering, what are they taking into account and what would you say has got left out?”   

Tom doesn’t have to be just in the past, a memory movie that fades. We are putting him into our daily life now with our rituals and talk
Claudia began hesitantly, but as the words came out, they gained solidity. “I guess saying ‘they don’t remember’ is only talking about the pictures and movies in the girls’ memories that happened that they may not recall. But we’re talking about what is all around that and in between. The relationship and what things mean to us and go on being important to us. And the memories their bodies carry that has shaped who they are even if their brains don’t have the pictures. Actually, the important stuff! And Tom doesn’t have to be just in the past, a memory movie that fades. We are putting him into our daily life now with our rituals and talk.”

“I couldn’t have said it better,” I thought to myself.

This New Life

Claudia sat down exclaiming how hectic the morning was with two young children. After expressing gratitude that the rush was over, she relaxed back in her chair, sipping on a steaming cup of tea. It was more than a year since Tom had died and over previous weeks, we had been discussing the demands of her new life, in particular being a parent and living with loss.

Claudia opened our conversation by making some comparisons between her life now and how it was in the months just after Tom had died. After some discussion I asked Claudia, “How would you describe the reshaping of your days and your life with the girls now as you live with this grief a bit further down the track?”

Claudia readily answered, “The grief is changing. It’s deeper and I’m covering it up more now. The waves of loss come and go. In spite of that, I’m trying very hard to enjoy Imogen and Libby’s company and to remind myself what matters. For a long time, I needed to keep the girls busy to survive but now I’m not planning as many things to do and we’re able to just spend time together.”

This was a significant and welcome change for Claudia and so rather than asking about what mattered to her or further questions about her changing experience of grief, I requested further details. “Would you mind sharing with me a story of the three of you just spending time together?”

I’m trying to create moments which are valuable rather than rushing around
“Last Saturday I took the risk of not having anything planned. Imogen and Libby were playing nicely at home when Imogen asked me if we could go to a café. I said we could go to the one up the road. Libby asked if she could push her dolls’ pram and when I said ‘Yes,’ Imogen asked if she could too. I knew it would be hard work, but I said ‘yes’ to both of them. We walked up the street with the girls pushing their dolls’ prams having a wonderful time. The five-minute walk took half an hour and all the time I was trying to enjoy it. By the end of the day when I reflected back, that was my favourite part of the day! I’m trying to create moments which are valuable rather than rushing around.”

I noticed Claudia acting on her own life to try and make it more like how she wished it to be. “As you prioritise such valuable moments, what might you find yourself doing more of and what might you find yourself doing a bit less of do you think?”

Claudia answered me with energy. “More breathing and less jumping in! The mess on the floor really isn’t a big deal. I sat down with Libby and played with her rather than complaining about the untidiness for example. It takes practice and effort and yet it was much more valuable to both of us.”

Claudia smiled at me, and I returned her warmth with a smile of my own.

“When you look back at the end of the day on those valuable moments, what makes them worthwhile?”

“I feel like I contributed to Libby’s enjoyment and learning by playing a game. And even though there is a whole list of things to do, this is an important moment. An opportunity,” Claudia exclaimed.

“What is it an opportunity for?” I asked, collecting detail.

“For connection, I guess. It’s parenting how I want too.”

“What were the three of you able to enjoy together that wouldn’t have been available to you if you’d been rushing around doing other things?”

Claudia spoke as if in unfamiliar territory. “This was a shared experience that we were all getting enjoyment from rather than me creating an experience that they could enjoy and one that would help me survive.”

“You have spoken previously of needing to fill up the spaces in your day to survive. While that still may be a useful strategy at times given what hard work parenting can be, and also that you are living with loss, I was wondering…what would you say this process of moving from filling in space towards savouring some valuable moments represents?” (49)

I was aware my survival methods weren’t necessarily what they wanted
“It’s something I’ve been trying to do over the last couple of months. I was aware my survival methods weren’t necessarily what they wanted, so I’ve been watching to see how the girls play at home. When I noticed they could be at home and play, I thought I might try it a bit more.”

I noticed the care Claudia took in taking this new step so I asked, “Did you try it out gradually?”

“Yeah…I am acutely aware that time, while it plods, goes very quickly at the same time.”

“Would you say that savouring those moments that are valuable to you is wisdom that you’ve come to appreciate differently from this process of grieving?”

