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Milestones and Memories: Can a Life Review Help You Reconnect?

How a sudden loss led me to reflect, take stock, and show gratitude

Photo by Ante Hamersmit on Unsplash

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

Recently, my college friend died unexpectedly.

As a seasoned clinical nurse specialist, I know death is always certain, but the timing is never predictable. I also know grief follows the death of a loved one, and I’m still grieving many weeks later. But I had no idea that the death of a long-time friend would lead me to wrestle with something much deeper. It led me to a concept that has been a powerful aid for me in a difficult time: a life review.

A sudden loss leads to reflection

I was stunned by how quickly it happened. The day before she suffered a massive brain aneurysm, she had spent the morning (and many other days) helping me to clear the clutter from the home of an elderly relative who hoarded. She, her sister, and I, along with our husbands, had all gone out for dinner only days before that.

At her wake, a video showed many pictures of her life events, including at least one where I was with her. Shortly after the funeral, I sobbed as a mutual friend hugged me, and soon the words came tumbling out of my mouth asking why it had hit me so hard. Gently, he said, “Well, those were our formative years.” I had thought “formative years” were during childhood, but Khuram Malik explains that our first crises generally occur during our twenties, which precipitate some powerful new emotions. I began to understand why this loss felt so gut-wrenching.

She had always been there for me. I met her through a mutual friend, and we immediately clicked. Later, we went to cafes, concerts, shared a hotel room during a trip to Washington DC, and much more. Several days after I lost an expensive 14K gold necklace, she found it glittering under a thin layer of snow in the school parking lot. When I broke up with my then-boyfriend, she stayed up until the small hours of the morning, listening to my self-inflicted sad saga. When I married the same man nearly 20 years later, she was my matron of honor. Like I said: she was always there for me.

Yet, over the decades of friendship, I had never told her how important she was to me.

A week or two after her death, I realized I was coming to grips with human mortality. It was starting to sink in that the “here-today-and-gone-tomorrow” situations can and do happen. My father and my sister — seemingly fine — also died within hours of when I had last interacted with them. Same for my former landlady whom I loved like family.

Suddenly, I felt compelled — maybe more like desperate or panicked — to reconnect with friends or teachers who had been important to me during those college years. I realized that I’d never told many or maybe any of them how important they have been to me. I didn’t want death — theirs or mine — to happen before I’d seen them and said what I needed to say. I started making the calls, writing the letters, and setting up meeting dates.

Yet, in trying to organize all of that, I got dates and days mixed up, and couldn’t remember what I had set up, or with whom; I couldn’t find my notes, either. As I described my urgency to reconnect and yet feeling inefficient, scattered, and flakey, a friend remarked, “Oh. Sounds like you’re doing a life review. That’s a good thing, but it does take a lot of energy.” Ah. That explained why I’ve been feeling like I’m running on fumes and making a lot of mistakes.

Learning about life reviews

I had never heard of a “life review,” but it turned out I was in the middle of one. So, I did what any habitual learner would do. I searched online, and sure enough, I found Steve Schlafman’s article on doing an annual life review. I liked his idea of focusing on “moments and milestones.” His template for an annual review looked good, but it didn’t address how to do a life review that spanned many decades. I called another friend and asked if she’d ever heard of a life review.

Indeed, yes, she knew of such a thing, and had led others through a life review. She gave me a few ideas, and thereafter, I came up with my own ideas of how to review the moments and milestones. I also realized that reflecting on those past moments was good and even necessary, but not sufficient. I knew I needed to take some action.

Later, it dawned on me that I’ve been helping members of my small group coaching sessions to do a life review; I just didn’t know it was called a “life review.” I’ve built a review into their annual planning sessions, and it has been more powerful for them than I could have imagined.

In those annual sessions, I’ve asked participants to write their answer to one question: What were the five most life-changing events in your life?

People in my group are business owners, but I firmly believe that it’s impossible to grow your business unless you grow yourself. I don’t ask anyone to share personal stories, but to my surprise, each year, everyone in my group has been eager to talk about their meaningful milestones and moments.

