When I first met my husband, Brad, the very first thing he said to me was, “What’s your story?”
Slightly put off by the forwardness of this stranger, I replied, “I don’t have a story.”
This of course wasn’t true - we all have stories. I felt my story made me complex - and this was college, I was striving for fun and easy-going. Opening up about my story meant opening up about my full, messy, human self and I wasn’t sure I was ready to let this stranger see all the parts of me.
At the time, I believed our stories - our full selves - were reserved for a select few, so I held them close, to the point that my therapist once called me, “remarkably self-contained.” Brad, however, was not. His container was overflowing and at his core, was a deep desire to connect through our stories. He was the kind of man that would go up to anyone, anywhere, flash a grin, and ask them their story. And they would tell them. He engaged easily with people, and was a spectacular listener, allowing conversations to linger in thought before offering feedback. He toed the line of comfort, loving the quiet space between awkwardness and self-discovery.
Brad always wanted to know more, to learn more, to be more - and he challenged others to do the same. Brad knew something then that would take me years to recognize: the power of our stories.
Brad knew, long before I ever did, that my difficult story was what made me introspective and empathetic and resilient. Brad wasn’t interested in the shiny, shallow version of people. He wanted the truth - flaws and all. He wanted to know about the parts of us that make us unique. The parts of us that make us human.
When Brad was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer at 35 years old, we both refused to believe this was our story. We wanted to crawl back into the safety of our previous story - our happy marriage, our adventurous travels, our puppy Dune.
But Brad knew, more than ever, that this story needed to be told.
And not the overtly positive, “we can beat this” story (although that was the one we really hoped we would get to tell), but the story of what it meant to be a 35-year-old facing his mortality. About his fears, his wishes, and his priorities during his final time on this earth.
As Brad’s health declined and he became too sick to write, he sat in his leather chair - the only spot comfortable enough for his brittle body - and hit record on his phone, with the hopes that one day his story would help guide someone else’s story. He knew, even then, the impact of his story.
100 days after his diagnosis, Brad died. Left behind was over 60 hours of recorded conversations.
I am grateful for these stories and these conversations. During the most devastating moments of my life, there was comfort in the fact that we were able to have the conversations that mattered - that Brad got the space and the time to share his story. It meant that when it came time to say goodbye, there wasn’t a question about Brad’s wishes or how he wanted to be honored.
As much as I cherish these recordings, it also wasn’t enough (because how could it be?). As a grieving widow, I became very aware that I was now the keeper of Brad’s stories. Not just the diary of his life and accomplishments, but also of our inside jokes, the songs he secretly danced to in our kitchen, the issues that kept him up at night.
It was up to me to remember.
Since Brad’s death, I’ve found ways to honor him through what mattered most to him - stories. I started creating, what I call, “Book of Stories” for other people who had lost loved ones. These custom memorial books capture memories through stories from friends and family. With each book, I have the honor of helping to remember a person, not through their death, but through their life, allowing their story to live on for generations to come.
I have also learned of other resources that exist to help honor our loved ones through stories, like Remembering a Life. This beautiful platform focuses on helping the bereaved through various ways, like assisting families with meaningful tributes, helping to preserve memories, aiding in finding grief support, and encouraging a practice of self-care (if you are looking to support someone grieving, I definitely recommend sending them their Self-Care box, which includes items that both care for the needs of the griever as well as ways to pay tribute to the person they lost).
Remembering a Life reminded me that recording our stories doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as writing memories on scraps of paper and adding them to your “Memory Jar” or jotting them down in a journal. I do this throughout the day when quick memories pop up or a song comes on that reminds me of Brad. From the memory of the chipped ceramic mug that Brad liked to drink his coffee out of to his chipped tooth from a Coca-Cola can being tossed in his direction. It’s those little moments we want to hang on to most when our people are gone.
Part of Brad’s legacy is empowering people to share our difficult stories and to have important conversations. This can feel impossible to do when faced with a terminal diagnosis or an imminent death. It’s a natural response to want to avoid topics like “How do you want to be remembered?” or even “What personal event has shaped your life the most?” Remembering a Life has created a way to make this easy - and even fun! - with their conversation cards, creating prompts to help all of us reflect on the life we lived.
Facing a terminal diagnosis is impossibly difficult, but as Brad used to say, “We’re all terminal!” Which is why these conversations are valuable to us all. It takes courage to admit your own mortality and then talk about your life in all its complicated, human ways. But it’s also so rewarding. As a person who is left with only memories of Brad, I know this firsthand.
Margaret Atwood said, “In the end, we all become stories.” And it’s true. It’s how we live on in perpetuity - memories passed down for generations. But it’s also how we find comfort in the now. By sharing these stories and having the tough conversations, we are honoring both our life in the present and our death in the future.
So share your stories. Have the hard conversations. And don’t be afraid to ask someone, “What’s your story?”