Storytelling: A “powerful” way to find meaning and peace in your life

Through this blog, I have cited numerous research studies pointing to the benefits of sharing your life story. Whether one is looking for physical benefits, emotional benefits, or familial benefits, there is no doubt: writing, reframing, and telling one’s personal journey is enormously healing.

In a Washington Post article released this month, author Dr. Dhruv Khullar added his own voice to the subject. A doctor who works with seriously ill patients, Khullar struggled with helping those facing the end of life. He watched them battle emotions, he watched peace evade them. Eventually, after one particularly poignant interaction with a patient, Khullar had an epiphany.

“I began to wonder whether the secret to a good death wasn’t looking forward, but peering backward — whether retrospective examination might be more therapeutic than prospective preparation.”

Referencing a Journal of the American Medical Association study, Khullar asserts that patients, in preparing for a “good death” are enormously focused on coming to a place where they genuinely feel that their life is complete, that their life mattered.

And the best way to do this, Khullar asks?

“…A powerful but underused method of creating this sense of mattering is storytelling — reflecting on the past and creating a narrative of one’s life, what it has meant, who you’ve become and why.”

Of all the reasons, I adore life story writing, the ability to find meaning—and peace—in one’s life is my favorite. And best of all, the promise of these rewards is open to all of us regardless of one’s age.

Writing one’s story, or even pieces of one’s story, can be life-changing. I’ve experienced it myself and I’ve witnessed it again and again with my clients. In fact, one client recently remarked: “This is the best thing I ever did.”

Please let me know if you’d like my help in realizing this benefit for yourself. There is a pot of gold waiting. I’d love to help you discover it.

The College Years

Recently, my husband and I took our son on his first college visit.

Kinda surreal, to be honest, as he was born just a couple years ago. Or so it seems anyway.

But I digress.

Yes, it was Spring Break and we packed our bags and prepared our son for what was to come. What to look for, what to ask, what to consider.

He wants a school where it’s warm. Not too big. Lots of sports.

A little different from my many-years-ago approach when I applied to colleges no further south than Upstate New York. The bigger, the better. I had no idea what a Big 10 school was.

Such is the apple and the tree in our family.

Of course, our Spring Break trip brought back memories of my own college years. Significant years, indeed, in a person’s life. Living away from home for the first time for many. Making decisions about our future – what we want to study, what we want to “be.” Who we are.

When I work with clients who went to college, I am sure to include a reflection of that time in their autobiographies. How did they settle on their major? Did they make lifelong friends or passing acquaintances? What extracurricular activities drew them in? Was romance a part of their life?

What did they learn, outside the classroom, that informed who they became?

And if my clients didn’t go to college, we discuss what path they took instead. Sometimes it’s the military or a job or a marriage. We talk about what they did immediately after high school and what they learned about themselves now that academics did not fill their days.

I don’t know where my son will end up college-wise, but I do know that those years will be profound for him – academically, emotionally, and socially. Those years are profound for all of us. Often, they serve as the proverbial fork in the road, where the path we select, as Robert Frost says, makes “all the difference.”

Please let me know if you’d like my help sharing your story.

Sharing a story for the last time

My father-in-law passed away earlier this month. He was 91 and suffering from dementia, and when we saw him this past December, he was clearly in the end stages of the disease. He asked my 50-year-old husband (his son) where he went to school, and he gazed at my 16-year-old son (his grandchild) as if he were a stranger.

It was heartbreaking.

After we understood the situation we were facing, my husband and I switched gears.

“What did you do for a living when you were younger?” I asked.

Oh, the smile that appeared! My father-in-law could talk for hours about his “glory days,” working as an engineer on Long Island. Even in his state of advanced dementia (a mysterious illness indeed), he was able to recount names and events from his time as the head honcho at a utilities plant. Some 40-plus years had passed, and he told us a detailed account of firing one of his employees, and the aftermath of that decision.

My husband then asked his father if he had ever traveled abroad. Why, “Yes!” he answered. He had been to Japan! He and his wife had gone decades earlier, and they had met so many interesting people. The gardens were just beautiful and the food was nothing like they had tasted before.

We had heard these stories many times before, of course. He was 91 after all, and my father-in-law was a talker, but we felt such joy listening to him recite them again. Here he was – unaware of who we were or where he was. But he could tell us of the coworker who became a lifelong friend and of a meal he ate at a particular restaurant in Asia.

That talk was the last real conversation we had with him. Less than three months later he was gone.

What could have been a desperately sad visit that December—one filled with the painful realization that his time was coming to an end—instead became a precious opportunity to allow my father-in-law just a few minutes to soak in the life he had when life was good. When pride and joy, not sickness and confusion, were his companions.

While everything is still fairly fresh, I think that in the future, when I think back on my father-in-law, I will remember that December visit. And I will forever be thankful that my husband and I switched gears. That we gave him the chance to feel content.

I am by no means an expert on working with people with memory issues. But my father-in-law taught me a lot that day. Maybe you can take something from our experience too.

Goodbye dear father-in-law. And thank you.


Brain Surgeons, Ballerinas, and Ball Players: Our Earliest Career Goals

Almost all of us were quizzed about our career ambitions before we hit first grade.

“What do you want to be when you grow up,” my grandfather asked 5-year-old me.

“A veterinarian,” I responded with certainty.

But then I found out that I would need to give injections and take blood. Maybe even put down an animal now and then. And then, much later, I learned how difficult it was to get accepted into veterinarian school, how much veterinarian school cost, and how many years it would take me to get through it.

So many reasons to reconsider.

It was an interesting query, though, and now that first grade is many decades behind me, I find the response I gave intriguing too … as we all should when we consider our answer to this oft-asked childhood question.

And so, I now pose: What did you want to be when you were young?

A singing astronaut? A professional baseball player? A teacher? An inventor of flying cars?

Your earliest dreams tell a lot about who you were, and maybe who you grew to be.

I never became a veterinarian but I still adore animals, and I’ve owned many throughout the years. Maybe that singing astronaut gig never came through for you, but today you have season tickets to the opera and you’re currently taking lessons to obtain a pilot’s license. Or maybe you did achieve your dream. Maybe you proudly tell your students today that you knew you’d be leading the class from the time you were small.

As you write your life story, be sure to include a section on your childhood aspirations, including your early career ambitions. How did you envision spending your work days? Was your wish a passing desire or did you hold onto it for some time?

Regardless of whether your first-grade pronouncement came to be, what does it say about who you were and what you wanted? What does it say about who you became?

Your earliest dreams definitely have a place in your story.

As always, please let me know if you’d like my help sharing it.

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.