In preparation for our mother’s 90th birthday, my sister requested that each of Mother’s children photograph the quilts mother had, over the years, given to us, our children and grandchildren. My sister was designing a “quilt book.”
Clipping and snipping, she was fashioning a chapter for each of Mother’s children. Our individual stories were being braided into the story of Mother’s life, symbolically depicting her sharing of each of our journeys as we moved through the hills and valleys of our own experiences.
While Mother did not live to view the final product, the overall goal for designing the quilt book had been achieved. For it was the process, the very undertaking of its creation, that achieved the outcome. The process unlocked memories and stimulated the telling and retelling of stories – of narratives that needed to be shared and reexamined in order to ease past hurt, and thereby weld generational bonds.
While my mother had not been ill when the idea for the quilt book formulated, I recognized that for about two years previous, she had been actively engaged in a process of life review. I initially observed little notes inside some of her teacups and tags attached to some of her other “treasures.” She shared that the tags named the person she desired the object to be bequeathed to.
I was also very much aware that during this period, Mother spoke much of her relationship with her own mother. I had never before heard her speak of most of the things she discussed. And most significantly, during these conversations, she “dared” to say things that had been less than positive about her childhood and her early life.
My mother lived the motto: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Yet, this unaccustomed behavior and her descriptions of events the ways she saw them, and the sharing of her emotions around these circumstances, were an important part of her process of sorting and then of reframing the aspects of her life that had not been the way she would have liked them to be.
What is Life Review?
A number of decades ago Eric Erickson and Robin Butler 1, 2 described the process of “life review.” These theorists characterized life review as a time of “sorting.” Erickson viewed the process as a time of “determining if the gods are pleased with the life that has been led.”
Butler perceived the life review to be a time of doing a “balance sheet.” According to these theorists, in doing a life review, we examine the life we have led and conclude with feelings of integrity – feelings that we have done the best we could, or feelings of despair that our life had not turned out the way we would have liked it to.
And therein lies a great opportunity for those of us who walk beside another in their time of processing the events and circumstances of their life.
Stimulating the Process
I have come to recognize that the life review is a process that is stimulated bit by bit. The pace of the stimulation appears to be directly related to the urgency as well as to the length of time the process will require relative to the circumstances. While the life review is naturally stimulated by a crisis event, it can also be stimulated naturally and therapeutically by visits, photographs, history books, news reels, music, song, art, etc.
Once memories have been stimulated, they can be reviewed. Happy memories can be relived and re-enjoyed, and ways can be found to release the emotional load of the difficult memories. In most cases, all that is required in the releasing of difficult memories is the sharing of a painful story with a trusted other.
Portions of this article were previously published in Humane Health Care International (2001). Permission to reprint is granted.
1). Erickson, E. (1963). Childhood and Society, 2nd ed. Horton.
2). Butler, RN (1982). Aging and Mental Health: Positive Psychosocial and Biomedical Approaches, 3rd ed. Mosby.
Jane A. Simington, Ph.D. 2011