What is Life Review Therapy?

Bonnie Kellen

Life review is a collaborative process where individuals can try to make sense of their life and develop newfound inner peace. Popularly, life review is known as a near-death experience when people see their lives "flash before their eyes." But, one need not wait for a near-death experience to engage in life review.
     Life review is an examination of one’s life with the benefit of hindsight. This might lead to an acceptance of one’s unique life cycle, generational themes, personal wisdom—the opportunities are wide-ranging—the realization that if you want to do something different, now is the time. The client decides the topic, but most people prefer to reexamine and re-experience different stages of their lives. They may wish to re-experience a childhood memory, a cherished teenage memory, family holidays, or a relationship. Some individuals look at past experiences that have perplexed them, others evaluate perceived successes and failures, forgive themselves or grieve losses. Some people may be interested in topics of intimacy, major turning points, life changing choices or historical events. Still others might use photos, music or literature to heighten their experience. Some people have described the process of life review as watching their lives play out on the big screen. You start any place you choose—and if you don’t know where to start, Dr. Kellen can help guide you.
      Life review is not a new age concept. The basic ideas of this form of insight therapy were first popularized by Erik Erikson who observed that when people are age 55+, they begin to wrestle with their pasts and their life’s meaning. Erikson noted that teenagers see the world differently than adults, and likewise, older adults can have a richer perspective about the world and their lives—Erikson called this "wisdom". Later, Dr. Robert Butler coined the term clinical life review. He defines it as a normal part of aging. “As individuals develop a sense of their own mortality, they look back and reassess their lives.” Jane Fonda brought life review into the mainstream when she wrote about it in her book Prime Time: “I began to see myself, as well as certain events and people of my past, with new eyes,” she wrote. She said her experience of life review taught her that while we cannot undo what has been done, we can change the way we understand it and feel about it.
     With Dr. Kellen, each client is provided with choices, ranging from focusing on specific memories to reviewing one’s whole life.
     Dr. Kellen’s approach centers on personal growth in a dynamic and reflective way. Coming to terms with one’s life is an ongoing process throughout adulthood. When individuals share part of their life story, the therapist’s questions and comments can facilitate change in beliefs. The life review process is appealing because it invites adults to examine their pasts and understand what has happened in their lifetime within the framework of more recent experiences, possibly allowing them to finish unfinished business. Many moments are pleasant to reminisce in, while others might be uncomfortable—but the experience will be safe and respectful.

Optional Life Review Questions:

  • When have you been faced with a fork in the road?
  • Has the way you look at life and people changed over time?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What have been some of your hopes and dreams?
  • What are your fondest memories of your children?
  • What memories would you like to explore about periods of your life (childhood, teenage, young adult, middle age, later life)?
  • What would you have done differently?
  • What risks have you taken?
  • What have you accomplished?
  • Has the past influenced your present?
  • What do you hope people will remember about you?
  • What can you tell others about living and dying?
  • What lessons have you learned?
  • How would you like to spend the rest of your life?

The answers to these questions - and more -
are the culmination of your personal wisdom.

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