Life Story Writing – the Listener’s Perspective

Coming alongside older people in their last days to listen to their story is a humbling experience and an enormous privilege. For the most part families are supportive, helpful and are excited for what the process will produce. Just occasionally though, where there is unresolved hurt and grief, families can be resistant and unhelpful.

I sat at the back of the chapel hopeful that my dear friend Jack’s funeral would be a peaceful coming together of a broken family, that hurt between siblings would be put aside. The mood was sombre, I wondered if it reflected a realisation that it was too late now to say sorry to their father and brother. The dynamics of this family had made it very difficult for Jack and I to record his story, but together, we managed a small piece of work that he dedicated to his grandchildren. It included deeply thoughtful prose, written in the hope it would initiate healing. Sadly, due to his terminal illness, Jack knew he wouldn’t be there to witness it. 

After the service, keen not to draw attention to myself, I moved away quickly past the hearse. Walking towards me with a teary expression that showed a heavily burdened heart was one of Jack’s sons. I feared what was to come; I had experienced his aggression before. He was not supportive of me working with his father, considering it a waste of time. There had been little cooperation from the family generally. I knew that Jack had been a demanding parent and could understand a certain level of animosity towards him. 

But now, standing in front of me with tilted head, hugging his father’s book across his chest from which he had quoted during the eulogy, he questioned: “Are these words really written by Dad?”  I re-assured him they were; my own heart aching with the sadness of that question. “Yes, they are Jack’s words, words for you and your brothers”. 

Amongst the grief-laden tears I heard, “Thank you, thank you, this is such a gift, I am going to read it every day to keep me close to Dad.” 

I was shocked by his admission, but I was nevertheless relieved. Maybe his father’s words, albeit from a memoir, were going to achieve their aim and start a journey of forgiveness and peace, at least for this son. 

As a life story ‘writer’ I consider myself more a life story ‘listener’ – an enabler perhaps, seeking to maximise opportunity for families to hear from each other without the barriers that doing life stories together can create. Barriers that can mean we don’t hear each other until we’re gone from one another’s life.

Vicki Macpherson
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