When is the Right Time to Write a Life Story?

Romy Terkel, October 2020

Woman wearing pearls and looking backward.

I kept waiting for the right time to write her life story. It wasn’t until she received a  life-threatening cancer diagnosis that I finally felt pushed to begin the process. Some of my family members warned that it wasn’t “the right time” to begin. They said asking my grandmother to participate in a life story project would be upsetting to her — a reminder of her gloomy prognosis and her mortality — and that I should consider holding off until another time.

I didn’t agree. I also knew I couldn’t wait any longer. I sensed deep inside that it was now or never.

One of the reasons many people never write their life story is because they worry the process will be difficult — that they have no idea how to go about documenting their experiences. But the main reason, I think, is that they fear the process will bring up painful past experiences or thoughts about their mortality. This can happen; sometimes upsetting memories, thoughts and feelings come to the surface. But, overall, the process is always incredible and even sacred to witness. People come alive while reflecting and reminiscing and beam with pride when they see a beautiful book filled with their memories.

We often feel we have to wait for the “perfect time”…but does that time ever really come?

We often feel we have to wait for the “perfect time” — when work slows down, the kids grow up, or we retire — but does that time ever really come? Life always finds a way to keep us busy. We do what needs to get done and put off what isn’t necessary until some proverbial later time. Unfortunately, those things we brush aside as unnecessary in the moment end up being the most valuable and cherished of all, and then we find it’s too late to get them back. Waiting for the right time to write a life story is only doable if you’re okay with the possibility of it never happening!

A number of years ago, I spoke about my business at a retirement home. A lady in the front row caught my attention. I was struck by her elegant appearance — from her beautifully styled hair to her exquisite jewellery. She also stood out because of the copious note-taking she did during the presentation. I didn’t see anybody else in the audience with a pen or paper!

We spoke for a long time after my talk. She was 94 years old. She said her children and grandchildren didn’t know much about her life experiences, or what she accomplished and achieved. They didn’t know that she had worked full-time in an essential war industry in the early 1940s, making guns at a Canadian factory. They also didn’t know that she had taught sign language… or cooked food for homeless people for many years. She said it was important for them to know who she was… and it was finally the right time to write her life story. She also wanted a slideshow prepared for her funeral, complete with pictures of her life and all of her fabulous accomplishments, with Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were” playing in the background. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBPQT2Ia8fU

She asked for my help. She spoke in an urgent voice and kept saying she was running out of time. She said she needed to put all of her notes and pictures together first; she would call me after that. She wanted everything completed in a few months’ time. Before leaving, she pressed my arm softly, thanked me, and said she’d be in touch soon.

Several weeks later, when I still hadn’t heard from her, I wrote to the retirement home. I heard back that the lady was busy doing other work, and needed to get her pictures organized, but would contact me when she was ready. In the end, months passed, but she never called. I really wanted to help, so I sent one last email to the retirement home — to no avail, unfortunately.

I still remember the note of urgency in her voice and wonder: did she get everything done?

I still think of that lady. I still remember the note of urgency in her voice and wonder: did she get everything done? Did she write her life story and prepare the slideshow for her funeral, and for her loved ones?

Too often, we put things off that truly matter, in the name of waiting for the right time. I’m grateful I seized the moment with my grandmother. Despite the concerns some family members expressed about the timing of my project, she happily agreed to be interviewed. And she was aware of her mortality, but not because I asked to write her life story. In our culture, it’s hard to break through the discomfort and talk about death, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t thinking about it. My grandmother was thinking about it and she liked the idea of bringing it out into the open and leaving something behind — something that would transcend death so a part of her would live on.

After we finished our two-hour interview, she asked, “It’s enough, no?” But I still had questions, so we planned another interview for a few weeks later. Sadly, my beloved grandmother passed away before that happened.

I learned the hard way that it’s easy to keep waiting for a time that is more convenient or less busy, but the cost of waiting can be too high. So, when people ask me, “When is the right time to write a life story?”, my answer is always the same: “Now.”