Nodding Claudia replied, “Yeah. Definitely! Since Tom has died, I have imagined life when the girls are adults and I’m old. I asked myself what memories I would wish to keep, and I realised I wouldn’t have him to help me remember. I also realised that if I was in a rush all the time, I would only remember a blur. So, I’m trying to slow life down and create memories I want to look back on.”

I was fascinated by her reply. “How did you develop or hone this ability to move forward in time and then think about what might be valuable to you when you look back on your life?” (50)

Claudia’s reply of, “I learnt it through grieving. It’s more important especially as I may be doing it on my own,” was followed by further examples.

“Is this ability to move forward in time and think about how it might be looking back on your life, is it leading to you making different decisions in the present? For example, did it contribute to you deciding to walk with the girls and their prams?”

“Yes, and it’s also what Tom would have done with Imogen.”

I remembered the adventures Tom took Imogen on and his ability to savour life. “Are you taking a leaf out of Tom’s book?”

“Yeah, trying to.” Claudia’s eyes twinkled.

"If you were to create a present you would wish to look back on when you are old, how might that impact on the kind of life you will end up living do you think?"

I just wanted to make it to the end of my life but now I can see I don’t have to claw my way through minute by minute
“I guess if I keep doing it, I might be happier. I’ve been reflecting and I want to try and live more according to our values. At first, I just wanted to make it to the end of my life but now I can see I don’t have to claw my way through minute by minute, and that there can still be some valuable experiences I can enjoy. I’m thinking about how I can make my life as good as it can be, even though Tom’s not here. Well…not physically. I’ve actually developed this belief that he is somewhere near…from that experience I had and lots of reading. I was thinking of him as somewhere a bit removed and not able to be with me every minute.

“But then I thought… WHAT IF HE IS WITH ME? What if I change my thinking and think he’s here every minute of the day? How does that affect how I think about things? And it’s quite nice. I wondered ‘what if that’s crazy?’... but does it matter? No one’s ever going to know if I’m crazy or not...Some people might think that’s a bit of a crutch or make believe or a bit crazy, but they don’t know! And I don’t know so that doesn’t matter. If I think that he is with me all the time, then that helps me get through. It feels like a nice very deliberate connection.”

“If Tom had any say in the matter, no matter how small, where would he choose to be?”

Claudia grinned. “I know that if he had a choice, he would be here with us. Even if he was told he had other things to do, I think he would still choose to be here with us. I think he’d go, ‘No, no, no, those things can wait. I want to be with my family.’ I like that. That’s a new way of thinking about him being with us.”

Thinking out loud I responded, “What difference does this way of thinking make? That if Tom had any say he would be deciding and prioritising being with you as a family in whatever ways he could...?”

Claudia interrupted my stumbling. “It helps! It eases it a bit. I don’t feel so alone.”

“How does it help in terms of the day to day? What difference does …”

Claudia jumped in with energy. “He can’t unload the dishwasher still and he can’t help with the kids.” She laughed and then paused looking up at the ceiling, “but.... maybe.... we can have our friendship... which is the thing I miss the most.” Speaking as if to herself she reflected, “The parenting by myself is overwhelmingly hard but what I really miss is having the person who knows me so well and who loves me for who I am .... that partner .... That’s what I miss the most. He can’t talk back but I can imagine he’s here. There’s no harm in thinking that, is there? People might think I’m crazy, but they don’t know. We don’t know! We don’t know!”

“No, we don’t!” I agreed.

“And it helps me!” she enthused, her eyes twinkling.

I smiled. “What might Tom be saying about that?”

“Mmmm! He’s saying, ‘I want to be with you. I don’t want to go and wash my halo!” Claudia started laughing.

Claudia, still laughing, lowered her voice and imitated Tom talking .... “I have obligations! And I haven’t made a choice to be out here.”

We continued to laugh and talk, with Claudia then speculating what Tom might know, given she thought he could read her mind. It was good to see her enjoying the joke.

“I would definitely not have chosen this life but as I have to have this new life, I’m choosing to have him with me, and if he can, he will be choosing to be with me, "she concluded.

Neither of us for a second thought that this moment of realisation and laughter meant the sense of loss and pain had gone. But we enjoyed the value it offered and together we savoured that moment.


Claudia, you are the anonymous co-author of this story and have generously shared your experiences in order to benefit others. “How do you see yourself through the eyes of the story?”

