Caution: End-of-Life Interviews May Unlock Traumatic Stories.

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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2 Responses to Caution: End-of-Life Interviews May Unlock Traumatic Stories.

  1. Dan,
    Your message today is very powerful and something that Personal Historians need to keep in mind. As it happens, the very first interview I did when starting out got into painful memories for my elderly client.

    Tears streamed down her face as she told the story. When she had finished, she wiped her eyes, took a deep breath and said how relieved she was to get it all out.

    I asked if she wanted that part included with her life story and she said, “Yes, it’s something that my family should know.”

    At the time, I didn’t consider to stop the recording, but in retrospect, I probably should have asked. In this case, since she did want it included, I was glad to have the tape for reference to get it exactly as she told it.

    I don’t usually offer a copy of the recording to the client, but if other historians do and the client wants it excluded, then it would be important to honor their wishes and remove all of it.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking blog. I always enjoy reading your articles.

    Beth LaMie

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