Stories teach. Stories heal. Stories transform. Working with stories, both ours and others, can help us find meaning and live a more vibrant life.
And stories may help us prepare for death.
I don’t speak about that last from experience. For years I have preached, “Shape the story you want to live.” Now, I may also add, “Find the story that will help you die”
This week, the world lost a great story healer, Dr. Juliet Bruce. I knew her for six years as we supported each other in writing our books.
No one I’ve met has understood and used the power of stories and myths to change lives as much as she did. She invited clients, whether they were 9-11 first responders, immigrants, refugees, inmates, or individuals struggling with difficult life situations, to see their lives from a mythic perspective,
In sharing epic stories, she helped her clients know “You are not alone. Many great souls have experienced what you are feeling or faced great obstacles like the ones before you.”
Navigating life through story
Juliet used stories as a way to navigate her life and face illnesses and the challenges of finding affordable housing in New York City as a single, middle-income woman. When her life was tough, she’d remind herself of the arc of heroic journeys: crisis, struggle, transformation.
“At the moment when everything seems lost, that is the moment just before the breakthrough to whatever you need.”
Frustrated with New York’s impossibly high costs, she dreamed of moving to Portugal with its welcoming people, vibrant expatriate community, and affordable cost of living. Yet to move there on a resident visa, Juliet had to summit a nearly insurmountable mountain of bureaucratic processes.
With each setback, Juliet reminded herself of the great myths, like the Grail story, in which the hero is repeatedly tested before she can see the Grail or find the answer for which she searches. When Juliet finally moved to her new home in Portugal, she celebrated her triumph and began to rebuild her life. Until, sadly, the cancer returned. She said her goodbyes to the world from a hospital in Setubal, Portugal.
Even facing death, I doubt Juliet would have called her story a tragedy. As she died, she was held in the light of love, and comforted by her new, local community and friends from afar. I suspect that Juliet was drawing from the story field to give meaning to her life as it ended.
In tribute to Juliet, I want to share some of her words, edited out of a Vital Presence podcast I did with her in October 2022.
Story as a journey of change
“We’re living in a time of death, bardo, between lives. where the level of disruption only seems to be getting worse.
“Story is a metaphorical journey of change with an arc that reflects the arc of existence.
“We go through the struggle [part of the story] to rediscover who we are – and in so doing we transform into someone higher, better than who we were.
“At the end of the story, we come back to our lives, communities, and families with something deep and valuable to offer.”
Creating a “Story Sanctuary”
“What I offer clients is a story sanctuary, a place of possibility, safety, and growth, where people can use myth and poetry to relax into their own being – and then let it come forth in writing, drawing, movement, and sound.
“I share a relevant myth, wisdom tale, or poem – something that comes from that higher place that artists and great storytellers have access to. Higher Mind. Metaphorical mind. Call it what you will. It’s the place where healing happens.
“Every story that I tell resonates in a different way with the listeners. I invite them to write about it. My only agenda is to provide a safe space in which to grow.
“I don’t analyze or interpret. I only ask, ‘What stands out for you?
“People discover the most incredible stories in their own lives.
“The magic happens when group members share—listening deeply to each other. We ask ourselves, ‘What is emerging for me in another’s writing?’
“Such beautiful things emerge from a place of depth and, to me, divinity.
“People feel restored and more able to take some kind of positive action toward wholeness, toward whatever their life needs.”
Storying a life
“In groups, I tell my own story. I’ve been struck by a series of “plagues”—not finding housing in New York City at the same time I was diagnosed with cancer. Yet I knew that I was on a heroine’s journey.
“I reframed cancer. Because I knew stories so well, I could ask “What threshold am I at [in the journey]?” I wrote out my story and cancer became another character. I didn’t go through the “cancer battle” so I saved a lot of energy. I never hated cancer.
“I worked with it with compassion and saw myself as a pilgrim in New York City on a quest for home. [Connecting to story] raised what I was going through to a higher level. It gave me stability and helped me to stay out, in large part, of anger, resentment, and grievance. I maintained my gratitude list and made connections with people because my inner energy was rising up toward life through the story paradigm of crisis, struggle, and transformation.
“I always at some deep level believed that it was going to get better and I was going to be a better person. And I am.”
Grief as initiation
“In the darkness is the light.
“Your grief is your land and your story. There are terrible things in it and beautiful things in it.
“Working with story is like an initiation process—loss becomes an initiation into a more loving, compassionate, generative way of being. People are emboldened to take action and grow.
“We can ask the artist’s question: ‘What can I make with the circumstances?’
“When people share their stories in difficult times, when we write our deep stories and share with a compassionate, intimate group of people, we bond in a way that will never be broken. It becomes a lifeline.”
If you’d like to hear the full Vital Presence interview with Juliet—and it’s worth it—click here.
Facing the end
I think those lifelines of connection were what sustained Juliet at her life’s end, as people came to be with her.
Today, the story of her life on the physical plane is over.
Yet her story and her spirit will live on through her words, teachings and our remembrances of the courage with which she lived her personal heroic journey.
Or that, at least, is the story I am telling myself.