Tag Archives: Questions

Encore! 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… Read more.

Posts That Got You Talking.

Thanks to all of you who took the time to comment on my articles. Here’s my  yearly roundup of the posts that generated the most comments. These aren’t necessarily the articles that received the largest number of viewers but clearly they got people talking.

For those of you who may have missed them, here’s your chance to see what caused the flurry of comments. If you’ve already read them and didn’t comment, it’s not too late to join in the discussion! ;-)

  • The Cluttered of The World Unite!   “We seem to be inundated these days with exhortations from neatness mavens to declutter and organize our lives for a happier and better tomorrow. The implication seems to be that a cluttered existence is a sign of failing.”
  • The Power of “No”. “The “N” word has a bad reputation. It’s seen as negative and mean. Many of us find it hard to say. But saying No will help you not only with your work as a personal historian but also with your life in general.”
  • Why Are You a Personal Historian? “I came across this Annie Dillard quote the other day: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” It got me thinking.”
  • 12 Key Tips for Successfully Working Alone. ” I’ve been self-employed  for twenty years. I’ve loved being my own boss. But it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses. There have been some real challenges and some hard slogging. Over time I’ve learned some things about working alone  and I’d like to share them with you. “
  • If You Don’t Like What I Charge, Too Bad! ” Those of you who’ve been following my blog know that I periodically  have the need for a good “old-fashioned” rant. It’s kind of therapeutic. And I like to think that perhaps I voice some of the same frustrations that you experience. So hang on to your hat, here’s my latest!”
  • Eight Lessons My Mom Taught Me About Marketing. “My mom is ninety-two and a wise woman. She never had much schooling but she earned her doctorate at the university of life. She has a homespun wisdom that on reflection has taught me some vital marketing lessons. Here they are:”
  • How Old Letters and Recovered Memories Bring Satisfaction and Hope. “Last week I was doing some spring cleaning and came across a collection of letters I had written to my parents some forty-five years ago. At the time, I was a young man teaching in Ghana. After University I’d joined CUSO, a Canadian voluntary organization similar to the Peace Corps, and had been assigned to the West African country for two years. I’d asked my mother to keep these letters as a partial record of my experience.”

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Encore! How to End Your Book or Video Life Story.

The questions which one asks oneself begin, at least, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others.
~ James A. Baldwin

Imagine that you’re coming to the last chapter of a book or the final hour of a video life story you’re doing.  It may be your own or it could be a story you’ve been hired to record. Every detail has been covered from childhood to the present. How can you wrap up this life story in a way that feels satisfying? As a colleague said, “The book is ending; the life is not.”… More

How Much Detail Should a Life Story Contain?

That’s the question some of my colleagues at the Association of Personal Historians  have recently been examining.

Some feel that details count because they can enrich a life story by providing a social history context for it. They suggest that what might be tedious to the interviewer could in fact be fascinating to family members now and in the future.

Other personal historians  see a  need to be selective with details, choosing only those that enhance a story – sifting out the chaff and creating a more readable and entertaining narrative.

But the debate about how much detail to include is better settled after thinking through the following questions:

Is this a book or video life story?

In the previous article Book or Video? Which Makes a Better Personal History? I extolled the strengths and weaknesses of both print and video.

Books are more suited to detail than video. Video’s strength is in storytelling, broad strokes, and emotional content.

What’s the budget?

If you want detail,  it’s going to take time and time costs money. Ten or more hours of interview isn’t uncommon for a full life story.

While your client might want their very own version of Gone with the Wind, their budget restrictions point to a more modest affair like Swayed by the Breeze. ;-)

How open and revealing is your storyteller?

Some people  need little prompting to unleash a wealth of detailed stories. Then there are those who are more reticent. No matter how sensitive and clever your questions, you’re lucky to get the bare bones of the person’s life.

What kind of questions are you asking?

The interview is at the core of a comprehensive and entertaining personal history. I’ve written extensively about the art of interviewing in 11 Articles on Interviewing .

If you want to get the stories behind a life,  avoid questions that focus exclusively on names, dates, and places. Instead, use open-ended questions that begin with How, Where, When, What, and Why. And don’t read from a series of scripted questions. Make sure to go deeper with prompts like “And then what happened?”


I believe that details can enrich a life story. Ultimately though, we’re  hired as professionals to edit and weave those details into a coherent and engaging story.

Photo by Chris Beckett

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The 50 Best Life Story Questions.

I know it’s presumptuous for me to claim these are the “best”.  But what the heck, they’re not shabby. ;-)

In a previous article I suggested you might want to write “50 best life story questions”.  I explained these could be a token of appreciation for a potential client that you lost. If you haven’t yet written your “50 best”,  take a look at my list and feel free to use any of them. Be my guest!

