We tell ourselves stories in order to live

So it has rolled around to mid-August.

Those who’ve experienced grief will probably know I’m not exaggerating when I say: the last 12 months have gone by in a blur.

Looking back now, I think it’s safe to say that on September 11 last year, the day that I was told my beautiful little brother had died, my every day awareness of life, and sense of current time, shut down for a long period.

Outwardly, I began to function normally again not long after, going to work and seeing friends, but any second when it was not distracted, my mind was focussed inwards, and in the past. It had a lot of mental work to do. It needed to integrate the enormous chasm where my brother’s life had been. The enormous chasm in what? I hear you ask. Well….in the picture of the world, and my life, that I carry around with me in my head.

In order to do this, my mind began to obsess over dates and periods of time for every memory I unearthed, whether specifically of John or not of John – it didn’t matter. How old was he when this song was a hit, how old was he when I was at this college I’m walking past, how old was I, how long ago was this event, and, always the inevitable calculation: how much time had John left to live at that point in our shared history. Did he have 15 years left, 5 years, 1 month, or 1 day?

At first, this constant need to fixate on time in relation to any memory of John seemed a disjointed, jumbled thought process created by grief and not serving any purpose, but now, looking back, I suspect there was a purpose to my fixation on distilling my brother’s life down to numbers and fractions – it gradually enabled me to construct a timeline of his life.

I don’t mean that I’ve created a literal timeline dotted with the events of his life in a chronological order. I mean that all that mental work of thinking over dates, ages, time frames, etc, enabled me to come to a point, months later, where I was able to comprehend that his life was a finite thing, that had a beginning and an end – and – here is the crucial point – to grasp that both were in the past.

From this process, I’ve come to understand that we carry a kind of “story” in our minds, that is intrinsic to our understanding of ourselves and our lives. In a very fundamental way, I mean. I think that what we call “shock” is a huge chasm in our understanding of the world, that results when an element of this basic story is ripped apart through a sudden death.

For example, because I am lucky enough to live in a First World country, I expect that my parents will live to an age ranging somewhere from their seventies to their nineties. As they are in their early seventies, I’m awre that time is drawing closer but still hopeful that it could be a decade or more away. I don’t sit around consciously thinking about when my siblings, friends and family will die, but at an unconscious level I expect that I, and most of my siblings, friends and relatives around my age, will also live – on average – into our eighties or a bit beyond. I expect, and hope, that my child will outlive me.

Therefore, I have an unconscious understanding of my life as a fixed span of time, and of where and how it interconnects with the lives of everyone I know. I assume I’m approximately half way through my life. I’m aware that these expectations are based on averages, and that plenty of people don’t make it to those average ages, but nevertheless, when one of those people turns out to be someone you love, that awareness is no comfort. As much as you know that all around the world every day people die both young and suddenly, you can’t prepare for the sudden shattering of your life as you know it, when someone puts the name of your sibling and the word “died” into the same sentence.

So I realise now that although I probably didn’t spend a lot of time consciously thinking about my brother, his life was an intrinsic part of my own “story”. The story was as simple as this: that I am an older sister to 5 younger siblings. That amongst these siblings was this brother, born 8 years after me. That he would continue to be around, steadily 8 years younger than me, throughout most of my life. That, taking into account life expectancies for males and females, and our age difference, it was possible that he might live on after me. That  we loved each other,  and were bonded through love for the same group of people – the other members of our family. That’s it, at it’s most basic level. I didn’t need to think about those things. Our connected story was incredibly simple, but deeply, intrinsically, a part of my entire understanding of myself, my life and my world.

There were also other layers to the story, layers sculpted out of the details.  For example, details about our current lives, where we lived, things we’d done in the past, together and apart. A trip to Hanging Rock, a holiday at Wilsons Prom, the time we walked around Lake Daylesford at 1am, slightly stoned. These details formed layers over the top of the basic story, so that our interconnected story had depth and complexity, and currency.

I see now that after he died, the process of grieving caused me to continually confront little snippets of these layers, and, bit by bit, try to grasp that, not only was each separate memory – of the trip to Wilson’s Prom for example – in the past, but so was the interconnected storyline they were part of.  I felt compelled to do calculations, and to try and place ages, dates, and times, over and over – all so that I could grasp that the timeline of his life had reached its end, and reassess all my memories with that new perspective.

Without realising it, what I was doing was gradually chipping away at the top layers of our connected stories, the little memories of shared holidays and going to see Sonic Youth together, and working my way down, towards the deeper, basic story of our connected lives, the one that would be harder to shift.

I wonder if this accounts for the “waves” of grief that people talk about. I think perhaps each new wave of grief comes when you start (unconsciously) dismantling another layer of these densely interconnected stories. Or perhaps it comes at the end of having chipped away another layer. In any case, as each layer is chipped away, you come closer to understanding that your brother has died.

This is such a painful process to go through.  At first, and for months, every memory that popped up required analysing, calculating, and recalibrating. Every memory, therefore, was met with a huge sense of shock, swiftly followed by a new wave of grief, distress, and pain.

Whether the memory was about John or about the lino on the floor of a rented house 4 years earlier, it didn’t matter. I had to reassess the memory, and refit it into our previously interconnected story, to reconfigure that story into one where my little brother’s part abruptly comes to an end in September 2011, and mine continues on.


John (at top), probably about 15, or, nearly half-way through his life.


*Recently I read a post that mentioned a book by Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live. I’d been thinking about this “story of our lives” concept, so I immediately loved that title, and knew it would have to be the title of a post, if and when I wrote about this. Of course, I must also track down the book and read it at some point. Thanks to Goldfish for that piece of information.

Leave a comment


  1. Speechless. I can’t even begin to fathom what it’s like to lose a sibling at such a young age. Thank you for sharing your experiences.


  2. cath

     /  August 23, 2012

    dreamed I was in a pub in Doolin and heard John laughing and I saw him with some people by the fire but he didn’t come over. were a good one though.


  3. Also Joan D, the year of magical thinking – about the year following her husband’s sudden death.


  4. Thanks, I’ve read your other post now. Wasn’t worrying but didn’t want you to miss Didion’s memoir; for whatever reasons, round where I live folk don’t seem to have heard of it. And I’m sorry I wasn’t able to manage more than a sentence in the last comment. I just lost all my words and stared at the box for a while then gave up and clicked post.
    I bought and read it after the sudden death of a friend. I then passed it on to his wife, my oldest, closest friend. I don’t know if she even got a chance to read it before she also died, in a car crash, shortly afterwards.
    I don’t think I’ll be reading Didion’s account of her daughter’s death for a while yet.


  5. I know this exactly. You don’t want to admit they are dead and gone be ukase then you have to let them go…


  6. Sorry, another comment. Don’t worry I am not actually a crazy stalker, am just captured by your story and your wonderfully original thinking about grief. I’m a doctor and I’ve read a lot about grief and thought about it tons and you are an original thinker! Thank you for sharing. You really do need to pursuit this – you have lots to share.


    • Thanks again! (Yes, I’m still working through replies and getting them all out of order!). Thanks for reading my posts about John, but also thanks for that feedback, it’s nice to be told you’re an original thinker!



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