Why it’s important to get really clear on the why of your story


I had a small awakening recently. Not of the spiritual kind. But just as important. I realised I haven’t been clear about the why of the story I want to write.

I was chatting with a friend from my writers group over sundowners. Our tongues loosened by cheap red wine, my friend asked the question he’d been wanting to ask for a while. Why are you still hanging on to the story of how the love of your life died? How do you think that makes your new partner feel? It wasn’t so much a question as an accusation. And he had a point. That would indeed be hurtful to my partner, except it isn’t the story I want to write.

My first impulse was to be furious. How could my friend have failed to understand the point of my story? He’s heard me share fragments of my memoir in progress more times than he probably cares to remember. What could have made him think I was writing an ode to the lost love of my life? The answer is, I did. Because I haven’t been clear about the why of my story.

The why of my story has changed and evolved over time as I’ve used writing to process and to make meaning of what happened. Today, ten years since the cancer diagnosis, I am crystal clear about the story I want to write and why.

I am not writing a memoir about my undying love for my late husband. Because that story does not exist in the way my friend imagines. Ours wasn’t a happy story.

The story I want to tell is about me. It’s about what I learned from falling apart and from making myself whole again. It’s also a story about you, about my friend and everybody else who has fallen into the darkness and who can’t see the light. Because we will all get there, one day.

To tell the story effectively I need to do what every good writer does. I need to show the reader what caring for a person with cancer feels like. What it feels like to read your dying husband’s love letters to other women. What it feels like when someone takes their last breath in your arms. What going through a natural disaster feels like. What the loneliness of my grief feels like.

Because this story isn’t just about me. It’s about the pain we feel when we fall into the darkness. We all life different stories, but when things fall apart, we feel the same pain. We loose faith that happiness is possible again. I want to remind you with my story that everything is impermanent. Our happiness as much as our pain.

The story I want to tell is this one:

Ten years ago something happened that turned my life upside down and changed me at my very core. Watching my husband take his last breath in my arms, I knew that the end of his life was the beginning of a new chapter in my own life.

The universe had aligned to underline that point. He died at sunrise on the first of January 2010. It was the first day of the new year. It was also a new decade. There was no mistaking the signs. This was a fresh chapter. Whether I liked it or not. It was up to me now to pick up the pen, turn the page and write a new story for myself.

And that’s what I did. I called his lovers on the other side of the world to let them know that the man they, and I, had loved had died. That too, is part of the story I want to write. Because this is the story of what I learned.

To end my suffering, I needed to learn how to forgive, how to be compassionate and how to let go.

Less than three weeks after the funeral a category 5 cyclone blew to pieces the small beachside village in Australia’s tropical Far North that had been my safe haven of healing. It was as if the universe had summoned me to learn a few fundamental life lessons.

Everything is impermanent the world around me screamed. Everything changes all the time.

My story is messy and complex, as all of our stories are. Its core message is this: the turning points of our lives, the profound and painful moments that divide our lives into a before and after, can transform you if you are open to the lessons. Change is the catalyst for growth and learning.

I am grateful to have witnessed how precious life is. How easily things can fall apart. How nothing is permanent.

I’ve watched my marriage implode. I’ve watched a man in the prime of his life turn into an old man and slowly die. I’ve seen that life as you know it can change in an instant when you open your husband’s inbox. I’ve seen houses flattened overnight like decks of cards. I’ve seen ancient World Heritage listed rainforest become denuded as if sprayed with Agent Orange.

But I’ve also watched the devastated landscape repair itself. I’ve watched my own devastated garden regrow into a lush tropical jungle after the largest cyclone in Australia’s living memory had flattened it. I’ve watched myself turn into another version of me. And I’ve found love again when I least expected it.

This story is a reminder that we must not waste this one life we have. We must be sure of our why with every breath we take.

I want to write this story for my friend and for anybody else who needs to hear it, because this is also the story of how I flipped the switch inside myself from grief back to joy. Of course it wasn’t as easy as that. It took years of deep listening and self-examination in my journal to learn how to become the author of my own life.

We have the power to change our narratives. We can choose to continue to listen to our negative mental chatter and remain attached to our pain and suffering. Or we can turn a page and write a happier version of ourselves.

From the darkness we can find our way back into joy. But we must do the work ourselves. Nobody can do it for us. We are the authors in charge of the next chapter of our lives. We are responsible for not wasting the precious gift of being alive. And that’s why we have to be clear about the why of our story with every breath we take.


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