Life Stories and Palliative Care. When Time Is Running Out, What Do You Focus On?

At  Victoria Hospice we’re into the third year of a Life Stories  service for patients registered with Hospice.  This is a program that I initiated and continue to be involved with as  a trainer and a mentor for our Life Stories Volunteer Interviewers.

Among the concerns that have arisen for the Interviewers, one, in particular, has been problematic. What part of a Life Story do you focus on when it appears patients may have only a few weeks or days to live? Patients may initially indicate that they want to talk about the broad spectrum of their lives from childhood to the present. The reality, unfortunately, is that they’re not likely to have enough time to complete such an undertaking.

Here’s what I’ve suggested. The Hospice Interviewer and patient agree to start with contemplative questions first. These are questions that reveal something of who the person is, rather than the details of their life. If time permits, they can always go back to talk about childhood beginnings and the important stories from their life. So what might some of these contemplative questions be? Here are some samples.

  • What would you like to say to your loved ones?
  • What has been important in your life?
  • What are you the proudest of in your life?
  • What do you admire most about each of your children?
  • What has brought happiness to your life?
  • What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned in life?
  • What regrets do you have?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • What is it that most people don’t know about you?
  • What are you grateful for?

Even if you’re not involved with palliative-care patients, you may find yourself at times interviewing someone who’s very frail and elderly. There’s no guarantee that time is on your side. In such cases you may want to give some thought as to what’s  essential to record. Focusing on more contemplative questions may be the answer.

Photo by Jill  Watson

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18 responses to “Life Stories and Palliative Care. When Time Is Running Out, What Do You Focus On?

  1. Another excellent post, Dan. These are also good questions to use to start a memoir! They should probably be addressed early, as well as late. Thanks!

    Bill ;-)

  2. Dan, Great questions for anyone, but especially for those who have limited time left. Even if someone seems to be doing well with treatment, such as for cancer, we never knw when things will take a turn for the worse.

    When I started a life story for a woman a few years ago, I had no idea she would end up in Hospice two weeks later and pass away a few weeks after that. Fortunately, I was able to get most of her story. If I had it to do again, I would have started with the most meaningful questions for the family, such as you listed here.

    Thank you for all the fantastic information you provide in your blog. It has been very useful.

  3. Again a great posting, Dan. I am so grateful for what you put out to your faithful readers. Thanks so much.
    Lin Joyce
    Personal Historian
    Ethical Will Facilitator/Coach

  4. Beautiful and wise post, Dan. I’ll be sharing this with others, more than once.

  5. Excellent questions, and as others have said, they have value for anyone as a starting point. Thanks for posting them.

  6. Dan, as we draw close to the end of still another year of life writing, I just want to thank you for sharing your pearls of wisdom all year long. I always look forward to receiving your newsletter/blog, it never disappoints me. Thank you for your faithful unselfish contributions to our unique segment of the writing world.

    • @Robin L. Waldron. Robin, thank you for taking the time to let me know how much you appreciate my work. It gives me encouragement to keep going knowing that there are people like you benefiting from my articles.

  7. Excellent article…goes right along with having the patient answer the questions in My 5 Wishes…I send that out to my peep on

  8. Pingback: Life Stories and Palliative Care. When Time Is Running Out, What Do You Focus On? | personal storytelling |

  9. I used these questions with a client recently. She had been given a month to live and had gone beyond 2 months and wanted to save her life memories. She is now in a hospice facility for the last few days of her life. I am so glad you posted this today, because I wanted to know how you emotionally become so close to people and continue to professionally fulfill your personal historian responsibilities? Does it get easier or take an emotional toll? I am so glad I was able to help her and her family save these memories, it is very fulfilling. Do you have some advice?

    • @Lana. I’m glad you had an opportunity to use some of my questions. Interviewing individuals at the end of life is tender and emotional work but also very satisfying. My advice to anyone thinking of doing this is to be clear about your own attitudes and feelings around dying. If the subject causes you distress, then it’s perhaps not the work for you. It’s also important to try to avoid carrying the sadness around with you. Have a good support network of friends and family. And have interests that can be fulfilling and nurturing. I hope this is of some help.

  10. Pingback: The Nine Contemplations of Atisha – Two « Namaste Consulting Inc.

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