7 Essential Questions to Consider Before Offering a Personal History Service to the Terminally Ill.


I know some of you are interested in the possibility of providing personal history services to the terminally ill. I’ve been helping those at the end-of-life record their personal histories  as well as volunteering at Victoria Hospice for the past five years.  I find it tremendously satisfying work but it’s not for everyone. If you’re seriously contemplating working with the dying, here are seven questions to ponder.

  • How flexible are you with your schedule?

If you’re someone who gets easily frustrated and cranky when your plans go awry, then this may not be the work for you. People who are ill can plan to meet you on a certain day but at the last moment cancel because they’re not feeling up to it. Or they simply forgot because medications can sometimes make people a little muddled. At other times  family or friends drop by unexpectedly and you’re put on hold. You  have to accommodate ill people’s schedules, not yours.

  • How calm are you?

Terminally ill people are already under a lot of stress. They don’t need you to add to it. If you’re a high energy Type A personality, easily flustered, who finds it hard to sit still, then this isn’t the work for you. When you’re with people who are dying, you need to be able to set aside your own problems and mental shopping lists and be focused, present, and relaxed.

  • How patient are you?

This is a big one. There’s always something that can go wrong. If you’re an impatient person, you’ll not last long at this work. Circumstances can alter dramatically. As I mentioned, schedules can change abruptly. Or you’re told on arrival that everything recorded on the previous visit must be deleted because people fear it may be offensive to their family. Or you arrive at the same time that “home care” arrives to start  vacuuming the house. Sometimes you find that you had scheduled an hour long interview but after fifteen minutes people are too tired to continue. This is after you’ve driven thirty minutes or more to get to the patient’s home.

  • How comfortable are you around sadness?

Being with people who are near life’s end is inherently sad. Your interviews will naturally unlock tears in people as they’re reminded of their shortness of time.  And it’s sad when you’ve come to know someone well and that person dies. If you’re by nature a melancholy person or one who avoids emotionally challenging situations, this is not the work for you.

  • How well do you deal with disappointment?

If you’re someone who needs concrete accomplishments and goals, you might be disappointed by this work. Sometimes a life story is abruptly terminated because the person you’re working with becomes too ill to continue. You’re left with a half-completed story with no chance of finishing it. Or stories you know would be invaluable to the family are “off limits” because people don’t want to talk about anything that might make them “tear up”.

  • How good are you at establishing boundaries?

As you spend time with terminally ill people, your role as a professional personal historian may become compromised.  Let me be clear.  Your work doesn’t involve running errands, counseling, being friends, or providing help with physical care.

You must be clear about your boundaries. It may be appropriate occasionally to pick up some item on your way over for an interview but you’re not a delivery service. You’re definitely not a therapist and you shouldn’t be offering anything that remotely appears to be counseling.  Spending time talking to people about their lives is by its very nature  intimate work. Occasionally you may  sense a budding friendship. This is a tough one to handle. Think carefully what a friendship will involve. Are you able to spend the time and emotional energy that such a relationship will entail? My advice is to move cautiously on this one. As far as any kind of physical care, such as helping with a transfer or feeding, don’t do it! You are not a health care professional and you could cause your subject serious injury.

  • How do you handle stress?

Providing personal history services for those at end-of-life is stressful. Whether it’s mediation, a hobby, long walks, or a network of friends, you’ll need to do something to manage your stress. If you haven’t ways of coping with stress, then you’ll become burned out by this work.

Photo © Michael Spring | Dreamstime.com

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6 responses to “7 Essential Questions to Consider Before Offering a Personal History Service to the Terminally Ill.

  1. Catherine M.

    Incredibly well said Dan.

  2. In once sense personal historians may be like therapists. Our subjects share their stories with us, but we don’t share ours with them. As you say, it is important to maintain the boundaries, especially when clients are so vulnerable.

    • @Nancy. I agree with you, Nancy. There’s no doubt that the process can be indirectly therapeutic for the patient being interviewed. And it’s vitally important for personal historians not to enter into any activity that suggests a counseling role.

  3. Great advice, I recently had a client pass away; and we did not finish the project, but the family was very grateful for the information. I understand about the patience required around caretakers, pain, and other interruptions, but it is still worth the obstacles to save the personal history. It is difficult not to feel emotionally close to the client who is sharing their heart and soul with you. Your points are valid and timely, thanks so much for your experience and insight.

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