How to Interview Someone Who Is Terminally Ill: Part Two

The most popular article that I’ve written since starting this blog in 2008 is  How to Interview Someone Who Is Terminally Ill. I was reading it over and felt there were some additional points I wanted to make.

  • Before starting to work with someone who is dying, be clear what your own feelings and attitudes are around death and grief. Are you comfortable in the presence of someone who is dying? Are you able just to be with someone without trying to fix anything? If you haven’t explored your own feelings, this may not be the kind of work you want to be doing.
  • It is entirely possible that you may not be able to complete someone’s life story before that person dies. How well do you handle  situations  for which there’s no “tidy” wrap-up?
  • Taking care of yourself is vitally important because of the stressful nature of the work. One of the things that I didn’t mention in my previous article  is the importance of having someone to talk to about your feelings. And by this I don’t mean talking about the person you’re interviewing. That should always be in confidence. What I mean is being able to express your sadness, fatigue, anger, loss, and frustration to someone who is compassionate and non-judgmental.
  • For a list of useful books on death and dying click here.

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6 Responses to How to Interview Someone Who Is Terminally Ill: Part Two

  1. Dan, I especially like your warning about not trying to “fix things.” Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Dan, great article. I wish I had had your suggestions before I started a life story for a friend of mine from high school.

    She had a terminal illness, but I didn’t realize how serious it was until she went into Hospice. Two weeks later, she was gone.

    It really hit me hard, especially when I realized that all my personal history clients had in fact died. It almost made me want to stop writing them.

    Of course, I haven’t stopped, but now I keep myself from getting quite so involved with them. We offer such a valuable service to the families that we need to keep on going.

    Thanks for yet another pertinent message for all of us!


  3. Thanks for these helpful pointers, Dan.

    For a decade I trained volunteer listeners to record life stories and legacies of individuals facing life-threatening and often terminal illness,
    and I’ve continued to work with the ill and dying in private practice. For personal historians and others wanting to do this work in private practice (vs. in a hospice or institutional setting), I think it’s good to know that not only
    will there by last-minute cancellations, but it will often be impossible to actually schedule visits at “the right time.” You can arrive at a home to find that the narrator is too drugged, too much in pain, too out of it, or just asleep. You might need to wait for hours for “the right time.” Because this is prohibitively expensive to the family and also costly to the
    practitioner, I will often help the family identify a friend or family member who I will then train, mentor, and support through the process, as
    well as provide bereavement counseling afterwards. The mentoring/training
    can be 2-3 hours if the person is empathic, a good listener, and unafraid to be present with dying. Not ideal, but it can work well.

    I would also add to 1) lower your expectations of how much you’ll be able to tape (my shortest interview was about 12 minutes but it was exceedingly important to the narrator and family); 2) consider getting some kind of
    training (a death-and-dying workshop or hospice training) to deal with your own feelings and fears before doing this work; 3) do something nurturing for yourself after each interview (some choose to write in a journal, go for a walk, take a bath, talk to a friend).

    Linda Blachman
    Living Stories Services

    • @Linda Blachman. Many thanks for these very helpful additions. As someone who has been a hospice volunteer for five years, I can vouch for the importance of having some training before working with people at the end-of-life.

  4. @ Beth LaMie. Thanks, Beth.

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