Vivienne Pender is a counsellor who coordinates the Biography Service at Mary Potter Hospice Wellington, New Zealand. Here the author explains the background to her longer article that is published in the July/August edition of the European Journal of Palliative Care.
I enjoy stories, listening to the ordinary everyday lives of people resonating personality. I enjoy those unique times in life when I am truly listened to by someone who is free of their own stories, willing to give full attention. It is this experience, this deep listening, that we bring to people who are dying when they record their life stories in biography. We want the dying person to be in charge of what they express. It is not unusual to hear the words: “My life is not interesting to anyone else. I can’t think of anything to say. ” Then, with rapport established and the ability of the volunteer biographer to truly listen, people are often surprised by the memories and experiences that pour forth.
Recently a family member commented to a biographer: ” I am amazed at how my mother’s true personality shines forth in the biography. I hear her speaking. We are deeply grateful.”
At another time a young man who had difficulty relating to his father said after his death when he read the biography: “We (the family) read about events we didn’t know about, our father’s courage, his young life, we didn’t know this, I cry with tenderness as I read it. He was so difficult and didn’t talk about this.”
This ability of the volunteer biographers to faithfully transcribe is an essential skill. When a dying person hears their own words read back to them they will then make any changes they want. Eventually a spiral bound book with photos chosen by the dying person and their family completes the biography.
When I am with volunteer hospice biographers I am inspired by their skilfulness, discipline, and willingness to question and grow in their role. They are profoundly affected by the people they meet. I wrote about training volunteer hospice biographers when I realised there were few volunteer training articles available. I believe in interactive training where experienced people train new skilled people and there is a stimulating exchange of skills and knowledge , an openness to personal vulnerability and continuing role development.
At Mary Potter Hospice in New Zealand volunteer biographers receive training that emphasises compassionate communication, teamwork, skilful transcribing and creative production. They are a volunteer group who enjoy living their own lives and the stimulating exchanges in the supervision groups and training days reflects this. Every biography produced is an expression of relationship; ‘you are not alone’, dignity, autonomy, and human connectedness.
To read a copy of the full article… This post relates to a longer article, ‘Giving voice to life – training volunteer hospice biographers’ by Vivienne Pender, which is published in the July/August 2014 issue of the European Journal of Palliative Care (vol. 21.4). If you have a web-based subscription to the journal you can download this issue, plus all articles in the journal archive.
You can also browse the archive and download articles by taking a 10-minute or 30-minute subscription. Members of the EAPC receive discounted subscription rates to the journal – click here to subscribe online.
Mary Potter Hospice.