Working with someone on end of life writing can be one of the most rewarding experiences you will ever have. Giving voice to a person’s history and stories can be a long process, with an end product being a very moving accomplishment, both for your client as well as yourself. However, end of life writing can also be one of the most emotionally draining experiences of your life. To that end, here are some things to think about when meeting with your client, and moving forward with producing a final product.
- Aging happens to us all, and depending on the family’s situation, many of your clients may be in a retirement or assisted living facility. This is not always where they would like to be. Be prepared to hear about ungrateful children, and hating the staff of where they’re living. Simply because it is not home.For many of this generation, they built their homes with their own two hands, and spent 50+ years living in their own personal heaven. To suddenly lose not only their independence, but these homes filled with years of memories, triumphs and tears, can be overwhelming. Just listen quietly, and let them vent. When they’re done, you can easily turn the conversation into a trip down memory lane, asking them about some of those stories.
- Listen. Just listen. So many of your clients just want someone to hear them. Whether their family lives too far away to visit, or there is simply no one left alive, all they want is someone to listen. At times, some of their family may find it too hard to listen to the memories they so desperately want to share. Other times, they have heard them so much that these stories have lost their shine, and they don’t have as much emotional attachment to them.So instead, you enjoy them. Stay engaged and bright, and realize you are in a unique position to be a first time listener who will chronicle these stories long after they are gone. Some will be funny, others extremely personal, and some may have you crying along with your client. Don’t be afraid to share these emotions with them – it shows that someone cares what they have to say.
- Survivor’s guilt. So many of this generation have been through wars and battles the likes of which we cannot fathom. Your client survived all of this and came home. So many of their friends, brothers, and sisters didn’t. While this guilt at being alive can be prevalent at any age, for those in their twilight years they are all the more powerful. Preferring to live through memories, your client will be reliving both the joys and sorrows of those who are no longer alive.Easily, you may be one of the only people that your client has ever told about a particular battle. The first time I heard about a battle during the Korean War, from an 8 time Purple Heart recipient, I honestly couldn’t process it. Both listening to the pain in his voice, and hearing about the horror of watching his platoon fall, to this day there are pieces I will always remember with crystal clarity. Hollywood will never be able to recreate it. Honor their memories, and offer support. Whether this is through voicing your pain at their loss, or simply a quiet reflection, whatever you are comfortable with try to be a pillar of strength for them.Survivor’s guilt is not only found among the veterans. It can be found in anyone who has outlived family members. One man, aged 93, was so proud that he had been working his farm up until 3 months prior. Listening to his stories, he had survived falling off the barn roof, getting kicked in the head by a bull, being gored by that same bull, and getting his arm caught in a thrasher and being thrown 20 feet. Laughing, his smile dimmed as he began to speak about his family members. An identical twin brother who had always been so cautious, dying in his 70’s from a heart attack. A younger brother who died from cancer. The baby sister who simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up. He ended by saying he didn’t understand why he was still alive. The only thing I could think to reply, “So you can tell the rest of your family their stories.”
He gave a pained smile, and said most of his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-nieces/nephews were more interested in their phones than listening to his stories. They didn’t understand even the concept of a farm. Quiet for a moment, I just smiled and said “Well I’m interested. And one day, when they’re older, I have a feeling they will be too. So we’ll make sure they have them.” Smiling wide, he patted me on the arm, and launched into another tale about the pranks he used to play on people with his twin brother’s help. Which leads into the next point.
- You are the keeper of their tales, the ones who keep them from being forgotten. You hold not only their memories, but the memories they entrust to you of beloved relatives long gone. As long as one person knows these stories, their lives mattered. Someone cares that they once existed, and their lives have meaning. To this end, you may also be asked to do some extra things. By no means feel obligated, and only do what you are comfortable with.But I have tracked down tiny, obscure cemeteries to take pictures of old family plots. I have delivered flowers to a beloved family member’s grave, as their descendant could no longer travel to do so. I tend to become extremely invested, so I don’t mind doing these things, within reason of course. This isn’t the right way, it’s simply mine. After a while, you’ll be able to find what works best for you, and what you are comfortable with as well.
- You do not have all the time in the world. This isn’t something that can be pushed to a back burner for later. While it’s true that terrible accidents can happen to anyone, anywhere, your clients are much more likely to not always have a ‘later’. Whether due to health or age, there are so many things that can happen.Someone who I had befriended at a retirement center over a pool table and lessons on how to bank a shot off two rails was one of the most delightful chaps I had ever met. I kept in touch over the spring and summer, and always stopped to say hi and chat. Then one week I came by and saw him on the couch. Stopping by him, he couldn’t remember who I was. He had difficulty with speech, and was frustrated as he knew he should know me. I later learned he had a massive stroke. The next week, he was no longer at the retirement center as he wound up with further complications.
We are all so busy, with our own lives and projects. It can be a balancing act to find time to breathe, let alone put together a scrapbook, or an article for a navy ship. But realize that your client may never see the finished product, if you take too long. For some, that’s ok. Always be upfront about your time constraints, and figure out something that works best. Maybe that means bringing a video recorder, so that you have all of the materials to work on at your convenience. Discuss and find what works best for you and your client.
For many, they are simply happy that someone took the time to care, and came to listen to their tales.