Talking about Death

Death. It’s one of the issues that we personal biographers are trained to address with clients in interviews. We become accustomed to asking straightforward questions and discussing the topic with ease. We’re personal biographers after all. We don’t shy away from the heavy stuff.

Recently, my elderly client died. Flo was her name and I wrote about her in my last blog. In her final months, as her decline was obvious, I asked her directly, “How do you feel about dying?”

Her answer was both shocking and not.

“I’m ready. I’m looking forward to it. It’s time.”

She didn’t want a big funeral and she shared her thoughts about the afterlife.

Experts advise that those who are actively dying want to talk about their death. Our clients often have no one else to confide in about the subject and it is our job to allow them to share their feelings. We must discuss death because we owe it to our clients.

What I didn’t realize is that I also owed it to myself to ask these questions. Flo’s death—while not unexpected—was still sad. There’s no avoiding that. But there was a solace in knowing how she felt. In the aftermath of her death, there were no questions.

Clearly, if Flo had been younger, afflicted by a terrible disease in her prime, it would have been more difficult. Those who die prematurely, with young families and young careers, have a much greater emotional precipice to climb. But regardless of the situation, conversing about imminent death relieves all. Of this, I am certain.

Address death when you write your life story. How you feel about it, what you expect from it. And if you’re interviewing a loved one, please don’t ignore the issue. Those who are dying want to share their feelings. And the truth is, you’ll benefit from what they say too.

If you’d like help writing your life story—or the life story of someone you love—please contact me directly. It would be my honor to assist you in any way you’d like.

Flo

I just said goodbye to one of my clients. Flo contacted me a few years back, asking for my help compiling a book of essays she had written over the course of her lifetime. I was happy to work with her and even happier to maintain a friendship with her after the book was complete. Flo is now 97, on hospice, and going to live with her daughter in a different state for whatever time she has left.

I will miss Flo. And after you read one of her essays, I think you’ll understand why.

“I once had a doctor who told me that life is like climbing a hill. From birth to about 30 years one goes up the hill, and then it is all downhill from there. I really don't believe that, well maybe physically that is so, but not spiritually or mentally.

“I believe that we continue to go up that hill as long as we live so that when we reach old age we can look down from that lofty mountain at all these young people trying to "find themselves." It took me a long time to understand the meaning of that, but I think I know now what it means. To be at peace with who I am.

“Maybe I am not as good looking as I would like to be, maybe I don't have as many friends as I would like to have, maybe I don't have as much money as I would like, or a million "maybes.” But here I am and this is what I will be and I must be content that I have done the best with the life I was given. From this lofty position on the mountain called "Old Age" I have peace.”

Flo W.

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The Gift of Brag

I recently completed work on a client’s life story. We spoke for some eight hours, over many weeks, discussing nearly every aspect of his 86 years. Jerry was an incredibly interesting fellow with a wonderfully successful career. He rose to the highest rungs of a Fortune 500 company and secured global accolades, financial wealth, and lifelong friends.

After the first draft of our book was complete, my client asked one of those lifelong friends for her review.

Her critique surprised him: “You were too modest.”

Jerry, I should add, is not a modest man. He’s not timid or soft-spoken or reserved. Quite the opposite in fact. But, like most of us, he has a hard time bragging.

Our solution to the modesty problem was for me to interview another dozen-plus people in Jerry’s life – friends, colleagues, family. People who would speak honestly about my client without concern of appearing boastful. And very quickly our book changed. Accomplishments that Jerry had mentioned in passing were highlighted again and again in superlative words. Yes, Jerry had acknowledged his success in business to me. But I had no idea how immense his success was. He had transformed industries, transformed lives. Jerry had kept those details to himself.

None of us wants to appear arrogant and Jerry was no exception. But his ultimate goal in writing the book was to share the truth of his journey. And it was only with the addition of other voices, perspectives, and stories that Jerry’s book became wholly authentic.

When you write your memoirs, be sure to tell the truth. Not a watered-down truth or a polite truth, but the full “hey Ma, look at me!” truth. Ask your life story professional to interview those close to you. Or if you’re writing your own autobiography, ask yourself this: What would my friends/family/colleagues say about me? Attribute the most complimentary comments to them if that feels more comfortable.

