As a former columnist and current death doula, I get asked to write life stories a lot. Sometimes I hear from people who aren’t anywhere near getting ready to die. Nevertheless, they want their biography written ahead of time for their loved ones to read “someday.” Other times I hear from people who are dealing with a terminal diagnosis. They want their story to be a legacy project sooner rather than later. Either way, there are real and tangible benefits to writing your life story.
Let’s get into some of them below.
1. It’s a mood booster.
A study conducted by palliative care expert Harvey Chochinov showed something amazing. Just a few 30-to-60-minute interviews about a person’s life significantly reduced both suffering and depression in dying people. Specific questions from the writer, and subsequent discussions around important memories, help the dying talk about their experiences. As a result, they attain a sense of peace.
The discussion doesn’t have to be formal. It can often simply begin with, “Tell me about your life.”
2. Life reviews help people come to terms.
Many folks in their late 60s and beyond experience a “summing up” phase of life. Re-examining decisions and events from the past is normal and healthy. People also look back at major milestones differently as they age. They consider what seemed like a bad experience as something different, more beneficial, now. They value the lessons that came along with these experiences.
This shouldn’t be mistaken for “living in the past.” On the contrary, looking back with wisdom doesn’t have to take up too much time. Talking with someone about what they’ve learned is a way to savor good memories and appreciate bad ones.
It also helps others who might one day go through similar struggles.
To find meaning in what’s happened to us is a gift. This might be especially helpful if it leads people to make meaningful amends. Often they resolve outstanding issues and reconcile with important loved ones.
This desire to tell our life stories simply gets stronger as we get older. We feel more motivated to do this as we age. Elders tell stories and reminisce because they want to give back and share their knowledge with younger people.
3. It helps younger generations to better understand life.
Writing your life story and leaving it behind as a legacy actually improves how younger people view older people. They hear an elder’s thoughts, experiences, and memories and find more meaning in life. Older people, simply by sharing their hard-earned wisdom, help youngsters improve problem-solving abilities. They also process grief in healthier ways. As a result, this increases their ability to provide emotional support for themselves and others.
Inter-generational conversations can be through an audio recording or the written word. Either way, it decreases depression and anxiety for both the storyteller and the listener/reader.
4. Technology has made it easier to self-publish.
You or your writer can now publish a printed book or post it on a website quite easily. It’s neither expensive nor time-consuming. Many families order just one or two beautifully designed and bound books to save for generations into the future.
Death doulas, or personal historians, also create audio or video histories as well. These can include songs and photographs with narration from loved ones.
5. This is a healthy, social activity.
For adults who feel willing and able, life story writing is a fun activity. For instance, they can do this with other people and increase their socializing time. Some communities or libraries have writing groups. These workshops allow people to write their own stories in chunks or themes. Then they come together to share with peers what they’ve written.
These are also called “ethical wills” or “legacy letters.” Loving testaments in which the older generation shares life experiences, family lore, and funny fables.
Some families also pair older relatives with younger ones. Elders answer pre-written questions and youngsters record the answers.
6. It’s a gift of love.
Even critically ill people can summon unimaginable energy to complete life reviews. That’s how vital and important it feels. For example, an older person might have insight related to historical events. Then a younger relative finds these far-away events more relevant. Sharing with loved ones will immortalize this insight for generations to come.
7. It helps visitors feel less awkward.
Visitors who sit with dying loved ones don’t always know what to say. For example, some feel uncomfortable sitting in silence. They would like to talk or discuss something meaningful. Others feel awkward and this fear might even keep them from visiting.
Life reviews or discussing/writing/recording a life story is a great way to increase the connection between a dying person and those around them. Caretakers can leave discussion prompts on post-its outside the bedroom for visitors to use and paper for them to write the answers to those prompts.
8. Writing your life story might be better received than a video.
Some people don’t want videotapes of their dying relatives. Families of patients who fought death for a long time or endured a long goodbye often make some effort to remove those images from their minds. They want to remember their loved ones as healthy and strong. When you write your life story rather than record it for a video, this can help ease memories. This is especially true if you’re discussing earlier phases of your life.
A Priceless Gift
Putting words on paper, and formalizing your memories and experiences, has a real value for your family and loved ones. You can even include them in the storytelling project. They can provide assistance to the writer when the older person might have lapses in memory. Providing helpful material that includes old diaries, letters, and memories of their own makes them feel a part of this important and historical process.
You don’t have to be a celebrity to write your life story. Everyone has a tale to tell. If you want a professional’s help creating a biography to leave behind for loved ones, call us at Anitya Doula Services to get started today.