“Humans are essentially storytellers.”- William Fischer
Children love to tell as well as listen to stories. When people are at the end of their lives, they also need to tell and hear stories. Dr. Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “Our existence makes sense only insofar as we are able to place it in a narrative.” The search for discovering our purpose in life starts when we are very young and continues throughout our lives.
As a Hospice chaplain, I have seen many people struggling with their purpose in life when death is imminent. Encouraging patients to tell their “life story” seems to help them in this struggle. By listening closely to these stories, a connection can be made and this seems to help with their existential questions. Telling their “life story” also appears to create a change in their attitude.
After telling their “life story,” often patients will address their concerns about their illness or family. This frequently leads to prayer or triggers stories that may relate to their illness and how they or their families are coping. Dr. Eric Cassell believes “Each of us gets to our illness our own way, it becomes part of our story, and we individualize it by its place in the narrative of our lives.”
It is tempting for the listener to put the words of the patient within his or her own paradigm or agenda, but it’s crucial that the listener pay close attention to understand more fully the context and its implications. Sometimes it is appropriate for the listener to share a little of his or her own story to coax stories from the patient. It is important to keep the focus on the patients and their needs, and to quickly direct conversations back to patients, even if it means not being able to complete your own story or thought.
Another form of stories comes from scripture, holy texts or devotionals. Picking an appropriate verse or story that relates to what a person feels or thinks can add a depth to the visit that wouldn’t be achieved otherwise. Hearing stories from hymns or scripture may trigger comforting memories that may induce conversations that wouldn’t otherwise come up. Singing or reading hymns, particularly those from a person’s religious tradition or childhood, can be particularly fruitful for comfort and reflection. Even humming the tune of a hymn or song can remind the patient of the words and “ring” in a person’s mind and heart long after a visit is over.
Stories can also be stimulated through pictures of vacations, former homes, farms, churches and religious images. Dementia patients often like to tell the same stories over and over, sometimes as if the memory is currently occurring. It is important that the listener give these stories the same respect as if they had heard them for the first time.
The gift of the story lasts long after a person has died. These stories are often shared at prayer services, funerals and other gatherings. This is one way patients can have a “purpose” in their last days, even when they feel like they are no longer able to “do something.” Humans are essentially storytellers, and it is “holy ground” when people are telling their life stories. It is a privilege to be a witness to these stories and the storytellers who have lived them.
Pastor Tom Holtey is a chaplain at Hospice of the Red River Valley