Handbook for Mortals : Enduring Loss : Telling your story

We are all storytellers. For most of our lives, we do just that -- tell stories about our day, or something that happened last year, or when we got married or had our first child. Dying is the end of this lifeís story.

People often find hope and comfort, and a sense of closure, by telling stories about their lives to others. You might ask a close family member, a trusted friend, a health care provider, or a counselor to listen to your story.

Tom was in his mid-thirties when his mother began to die of lung cancer. She began going through old belongings, including linens, old quilts, heirloom tablecloths. She wanted to give them to Tom and his wife. Tom was very upset when his mother told him this -- he felt she was giving up too soon. It turned out, though, that the linens had stories that went with them. In the end, Tom was glad to have shared this time with his mother, listening to family stories, and hearing things she might not otherwise have mentioned.

If you do not want to talk, or donít have someone to talk to, try writing things down. Just jotting down a few sentences each day can help you through this difficult time and might leave a powerful legacy as well. You might try borrowing or buying a cassette recorder. If you feel comfortable in front of the camera, you could even ask someone to videotape parts of your story. Even though it might seem difficult, your story can be a gift to future generations, especially to very young children or grandchildren.

Your story can be short or long; you may not remember all of the details. It does not need to be great literature. It does not have to be told well. Forget the rules you learned long ago in high school English. No matter what stories you tell, both you and your listeners are likely to benefit from the telling, and to feel that living is meaningful because a relationship is strengthened.

People are often surprised to discover that other family members are usually quite interested in their life stories. Older people connect us to the past, to a family history that, left untold, will go unknown. Your story is a way for the people who will survive you to remain connected to you. Their memories can help them through the grief they will feel after your death.

Perhaps you can look at old photographs together and, if you feel like it, label them. If, like many people, you begin going through your possessions, you might ask someone else to help you. Along the way, you may have many stories to share.

Many community education programs, including hospice and other health centers, offer music and art therapy for people who are dying. Such therapy, which can range from painting to drawing to writing "life songs," can be very healing.

Participation does not require any expertise, other than a desire to express yourself. At one program for homeless people who are dying, residents often draw or paint; the paintings now decorate the home and are a way for the dying to be remembered, and to comfort, in a way, those who follow them. Other residents work with a music therapist to compose "lullabies" of their lives. Such creative expression can have a profound and peaceful effect on oneís life.

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Handbook for Mortals book cover Copyright © 1999, 2006 by Joanne Lynn. This extract from the Handbook for Mortals by Joanne Lynn, M.D. and Joan Harrold, M.D. is used with permission. To learn more about improving care at the end of life visit the main web site for Americans for Better Care of the Dying.
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