Yes, there’s a time to be modest, but this isn’t it. You owe your readers, and yourself, the full story. If just this once, brag. Please let me know if you’d like my help in doing so.

The Happy Moments

There has been much discussion on this blog about the benefits of writing a life story. The process of remembering, reframing, and sharing difficult life events is hugely cathartic and oftentimes memoir writers speak of the healing and resolution that come after their stories are complete.

But, just as importantly, writers speak of the benefits of sharing the happy stories. Recalling periods of joy in detail allows writers to relive a time in their life when all the pieces fell into place, when life was just…good. Not only is it a pleasure to evoke these memories, it is a pleasure to share them. To allow others to witness your joy along with you.

I think of this every time I watch the TLC program, Long Lost Family. Each episode follows two separate individuals as they search for a relative—usually a birth parent or child—with the help of the show’s hosts. First, we meet the searchers. Parents weep for the infant they gave up decades earlier and children tearfully question why their mother or father walked away from them. Often these individuals have spent years futilely searching on their own, hoping to fill the “hole” that lives inside. Wishing with every fiber in them that they could have answers, that they could meet their loved one again.

The hosts then jump into action, scouring the Internet, accessing DNA databases for genetic matches, searching birth records and high school yearbooks at local libraries.

The show ends, of course, with a happy reunion. Parents and children holding onto each other with all their might. Bountiful tears. Almost without exception, searchers share that the hole inside is finally gone. They have their answers. At last, they have found their “long lost family.”

While I am certain that the producers scrap many searches that do not end well, we viewers always see stories that are heart-warming. We get to witness a life-changing moment in every episode, a moment that will serve as a permanent salve for these once-pained individuals.

So…what have been your life-changing moments? Maybe they haven’t been as obvious or television-worthy as those on Long Lost Family, but certainly you have had some. The birth of a child? A long-sought job promotion? A moment invisible to the eye—a dream or “light bulb moment” that resulted in a permanent shift?

Whatever your life-changing moments, however dramatic or subtle, be sure to share those in your story. Act as the director of a television show and convey the history, the moment of change, and the less-discussed “what came next.” Was a hole inside filled? Did the joy remain forever?

As a life story professional, I am skilled in helping you uncover these life-changing moments and sharing their impact on your journey. Please let me know if you’d like my help.

The Story of Your Name

“If I’m gonna tell a real story, I’m gonna start with my name.” ...Kendrick Lamar
 

“Bob Marley isn’t my name. I don’t even know my name yet.” ... Bob Marley
 

When I was pregnant with my son, my husband and I debated names for weeks. For whom would we name our son, which names did we both like (not that many unfortunately), which first name choices sounded okay with which middle name choices, which names flowed with our last name. It wasn’t easy and at one point, I thought our son would come home from the hospital as Baby Boy Bender.

Of course, we eventually figured it out and today my son loves hearing about the “almost” names on our long-ago list. Names that nearly came to identify him, and today are nothing but footnotes from before he was even born.

It was only recently, however, that I started thinking about my own name. I’ve always known for whom I was named, luckily a source of great pride. But did I like my name? Would I have chosen it for myself? Did it fit my personality?

These were questions I’d never considered.

When practicing Catholics are confirmed, they select a confirmation name for themselves. What a fantastic tradition, I think. Naming yourself. Looking at the saints, figuring out which one you’d like to emulate, which one holds a sound that is pleasant to your ear. While I’m not Catholic, I was intrigued by the tradition and the possibilities it allowed. What name would I have selected if Catholicism had been my faith?

When writing your life story, be sure to include the history of your naming if there’s an interesting story to share. Were you named after somebody in particular, and if so, is that a connection that makes you proud or does it feel like a burden? Do you like your name? Do you connect with it? What name would you have picked for yourself if you could have whispered from the womb to your mother’s ear?

We spend our life identifying ourselves by our name. Your name will go on the cover of your book. Surely, your feelings about that name warrant a paragraph or two within its pages.

Your name is a part of your life story. And a part that deserves to be told.

Please let me know if you’d like my help telling it.