“I must have read it at least 20 times and all the different versions. Whenever I read it, I see my values but differently. In a focused way. I see myself and I think ‘gosh, I must be a good person.’ Even at the moment when I’m feeling so low and stressed, I read it and it makes a difference.”

When I performed (51) the first part of this story for you three years ago, you described seeing yourself ‘through Tom’s loving, compassionate eyes.’ Would you like to add to this description now that you have glimpsed yourself in the fuller version?”

now I’m looking out and looking forward, I feel really good, better than in years
“It was incredibly important for us to spend that last part of Tom’s life according to our values. I want people to know we weren’t perfect. When I read the story, it’s like seeing you. I can imagine what you might ask me. I miss writing it! Now I’m looking out and looking forward, I feel really good, better than in years.”


Bird, J. (2000). The heart’s narrative: Therapy and navigating life’s contradictions. Edge Press.

Bird, J. (2004). Talk that sings: Therapy in a new linguistic key. Edge Press.

Epston, D. (2004). Joel, can you help me to train Amber to be a guard dog? Journal of Brief Therapy, 3, 92-106.

Epston, D. (2016). In pursuit of children’s virtues: The wonderfulness interview. In D. Marsten, D. Epston, & L. Markham (Eds.). Narrative therapy in wonderland: Connecting with children’s imaginations and knowhow (pp27-48). Norton.

Epston, D. & Marsten, D. (2010). ‘What doesn’t the problem know about your son or daughter?’: Providing the conditions for the restoration of a family’s dignity. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 1, 30-36.

Epston, D., Heath, T., Ingamells, K., & Pilkington, S. M. (2016). Exemplary tales: Virtual apprenticeships. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 35(2), 56-70.

Freedman, J. & Coombs, G. (1996). Narrative therapy. The social construction of preferred realities. Norton.

Harrington, K. (2012). The use of metaphor in discourse about cancer: A review of the literature. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, 16, 408- 412.

Hedtke, L. & Winslade, J. (2017). The crafting of grief. Constructing aesthetic responses to loss. Routledge

Ingamells, K. (2015). From ‘learning the scales’ to improvisation: A journey to becoming a narrative therapist. Unpublished paper presented at the Therapeutic Conversations 12 Conference, Vancouver, Canada.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Coming to our senses. Healing ourselves and the world through mindfulness. Hyperion.

May, T. (2015). A significant life. Human meaning in a silent universe. The University of Chicago Press.

Pilkington, S.M. (2016). Insurance policies for miracle cures: A story illustrating narrative practice with someone approaching death. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 35, 71-87.

Pilkington, S.M. (2017). Deconstructing denial: Stories of narrative therapy with people who are dying and their families, Journal of Narrative Family Therapy, 1, 54-75. www.journalnft.com

Pilkington, S. M. (2018). Writing narrative therapeutic letters: Gathering, recording and performing lost stories, Journal of Narrative Family Therapy, 2018, Special Release, pp. 20-48. www.journalnft.com

Pilkington, S. (2018). Virtue Inquiries. Video of Collab Salon, November 2018, Re-Authoring Teaching. www.reauthoringteaching.com (Freely available)

White, M. (1988/89). The externalizing of the problem and re-authoring of lives and relationships. In M. White (Ed.). Selected papers, (pp.5-28). Dulwich Centre Publications.

White, M. (1998). Saying hullo again: The incorporation of the lost relationship in the resolution of grief. In White, C. and Denborough, D.(eds.) Introducing Narrative Therapy. Dulwich Centre Publications, 1998.

White, M. (2007). Maps of narrative practice. W. W. Norton.

White, M. & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. Dulwich Centre Publications.  

Both Part I and Part II of this article were originally published as one essay in the Journal of Contemporary Narrative Therapy, 2021, Release 1, 59-87. The ‘notes’ (referenced in parentheses) can be found in the original article

© 2023, Psychotherapy.net
Sasha  McAllum Pilkington Sasha McAllum Pilkington is a narrative therapist working for Harbour Hospice in Tamaki Makaurau Auckland. She has contributed articles to various publications on counselling practice in palliative care. Sasha has an interest in illustrating as well as discussing narrative therapy practice. Her work seeks to show the rich stories that can come forth at the end of life as people seek to find ways of approaching death and storying loss in ways that matter to them. Sasha has presented workshops in Aotearoa New Zealand, Norway, USA and Canada, and online through “Re-Authoring Teaching” on therapeutic conversations in palliative care.