The Benefits of Telling Your Story

Lately, it seems everywhere I turn, I’m hearing about yet another person that’s been diagnosed with cancer. Beyond upsetting, I feel powerless. I am not a world-renowned scientist who can find a cure and I don’t have the big pockets to donate to those organizations already searching for one.

Which is why I’m glad that I’ve serendipitously entered into a very challenging, yet rewarding area of recording personal histories: interviewing those facing a terminal illness.

The challenges of such a project are fairly obvious, I think. This is a highly emotional time for families in such a position. But what has surprised me is how therapeutic the storytelling process can be for both ill (or simply aging) individuals as well as their loved ones.

Author Pat McNees has done considerable research on this topic.  In her article, The Beneficial Effects of Life Story and Legacy Activities, she sites a study funded by the Canadian Cancer Society. One hundred terminally ill cancer patients were asked about their lives and how they’d like to be remembered. The exercise took less than an hour, yet researchers found it reduced suffering and depression significantly, without the use of any drug. At least two other studies have shown that legacy activities have been therapeutic to both patients and caregivers.

photo courtesy of worradmu

For families, the value of a personal interview is immeasurable - to have the image and voice of their loved one preserved, to be able to hear their words of wisdom after they have gone - is an enormous benefit. The process of videotaping these stories is beneficial for families as well. “Each time an individual tells part of his/her life story, those who listen are like a mirror, reflecting and affirming their lives,” says John Kunz of the International Institute of Reminiscence and Life Review.

Nervous about suggesting such a project to a friend or family member? You’re not alone. For some people, bringing up the subject can feel taboo or like a bad omen, as if the simple act of recording one’s story is signifying the end of life. It can be awkward and divisive to families. One client who struggled with this issue recently confided in me that she felt relieved and relaxed once we completed recording her ill father. Knowing that she had preserved that bit of him, despite her Mom’s reservations, filled her with a sense of peace, and she was so happy to have moved forward with a video project.

If you know someone facing illness or advanced age, and you’d like to approach them about recording their stories, consider the gifts you are offering them and their loved ones: confirmation that they matter, knowledge that their life has meaning and purpose, certainty that their stories will have meaning for future generations.

  1. April 19, 2012 at 11:50

    Debbie, This is so moving and such a great idea. I'm sure families struggle with upsetting the sick family member or others involved, but having the video made has got to be a wonderful thing, and as you say, quite therapeutic at the time it's happening. What a relief to be able to talk together about someone's life and then to have the video as a keepsake. My mom was sick with MS and it would be so amazing to have a video of her for us and her grandkids.

    • April 19, 2012 at 14:29

      Thanks for sharing your story, Anne. You know better than most how therapeutic it is to talk things out. For a situation like this, sharing stories on video just gives families so much peace and peace of mind.