Previously I have written here about interviewing people who are living with a terminal illness. There are benefits for patients in capturing the stories of their lives and conveying special messages to loved ones, but a word of caution. It can also be a time when traumatic incidents from a person’s past can resurface. These could involve physical or sexual abuse, loss of a child, and so on. You’re not likely to encounter such stories but it does happen. It’s happened to me. What should you do if such a situation arises? Here are my suggestions.
- Stop recording. People can forget that their words are being recorded and will eventually be heard or read by family members. You must ask your subjects if this is information they want others to hear. If it is, then when you begin recording again you need to say on the recording that you have spoken to your subjects and they have expressed a wish to continue with this aspect of the story. If on the other hand they say no, then you will want to ensure that all references to the incident are removed from the recording.
- Remember you’re not a therapist. It’s important to remind yourself that your role is not to help people mend. You’re there to facilitate the recording of a life story. However, it’s wise to have the names of several trusted counselors that you can refer people to should the need arise. If your subjects are clearly distressed by past events, you can suggest that they might want to talk to a counselor.
- Bear witness. It’s possible that your subjects don’t need or want any therapeutic intervention. And they don’t want this part of the story recorded. They may only want to relieve themselves of a terrible burden that perhaps no one knows about. Telling you, in confidence, is a way to bring some closure to a difficult episode in their lives. Listen and bear witness. Do not explore, suggest, or otherwise engage in any therapeutic activity. If you sense you’re getting in well over your head, it’s time to suggest to your subjects that they talk to a counselor.
Chances are you’re never going to encounter such a situation. But you want to be prepared in those rare cases where your interview unlocks some traumatic event.
Photo by Kevin Rosseel
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