Human are natural storytellers.
When something has happened that we want to share with others, we tell them a story.
For centuries, we have told tales around campfires and on foot while on pilgrimage to holy sites. As mechanical transport became accessible, we shared our experiences aboard ship, on trains, planes, and prairie schooners. And, if we are fortunate, at the end of our life, we may be graced with a kind listener who will witness the story of our days on Earth as only we can tell it.
It must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. A good one immediately draws us in with some version of “once upon a time.” The middle is full of action, drama, conflict, suspense. There is a moral dilemma, a problem to solve, a villain to thwart, a rescue to effect. Often the hero must make a choice—the consequences of which determine how the story will end.
And in the end, we expect resolution. The good guys win. Evil is vanquished, and love prevails. The villagers are snug in their beds once again, and all is right with the world. We breathe a sigh of relief as the minor chords of conflict resolve to major and the last flourish sounds in triumph.
But life is not so tidy—its conundrums not so easily resolved. Bad things frequently happen to nice people, and the good guys don’t always win. Which can throw us into a state of confusion, even a crisis of faith—the result being a sense of trauma and a perpetual sadness from which we feel powerless to escape.
In this state, our affinity for story can turn destructive or liberating. It all depends on the flavor of the tale we tell.
“I should have known something was wrong.” “Why didn’t he ask for help?” “She never really loved me.” “They were so young.” “How could a just God let this happen?” “You were always irresponsible.” “This tragedy has ruined my life.”
Each time a negative story is repeated, it winds another coil of bitterness, disappointment, anger, resentment, sorrow, guilt, desperation—even hatred—until the teller is bound up in a shroud of darkness that becomes a prison to the mind and heart. In this black place, the light of healing does not shine—unless we can change the character of the story. Because a positive story acts like a spiritual Balm of Gilead. It heals the deepest wounds of head and heart, setting us on a path to meaning and a bright new tomorrow.
I discovered this phenomenon almost immediately after my husband’s death. If I spent too much time alone in my thoughts, in the house that now had a Stephen-sized hole in it, my story was desperately sad. But as soon as I talked to other people, telling them about his graceful passing, his unique perspective on life, or spiritual insights he had shared with me, the stories were uplifting—to me as well as to my listeners.
What astonished me in these early days was a relentless need to recount these anecdotes to anybody who would listen. I wanted to talk and talk, and there were certain events I felt compelled to relate over and over, as if each repetition was a key to unlocking a hidden treasure I could not articulate, but whose presence I could feel.
I now believe that treasure was meaning—a way to make sense of my experience so I could move on from it. Until I could say with some certainty that I understood why Stephen had died and why I was still here, being here without him would be nearly unbearable.
Because Stephen had cancer—which gave us time to discuss these things—we had found deep meaning in our mutual conviction of the soul’s desire for union with the Divine. In sharing Saint-Exupéry’s tale of The Little Prince, we realized how we had tamed each other: Stephen calming me down and I opening him up. And I had had a vision that our ongoing mission was to inspire others to approach the end of life with love and intention.
But those were shared meanings. What I was looking for was new logic for my solo life that could conceivably last many, many years. If I was to remain alone, I needed to know why.
I found multiple reasons in the process of telling our story. I wrote A Beautiful Death to capture Stephen’s legacy of love and service. I wrote it to convince myself that our lives had been profoundly guided and that I could continue to live in the palm of God’s hand. I wrote the book to comfort others facing similar circumstances. And in the process of writing, I gained insight into the heart of this wonderful man that I did not have while he was alive.
There were times when I got stuck. My editor asked for more setup to certain events. She wanted to know what we were thinking and feeling, not just what happened. I could reconstruct my own mental and emotional state, but Stephen’s was a mystery—until he would send it to me in a dream or moment of intuitive inspiration.
It was as if he were telling me another part of his story from beyond the veil so that I could understand him better. In my heart of hearts, I believe our loved ones can do this for us, if we ask them. And the vehicle they use is story.
In story, we ease into that mystical space between worlds where a more universal view is possible and merciful insight flows like water. In this place, it is as though the Master Storyteller is letting us in on life’s secrets, pulling back the curtain to reveal forces at work behind the scenes. Suddenly we see causes behind effects that had heretofore been our only experience on the stage of life.
Now we get it. So-and-so wasn’t evil; he was misguided. Losing that job liberated us to find a new one more suited to our talents. We had learned all we could learn from that marriage. The other person forgave us long ago. And those bad things happened to good people—not because God is cynical or cruel—but because sometimes things just happen here in the realm of time and space. We may have to create our own silver lining, but process puts us closer to the ever-present Divinity within.
Ultimately—if we keep digging deeper into underlying causes—I believe we discover that the soul’s desire for deep spiritual connection flows through all of our human experience. Even in cases of abject evil, we may realize (as Nazi death camp survivor Victor Frankl has powerfully demonstrated) that the human soul’s search for meaning can prevail in the most horrendous of circumstances.
How we embody that essential motivation is really the greatest story ever told. And locking into that narrative of love and soul liberation is what gives story its astonishing power to heal.
I hope you will enjoy this video clip that begins with a poem and a prophecy.
Q&A about the End of Life
Embracing Life’s Final Journey
Stories of how others embraced the end of life
More YouTube clips about specific end-of-life topics
A Beautiful Death: Keeping the Promise of Love (the book)
Copyright © 2017 Cheryl Eckl and CherylEckl.com. All rights reserved.