"Tell Me a Story!" by Rabbi Judith Beiner

September 27, 2023

"Tell Me a Story!" by Rabbi Judith Beiner

Tell Me a Story

By Rabbi Judith Beiner

Among the greatest gifts I receive from my work as JF&CS Community Chaplain are the stories. Over the years, I’ve visited people in hospitals, hospices, care facilities, and prisons; I’ve conducted funerals, facilitated support groups, taught classes and workshops and more. There are stories of illness and recovery, trauma and death, injury and rehabilitation, depression and decline, loss and grief, learning and growth, regret and forgiveness and of course healing and recovery.

I was reminded of one of these stories this past weekend when I was out for a walk with a new friend. When she heard me say ‘prisons’ she asked about those visits. I told her about Barb and Jackie, two Jewish women who were incarcerated at a medium security prison in Georgia that I visited several times over the course of a year. As I came to know these two women and their backgrounds, I learned some of the ways in which they learned to accept the consequences of their actions, take responsibility and strive to grow and change. By the time they were released, I had come to know these two women not as ‘inmates’, but as good humored, energetic, interesting and sensitive people.

When we take the time to ask questions to get to know someone, and then sit down and listen, we create a connection. Everyone wants to be heard and seen, particularly in a time of illness, stress or isolation.

I’ve come to understand how telling stories can help shift a mood or a mindset. Grace had been in decline for many years, with her sons – Marty and Gary – having had to navigate her moves, arrange for her care, and manage the details of her living when she was no longer able to do so. They told me she had grown progressively more difficult and angry and was frequently lashing out at them, and they were tired, frustrated and irritated. After she died, I met with Marty and Gary prior to the funeral. I asked them to tell me Grace’s story and what kind of mom she was. They said, “she was a great mom!” and shared stories of their growing up, how smart and generous and fun she had been and all the good times they had together. Marty said to me, “you know, we’d almost forgotten who our mom really was.” By encouraging them to recount stories about Grace, Marty and Gary realized that the past few difficult years were only a brief period of her life. They were able to let go of the negative feelings they had been holding, replacing them with positive and joyful memories.

In bereavement support groups, we ask participants to bring pictures of their loved ones and tell stories about them. We do this in part as a ‘getting to know you’ exercise. When we bring the loved ones ‘into the room’, participants see each other in the context of the person they lost, which in turn can help them feel closer and more connected with one another. Most people cry when sharing those photos, yet there often is a moment when the tears stop and their face lights up and we can see the joy and love in that relationship. Stories are what we have left when our dear ones are gone. Telling (and retelling) them helps us keep them present and close with us.

Stories help us remember our past, teach us lessons, and convey the richness of every life. The act of sharing a story, listening and speaking, can create understanding and connection, and meaning.

I’ve been blessed by a multitude of stories. I hope the same is true for you.