The other day I was grocery shopping with my three-year-old son. He always has a stuffie of some sort in hand; that day it was his lion. An older man, someone I would normally not even notice, approached us in the produce section—which is not unusual when grocery shopping with a cute toddler. Yet this man was drawn to more than my little boy’s sweet demeanour; the stuffed lion caught his eye.
He shared his name: Mike. His speech indicated an accent as he made brief small talk. And then he shared with me a story of loss. Mike was four years old during the second world war, living in Europe during that time with his family. The destruction and fighting from the war prompted his parents to send him to live with his grandparents in the north. Mike spoke with sadness when recalling that with this move, he had to leave his brown stuffed bear. He never saw it again. Mike named that as a significant loss, standing with me beside the raspberries.
Mike continued his story, telling me about how ‘the State’ said that, at nine years old, he wasn’t to live with his grandparents anymore but that he had to return to live with his parents. Mike again told me about what he left behind, including his bicycle. He described life with his parents as difficult, with his dad passing soon after his return to live with them, and a distant mother.
This whole conversation probably took five or six minutes of my time and attention; my three-year-old son was no longer interested by then and Mike was aware of his impatience. He thanked me for taking the time to talk. He shared that often people look at him and seem to dismiss him, not wanting to engage in conversation. He carried on his way, we finished our shopping, and our lives went back to the way they were.
I was, and continue to be, struck by Mike’s draw to my son’s stuffed lion. His openness to tell me about the painful loss of his brown stuffed bear reminds me of how significant our personal losses are, at any age really. I’m sure Mike is more aware of the significant global events that were happening at that time, but for him as a child, that loss of his soothing object held the most impact. Our attachment to particular objects often isn’t based on the monetary value, but the meaning we place on these objects, often based on experiences, relationships, or fond memories. The loss of these objects, especially in such a traumatic way as it was for Mike, seems to include significant emotional response that dissipates with time, but never seems to disappear.
Another piece of my interaction with Mike that lingers with me is his willingness to share an aspect of his life, a small essence of his story. It made me realize more that such a level of openness with others rarely happens in our day to day activities like grocery shopping. But it reminded me of what it means to be human, of the stories each one of us is carrying with us every day, threads of significant events in the midst of our trivial comings and goings. It reminds me that there is power in sharing, and listening to these stories.
I’m privileged in my work as a therapist at Shalem Mental Health Network to listen to many people’s stories. This is a role and profession that I value and am grateful for. Yet I hope that in my sharing this story of my brief interaction with Mike, each of you might become just a little more aware of how you can speak your story, and listen to the stories of others—stories of joy and pain, of excitement, anticipation, of anxiety or concern. Perhaps that sharing may come face to face, planned or spontaneous, but my hope is that it will be genuine and engaged.
Mike didn’t ask more of me than those few minutes in the grocery store; what he gave me continues.
Michelle DeBoer works as an Art Therapist and Registered Psychotherapist with Shalem Mental Health Network