Life Stories: The Power of Words

Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right one, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little bit.

Tom Stoppard, Czech born, British playwright and screenwriter OM, CBE, FRSL

I have always understood the power of words: whether they were spoken or written. I knew, as child, the taunt, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” was a bit of bravado that I didn’t truly buy.

We all have stories to tell. As a young girl, I used to marvel at the stories my mother and relatives talked about daily life in Whiting, Maine “back in the day.”  I heard of horses being hitched to sleighs to navigate the deep snowbanks, or the way the stars looked on a late summer night, of the things people did to survive first the Great Depression and then life on the Homefront during WWII. These were not some distant relatives or a long-ago time. They happened in the lifetime of my mother and her family. And so, are part of my history as well.

When my father-in-love was going through his final illness, I found it helpful to listen to his stories about his life and wrote about those tales. I wish now that I had simply audio recorded them so I could still hear his voice (He had a strong New England accent), but learning about his growing up years in Dorchester, Massachusetts, getting to know his parents through his eyes and hearing him describe the beautiful young woman who rode near his home on her bicycle, was profoundly moving. That pretty gal became his beautiful wife in due course.

Helping people who are ill and possibly near death find their voice and share their stories, has an incredible effect on them and everyone involved with their care. In 2012 we started a program at St. Mary Medical Center called Life Story Writers. The goal was to capture important aspects of the patient’s life. Our intention was to help the caregivers get to know their patients beyond the hospital walls.

Because the patients were discharged by the hospital as quickly as safely possible, we concluded that a program of this type is better suited to a long-term care facility such as a nursing home, a senior day care center, extended care or, in some cases, a hospice setting. The stories our volunteers heard and recorded were often amazing, always touching, and, the patients, their families, the staff, and the volunteers benefited from the process. The patients felt heard as they negotiated a challenging time in their life or, as was often the case, were preparing to leave this world. Our volunteers told us they sometimes felt like they were listening to very personal thoughts and were happy they could help the story tellers get their words out. One WW II veteran related wartime experiences he had never even shared with his family. He was able to die in peace, having unburdened his mind.

You may have someone in your life whose story, whose words, are still not spoken. Ask them about a special time in their lives, or a special person. Record their responses. You will be glad you did.