Do you need to revisit those milestones and moments?

Milestones and moments

As you start your life review, you can probably name milestones such as getting married (or finding a person who rocked your world or became a lifelong partner) or starting a family. Or milestones such as graduation or retirement might leap to your mind.

Naming the “moments” might be a little tougher. What people changed your world or changed who you became? What events, losses, discoveries, or opportunities were life-changing experiences for you? If you can recall more than five, feel free to list them, but take the time to list at least five.

Strangely, although I’ve asked others to do it, I’d never sat down to do it myself. But as I write this, a few ideas stand out to me:

  • Events: In high school, I had a broken fibula, developed phlebitis, and landed in the hospital. I despised the one-size-fits-all hospital rules and decided to become a nurse. I wanted to change the healthcare world.
  • People: My first-grade teacher was in my life from then until a few days before she died at age 104; she helped me see the importance of faith, values, and good habits. More recently, I’ve been profoundly affected by some NYT best-selling authors whom I’ve met virtually including Michael Hyatt, Donald Miller, Ian Morgan Cron, Patrick Lencioni, and others. Their books seriously impacted my decision-making.
  • Losses: My father died 27 years ago in May, but I still miss him every day. Certainly, he taught me a healthy respect for money and how to drive a car. More importantly, he taught me that it’s okay to take a risk in life. Ditto for the landlady.
  • Discoveries: On the recommendation of a friend, I took the Myers Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) in 1986. That was the trigger that made me resign from my job as a high-level nurse administrator and return to clinical work. I later became certified in the MBTI, and it continues to guide my personal and professional interactions on a daily basis.
  • Opportunities: Especially unsought opportunities. Serving twice on the national nursing licensure exam (NCLEX) panel was a powerful experience from the time I was chosen to the time I landed in Monterey, CA, and met many like-minded expert nurses. And I was the founding editor for my professional organization’s publication. It was a turning point in helping me to realize how much I loved to write. Although I had never sought these opportunities, they massively contributed to my self-identity and my realization that I was creative enough to figure out how to succeed at a big job that was pretty far out of my comfort zone.

As I recalled seriously life-changing moments and milestones, I tried to recall the associated humorous moments that happened, too. With more than a foot of snow falling in the Washington DC area, I was a confirmed passenger on five different flights to Monterey, and all of them — including two flights that I had already boarded — were cancelled at the last minute. To my great surprise, I got out on a standby for a different flight! And once, the parking lot wasn’t plowed when I was leaving the airport, so my husband picked me up and carried me to the car!

You might also ask yourself if there was any pattern to what you identified as a milestone or moment in your life review. In my case, I realized that most of mine were experiences related to people, or to achievements. Next, ask yourself why those times were so impactful.

Reconnecting with my past

As I started to ponder the milestones and moments in my life review, I began to feel a deep sense of gratitude for all the people who were part of my life’s journey in some way or another. I realized there were dozens of people with whom I need to reconnect. Two nursing instructors, a boss who recommended me for the NCLEX panel, and so many others. For some, like the authors, it’s not possible to knock on their door and give them a hug, but maybe I can drop a handwritten note to them. Others have already died, and I’m too late.

I’ve only begun to reconnect with people I haven’t seen in years. In doing so, I’ve experienced some emotions I’ve been ignoring or suppressing for decades. Although I feared being rejected for saying what was on my mind, no one has shot me down yet. To the contrary, I’ve been surprised that when I opened up a little, they did, too. I’ve felt relieved that no one made me feel badly that it had taken so long to reconnect or speak my truth. Most of all, I’ve felt a sense of being honest with myself and with those who have helped me to become a better version of myself.

And if that’s what a life review can do, then I think we would all benefit from one.

What are the milestones and moments that have made your life what it is? Who do you have to thank for them, and have you told them so? How can you turn your reflections and your goals and dreams into reality?

Join my weekly accountability group. (Group members get a reduced fee for my annual planning day in the fall!)

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

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