As a Hospice Chaplain I have the honor of being able to listen to a lot of life stories. I am touched by all of them. There was a patient that I went to visit not long ago that agreed to let me record our conversation. We sat at her kitchen table drinking coffee. I wondered to myself, “How many other stories were told over the years at this very table?” She wanted to do the recording because she had wanted to record what she knew of her ancestors to preserve that information for her family. She had done research on her family history in the past and was excited to be able to add the stories that had been told to her by her parents and grandparents.
She told me what she could remember of her parents, grandparents and great grandparents and shared the stories that were told to her through the years. Then we started on her life. When and where she was born and what her childhood was like. Once she got going she had many amazing stories to tell me about her life. She told me about growing up poor on a farm, funny stories about growing up with her siblings, how she meet her husband, getting married, starting her own family, going through a divorce and then re-connecting years later with her ex-husband. There were stories about good times and bad times. There were funny stories about learning to drive, another about getting caught by a police officer while her and her boyfriend were intimate in the backseat of a car. She told me of her wedding day and of the experiences of giving birth to each of her children, their names and what type of personalities each had. She shared stories about the funny things that her kids did when they were young. They were all adults now with families of their own. She expressed what a joy it was becoming a grandmother. She told me about the different jobs she had over the years, her hobbies, and her involvement with volunteering with different organizations in her community.
She said that she wasn’t afraid of dying, that she had a good life, raised good kids that she was so proud of. They were fortunate to be able to go on a lot of vacations over the years and saw a lot of our great country. She still had a few things left on her bucket list but was ok with not being able to experience those things if she ran out of time. Most of her children and grandchildren now lived out of the area. She had recently gotten to see all of her grandchildren over the holidays and that was what was most important to her to have happen.
Spending time with family, laughing and having fun, doing things that served others and that also feed her soul was what her purpose for this life was all about. She had a strong faith and was ready to die when it was her time. Giving her this opportunity to reminisce about her life helped her to see that she did have a good life. That she was loved and that her life mattered.
A few days after our visit this sweet woman had a stroke and was from then on bedbound and could no longer care for herself or communicate very well with her family. She died peacefully about a week later.
A few days after her passing I paid a visit to her daughter, who had been living in her mom’s home temporarily while she cared for her mom. We sat at the same kitchen table drinking coffee. She told me of her mom’s passing and that she couldn’t believe that she was really gone.
When I was getting ready to leave I pulled out the CD that I had made for her mother. On it was the conversation that we had had not even two weeks before. I told her that it was a gift from her mom. It was her mom’s life story in her own voice. Tears of joy ran down her face. She told me that she had this image stuck in her mind of her mom in her final hours, of how she looked and how her mom had struggled to communicate with her family. She was so grateful for this incredible gift. We hugged and parted ways.
It felt good to be able to give her a little bit of her mom back. I know that that recording will bring her and her other family members comfort for many years to come. It's now a part of her family's recorded history. I’m glad that this woman will be known more to future generations than just a name written on her family tree.
Getting patients to review their lives helps us to not only get to know them better but it gives them an opportunity to process the events and to maybe see things in a new way, with a new perspective, to gain insight as to their purpose for being here on this earth.
Many people want to “someday” write down their memoirs but never seem to get around to it. Being able to offer to record these life review conversations can be such a blessing to our patients and their loved ones. It’s fun and easy. We even encourage other family members to join in on the conversation. They can help the patient remember and add important details. Some family members are surprised when they hear stories that they may never have even heard before.
Sometimes the patients are a little apprehensive about doing a recording. A lot of them say that they didn’t do anything really significant with their lives. They didn’t do anything to become rich or famous. They think, “Who wants to hear about my life? I wasn’t anyone special.” When someone says this to me I always ask them if they had someone, maybe a parent or grandparent, that they dearly loved that was no longer living. They can usually think of someone fairly quickly. Then I ask them, “Wouldn’t you have loved to have a recording of their voice in an ordinary conversation?” The content doesn’t even matter to those left behind. It’s just being able to hear their voice again. Having them tell their life story is a bonus.
It’s a way for our patients to leave a legacy to their loved ones that will be cherished for many years to come. In many situations it may be the only thing that they have to leave to their heirs.
Our patients love doing these recordings. They get a chance to feel heard and validated for what they have done with their lives. Sometimes I will be able to record two or three different conversations on different days. The first one may be to just have the patient tell me about their life. The next one may include one or more family members. The theme for this conversation may be: “Remember when…?” Stories of family gatherings such as holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries are told. Funny stories and most embarrassing moments are remembered and laughed about. It’s a great time to build even more memories with those that are about to leave their physical bodies. The next recording that we do may be a way for them to leave messages to their loved ones. It could be a chance to say final words to those that could not be there at the end of their life.
To those that are left behind to grieve, the sound of their loved one that has passed on can be so healing. I’m so glad that we can now offer to do life review recordings for our Hospice patients and their love ones. Hearing their stories has truly touched my life and I’m thrilled that those stories will be preserved for generations to come.