How storytelling helps reveal the deeper meaning of life's journey.
Jody was just 36 years old when she found out her colon cancer was incurable. I came to her apartment for our first hospice visit and saw that she was depressed and despondent over her diagnosis—as I had expected for someone her age who was raising two children by herself. She told me story after story of all the regrets she was carrying. And I just listened.
Her life had been unimaginably difficult—in foster care for most of her childhood then finally adopted at age 12 by a wonderful couple who loved her dearly. But she had been so filled with rage she couldn’t receive their love. She experimented with drugs and alcohol and was in and out of juvenile detention for petty crimes throughout her teens. There had been other even deeper regrets, but she didn’t want to talk about them.
Jody was angry and bitter, but also ashamed. She believed she had wasted her life and now her children would grow up without a mother. She asked if there was any way to speed up her dying process because she could no longer face all of the emotional pain that was coming to the surface.
We talked about things she could do to help with grief for her children, like writing letters to them that they could open at various milestones throughout their lives. She liked the idea that she could make sure her children didn’t feel unwanted, which she had experienced for most of her life.
I wasn’t sure how we could help Jody heal from all of these regrets. There were so many broken threads in her life and so many pieces to help her put back together. But then a little miracle happened. On my next visit with Jody she was like a different person: joyful and filled with energy and laughter. And she had more stories to tell me.
Jody’s adoptive sister had come for a weekend visit and had brought with her boxes of old photos and a scrapbook. The two of them spent hours each day going through the photos together and gluing them into the album as a keepsake for Jody’s children. They wrote little stories on the pages to explain the pictures, which were arranged in a chronological timeline of Jody’s life.
She showed me each of the pages and told me entirely different stories than I had heard on my previous visit. Here was a family trip to the beach when she was 16. There was her favorite Halloween costume. And look: she was all dressed up for senior prom. Then there were pages and pages of pictures of her with her children: playing games, reading books, opening Christmas gifts, laughing, hugging, eating—all the little moments of life.
Jody wiped a tear away and smiled at me with a radiance I hadn’t seen before. “I’ve had a good life,” she said. “And I’ve been a good mom.”
Here in her hands were the photos that documented all of the goodness of her life. In comparison to the magnificence of these moments, her regrets had faded away. She found meaning in the memories captured in these photos and was able to weave the broken threads of her life into a beautiful tapestry that was uniquely hers.
Jody died just two weeks later. But she had been able to go through the album with her children and tell them all the stories that were depicted there. And she managed to write each of them letters that they could open when they were older. They would know they were loved and that their lives mattered and that an angel would be watching over them for all of their days.
For most of us—like Jody—life hands us a mixture of sorrows and joys. We can view it all through the lens of regret and wish that things had been different. But we can also find ways to pick up the broken pieces and put them together to create a work of art–the likes of which has never before been seen–that might just change the world.