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April 15, 2021

Life Review: a Powerful End-of-Life Practice that’s worth doing Sooner.

If your life were a soundtrack, how would you pick the playlist?

If indeed “the unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates contended centuries ago, there is a way to generate great worth from life and increase well-being.

In my work as a hospice chaplain, I often spend many hours each day facilitating life reviews by my patients. I’ve noticed that those who have lived most fully are those who are able to examine and reflect on their lives. This process of inquiry is actually an important way for everyone to explore their relationship with the past and integrate it with the present and the hoped-for future.

Toward the end of the new Billie Eilish documentary, “The World’s a Little Blurry,” the then 17-year-old singer digs back into the pages of her old journal. The Grammy-winning superstar acknowledges the deep pain and dark places captured in her words and art, honoring their truth in her life and her story. The film later cuts to a final scene of Eilish driving in the rain and contemplating her current reality—her fame, her family, her car, herself. She’s reviewing her life as she literally drives into her future.

My work is to help people do this—and it’s more than just reviewing timelines. I help them to see themes and connect dots—to celebrate and to mourn, to wander and to wonder. Sometimes they unearth forgotten relics, sometimes purposely buried ones. It gives them the chance to release old hurts and even reconstruct their sense of who they are.

Bruce Springsteen recently spoke to this in relation to his recent memoir, Broadway show, and albums. “I wanted to richly experience my past, contextualize it, and then it would contextualize the time that I have left and what I want to do with it.”

Whether I’m using a formal protocol like Dignity Therapy or an informal but intentional process of life review, I always ask people meta-questions around their sharing, like:

What are you proud of?

What has mattered most to you in your life?

When have you felt most alive?

Try one of those right now.

Exploring questions like these takes more heft than exploring the quarantine questions we’ve been asking for the last year: Is there something wrong with my sourdough starter? Why do I feel like I’ve watched everything on Netflix already? But the payoff is supremely higher, even if you make amazing sourdough.

I hear about commanding nuclear submarines, delivering tamales, sewing clothes. I hear about blind dates, birthday cakes, and boxing matches. I hear about relationships and connections and bonds. These are the pieces of a luminous mosaic.

I saw the life review process unfold last summer as I watched Jimmy Buffett in quarantine revisit deep cuts from his early catalogue and recount the stories behind the songs before he played them on an acoustic guitar. The storytelling evoked his surprise, laughter, and even tears.

As I’ve listened to his release of those songs as the album, “Songs You Don’t Know By Heart,” I’ve found myself doing the same as I reflect on life reviews. I’ve touched and contemplated parts of my own story. Witnessing authentic life review moves us and calls us to examine our own lived experience with depth and honesty.

Don’t think that life review is only for those at death’s door or famous musicians.

It’s an important process for all of us to better integrate “what has been” with “what is” and “what will be.” Don’t be intimidated. It couldn’t be easier. Just start with a simple exercise.

Draw a line in the middle of a piece of paper with zero on the left side and your current age on the right side. Choose five, or more, of the most important events from your life and put them on the timeline with an image to represent each. Then ask yourself why these events stand out and what they mean for you now. Are they asking you to tell your story in a new way? How do they direct your future horizon?

A way to enhance this exercise and bring music back into the picture is to pick songs that speak to the key events. Music therapist, Darci Fontenot, MSW, MT-BC calls this a “soundtrack of your life” project and encourages people to get creative. “Make yourself a playlist and let the songs bring you back.”

When was your life: a humming jazz bass, a pulsing drum loop, a thoughtful ballad, less rhythm and more blues, a violin concerto, heavy metal thunder?

Imagine sharing not just your playlists. But your playlist.

If you prefer a more guided approach to life review, you could use a resource like “What’s Your Story?: A Journal for Everyday Evolution,” by Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond, which offers 150 “deeply personal and highly electric” writing prompts that help you “rewrite the stories you tell about yourself and your life.”

If you find that you need help processing the experience of life review, integrating the material that comes up, or just focused support along the way, seek out a dedicated counselor to lead you.

There are many ways to do a life review.

The important thing is to find and speak your truth. Remember, this is your story. That’s what makes it special and unique. I’ve never heard the same story twice in all my years of chaplaincy. And rather than only reviewing your entire life, you can review sections at a time.

The end of a year presents an easy delineation. You can use the previous exercise with the months of any year and see what events of your life stand out. I’m sure 2020 would be a doozy. It could make for a meaningful way to connect with friends—maybe by Zoom right now. You can even do this process daily—an examen that some spiritual traditions recommend.

As we continue in this second year of the pandemic, most of us are ready to just move on. But perhaps it’s an ideal time to pause and look back before we go too far forward.

Life reviews can help ground us and give us insights into who we are and where we’ve been so that we can more skillfully navigate where we’re going. They can help us figure out what we want to do, where we want to go, and who we want to be in the years ahead.

So, play the songs of your life—even the ones you don’t know by heart.

They’re all worth revisiting.

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