The Healing Power of Stories

“Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they may wreak?”

Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls

If you are at all familiar with Ness’s beautiful tale, however, you will know that the primary aspect of stories it explores is their power to heal, not to wreak havoc.

Something many people need right now, in fact.

As a freelance writer for the national radio program Our American Stories, I recently encountered this power in a new way.

Any time you record something for national radio, you know it will be heard by plenty of people you don’t know.

In this case, hundreds of thousands of people. I didn’t consider that when I asked my boss if he would agree to an interview about his late best friend, Forrest Johnson—a WWII veteran whom my boss, Jason, had met after completing his own service in the Marine Corps. All I knew was this man’s story had to be shared.

Most of my conversations with my boss revolve around the company, but a large percentage of those that don’t are essentially “story time.” And when he gets going about his time in the marines, it almost always comes back to the man he met after eight years of active duty: Forrie. I love story time. It gives me a window into a life so different from my own, while reminding me that even a Special Ops service member had lessons to learn. And so many of them he learned from Forrie—a man over fifty years his senior.

I won’t recap the whole story in this post, which is why I’ve included the link where you can listen to the full recording.

What I do want to share right here is what I learned about the power of stories passed from one person to another.

Do you ever feel like you know someone because of everything you’ve heard about them? That’s how I felt about Forrie. After conducting this interview and listening to hours of “story time” that somehow came back to this man, I felt like I had personally known him. Heard his laugh. Seen his smile. Heard his stories from his own lips. And above all, I wanted to do something to honor him, however small that might be.

So I went to visit his grave on Memorial Day.

I went looking for Forrie’s grave in the cemetery where Jason said he was buried. Little did I know when I arrived at the cemetery that there were hundreds upon hundreds of headstones, all without any particular alphabetical or chronological order. I decided I would drive to the furthest corner, park, and start my search there, expecting it would take several hours to find Forrie. I did just that: I parked, got out of the car, and began walking toward the first row of graves in the furthest corner. I was mostly watching where I stepped because the ground was somewhat uneven and I had worn completely unsuitable footwear for a cross-country graveyard expedition. But as soon as I turned my head, there it was: FORREST L. JOHNSON. Located directly in front of my car. Next to his headstone was that of his four-year-old son, who passed shortly after he returned from the war.

It could have taken hours to find that one out of perhaps a thousand or so gravestones. My first words were, “Thank you, God.” After standing by the grave for a while, twisting together a clumsy dandelion bouquet, and recalling the hours of stories I’d heard about him, my last words were, “Thank you, Forrie.”

To feel a personal sense of loss over someone I never knew seemed rather odd.

But standing there, looking at his headstone, I felt grief, blended with gratitude– like two wines that only enrich each other.

Somehow his children heard the radio piece. And thanks to Facebook and social media, I was able to reach out and tell them what an honor it was learning about their father and how I wished I’d known him. The story has basically gone viral within their family and friend circle. To think of all those people gathering around a story told about their father—the man who served his country and nearly lost his life, the man who poured his heart and soul into those around him—to think of these people coming together in shared grief, memory, and gratitude is the greatest reward I could have hoped for.

And that, I realize, is the power of stories.

How have you seen stories bring people together?

In what ways have you accidentally encountered the power of stories in your own life?

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