  1. If you could do one thing over in your life, what would it be?
  2. What makes  you happy?
  3. Looking back on your life, what do you regret?
  4. What do you believe to be true?
  5. What is the secret to a happy life?
  6. What do you believe happens to us after we die?
  7. Who’s had the greatest influence on your life and why?
  8. What are the qualities that you admire in your friends?
  9. What is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do?
  10. How would you describe yourself?
  11. If you could meet anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
  12. What’s important in your life?
  13. If you had a million dollars, what would you do with it?
  14. What’s a secret ambition of yours?
  15. Who in your life would you like to thank and for what?
  16. What principles have guided your life?
  17. Where do you find serenity?
  18. What makes you sad?
  19. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your life?
  20. How would you like to be remembered?
  21. If you had only one day to live, how would you live it?
  22. How would you describe your spiritual beliefs?
  23. Who is the most important person in your life today and why?
  24. What was the worst job you ever had and why was it so bad?
  25. What’s your idea of a good time?
  26. What’s wrong with the world?
  27. What’s one big question you’d like answered?
  28. What is it that you absolutely couldn’t live without?
  29. How would you describe yourself as a child?
  30. What’s the greatest gift you could give to someone you love?
  31. What does love mean to you?
  32. What was the best job you ever had and why was it the best?
  33. If you had to evacuate your home immediately and could take only one thing, what would it be and why?
  34. What do you still want to accomplish?
  35. What’s right with the world?
  36. What’s one thing you’d like to change about yourself?
  37. How would you describe your perfect day?
  38. What event in your life would you like to live over and why?
  39. What are you avoiding?
  40. What are your best qualities?
  41. What’s the most romantic thing you’ve done for someone?
  42. Who are your heroes and why?
  43. What are your failings?
  44. What’s the kindest thing you’ve done for someone?
  45. What is more important to you,  challenge or comfort and why?
  46. How is your home like you?
  47. If your life were a motion picture, what would the title be?
  48. Who in your life would you like to forgive and  for what?
  49. What are the advantages of getting older?
  50. What would you place in a time capsule that would tell a relative 1oo years from now who you were?

Do you have some questions that you think should be on the list? Please add them in the comment box below. I always appreciate hearing from you.

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From the Archives: 14 Questions to Help You Build a Better Business.

14 Questions to Help You Build a Better Business. I find the end of the year a good time to take stock of  my personal history business.  I set aside a day and look at my successes and the things that didn’t work.  I make a point of  writing this all down. It’s an important exercise that holds me accountable and keeps me growing as a professional. Why not take some time and do your own year-end review? A word of caution. Don’t beat yourself up for perceived failures but at the same time don’t  … Read More

Part Two: Life Stories and Palliative Care: Your Questions Answered.

This week I continue with answers to the “burning questions” that  participants asked in my workshop, Life Stories as Healing, at the Association of Personal Historians conference. You can read more questions and answers in Part One here.

What event or events in your life made you decide to do this work?

I find it’s often difficult to determine at what point an idea begins to germinate. I know that when I was thirty-two, a dear friend died in a car crash. I had seen her just the day before. She was a vibrant and compassionate individual and then she was gone. From that moment I knew that “death” was a companion on my journey.

However, it wasn’t until two decades later as a documentary filmmaker that I shot, directed, and edited a series for the National Film Board of Canada, entitled Bearing Witness. It followed three individuals who were living with a terminal illness.

As part of my research for that series I spent time at Victoria Hospice talking to nurses, counselors, doctors, and volunteers. I admired and I liked these people. I decided that once I had completed the series, I wanted to become a Victoria Hospice volunteer. In 2005 I completed my training and I’ve been working there ever since.

If you have only weeks to capture the essence of a patient’s life, do you invite the family to finish telling the story?

So far most of the patients who agree to our Life Stories interviews have only weeks to live. If we have six or seven weeks, we can usually record up to five hours of a person’s life story. If it looks as if time is running out, we may skip to topics that the patient feels are crucial.

The Life Stories interviewer always works with a patient to determine what that patient wishes to record. In some cases it’s a personal history from birth to the present. For others it might be a Legacy Letter or Ethical Will. It varies.

We haven’t  invited family members to complete a life story. They are usually too emotionally exhausted to consider such a request.

What do you do if you as the interviewer begin to cry?

As an interviewer I’m a human beings with feelings. The stories I hear have moments that are sad and I feel sad. I try to keep in mind that this is my subject’s story. It is not about me. I don’t want to start crying and have the attention shift from my subject to me.

There are times when what I hear  makes my eyes moisten and I express my sorrow at my subject’s plight. But I keep some reserve in that moment. I save the tears for later when I’m home and can receive the support I need from my partner.

Should one raise or not raise the issue of death?

I wish I could say that there’s one rule fits all but so much depends on your subject and the rapport you’ve established. Some patients want to talk about facing death and others don’t. What is important is to judge how comfortable you yourself are with death and talking about it.

I have asked some of my palliative care clients what they fear about death and in most cases they are quite open and honest with their reply. We need not shy away from talking about death but we must be sensitive to the needs of our clients.

Are men reluctant to discuss emotional issues? If they are, should the interviewer draw them out or respect their reluctance?

Male aversion to emotional issues is something of a generality and quite often true from my experience. Men prefer to talk about what they’ve done and where they’ve been than get into “messy” emotional stuff – not all men but a good number. In fairness though, to be facing your imminent death is tough and raises all kinds of feelings – anger, fear, grief, and panic. I’ve had some men and women who’ve made it clear to me that the only way they can get through the interviews is by avoiding highly charged subject matter. I respect their wishes.

When shown respect and compassion it is not uncommon for men to go from a reluctance to talking about emotional matters to being quite open about their feelings. A word of caution. As personal historians we are not  therapists. It’s not our role to make people feel better. That’s for the professional counselor. In fact we all need the names of several counselors we can refer our clients to, should the need arise.

Has pain on the part of a patient in palliative care interfered with your ability to help a person to tell their story?

For the most part pain is usually managed reasonably well  by the time we start to work with a patient. However, there are other issues that can make it hard to record a person’s story.  People can become drowsy or at times muddled from the effects of their disease and medication. There can be bouts of nausea. Overwhelming fatigue can render people speechless. In these circumstances we wait until the patient has recovered sufficiently to continue. Sadly, in some cases, there is no recovery and the patient’s story remains incomplete.

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Photo by Derrick Tyson

Part One. Life Stories and Palliative Care: Your Questions Answered.

I recently participated in the Association of Personal Historians annual conference in Victoria, BC. One of my presentations was  Life Stories as Healing: Working in an End-of-Life Environment. In the workshop we looked at some of the skills needed and challenges faced in providing life stories for patients receiving palliative care.

Near the end of our session I asked participants to write down one “burning question” they wanted answered. We  had time for only a few. I decided that for those who didn’t have their questions answered I would deal with them here. I thought that those of you who weren’t at my workshop might also appreciate seeing the questions and answers. Next week I’ll tackle further questions in Part Two.

How does one set up a personal history program with a hospice?

There is no one right way to set up a program. Much will depend on the local circumstances. From my experience with Victoria Hospice  I’ve learned a few lessons and passed these along in two articles How to Establish a “Life Stories” Hospice Program. Part One and Part Two. For those of you interested in the possibility of a life stories program at your Hospice, these articles would be a good place to start.

Why not charge for life stories work at a hospice? Why should this work be voluntary?

If you’re a professional personal historian, you can request a fee from your Hospice for your services or provide it pro bono. That decision is really up to you and your Hospice.

As a rule, I don’t volunteer my professional services. What I do at Victoria Hospice is volunteer on a regular shift just like the other volunteers. I’ve been doing that for five years.

With regards to the Life Stories program I established, I trained 12 Hospice volunteers, nine of whom are actively engaged in the work. I designed and ran the training programs and for that I was paid my regular fee. I don’t do life story  interviews with patients unless there is no one else available.

I still continue to do the co-ordination of the program on a voluntary basis but I’m working to hand this over eventually to another volunteer. My goal is to have the Life Stories program be totally self sufficient without my involvement. From the beginning I made it clear to the Victoria Hospice administration that I wanted to see such a service succeed but that I did not want to continue to be involved in its day-to-day operation.

Are your hospice “Life Stories” volunteers paid and do the families pay for the service?

Our Life Stories volunteers, save one,  are not professional personal historians and are not paid. They do this work as part of their contribution to Victoria Hospice. We do not charge families for this service.

I should add that from the beginning we decided to keep the service as simple and as cost effective as possible. We only provide unedited audio interviews transferred to CDs. We also provide a list of resource people in the community that families can hire should they wish to do more with their interviews.

How long is a typical “Life Stories” interview session?

To be honest there isn’t really a typical session. So much depends on the condition of the patient. We don’t schedule more than an hour but sessions can be as short as 10 or 15 minutes if the patient is weak or drowsy.

What is the typical time it takes for your volunteers to complete a personal history project?

Again, there is no typical length of time. We tell patients that they can use up to 5 hours of interview time to tell their story. Some manage that and others become too ill to continue beyond an hour or two. So much depends on the overall health of  a patient  when they start the process.

Given the fact that our patients are frail, it can sometimes take 6 or more  weeks to complete 5 hours of interview.

What if the patient is resistant to talking at all?

Our Life Stories program is only offered to those Victoria Hospice patients who request it. At any time a patient may opt out of the Life Stories program if they find it not to their liking.

Next week watch for Part Two.

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Photo by Kelly Sue DeConnick

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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It’s Time to Relax, Reflect, and Renew for 2010.

In a previous article,  14 Questions to Help You Build a Better Business,  I wrote about the value of using the end of the year for reflection. I decided to take my own advice and use this final week of 2009 to take a break from posting articles and do a little reflecting of my own.  It’s a good time to relax and plan for 2010. I’m excited about bringing you more  articles that may be of help to you.

If  you’re looking for something  to read this week, why not check out some of my previous articles which you may have missed?  I’ll return on Monday, January 4th.  Until then, take care and Happy New Year!

Photo by iStockphoto

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