Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Telling Your Story: A Way to Cope and Share Memories

Over the years, healthcare professionals, especially those who work in end-of-life care, have tried a variety of therapies to help people cope with the reality of their death. Dr. Harvey Chochinov, a psychiatrist at the University of Manitoba, did extensive studies to determine what troubled people most about dying. The answer he found: the idea that they would cease to exist after their death. To address this fear, Dr. Chochinov created Dignity Therapy, an opportunity for the dying to assert themselves by telling the story of their life.

Dr. Chochinov compiled a list of questions designed to help the person focus on the story they wanted to tell, such as:
  • What parts of your life do you remember most or think are most important?
  • When did you feel most alive?
  • What are the most important roles you have played in your life?
  • Are there particular things you feel need to be said to your loved ones?
  • What are your hopes and dreams for your loved ones?
After the interview, a document would be presented to the family; in some cases, an audio transcription would be recorded. Their loved one's words would live on forever.
At the Jewish Home's Skirball Hospice, a similar program began in 2014. Led by volunteer coordinator Lee Rothman, M. Ed., M.A., Skirball Hospice offers their patients the opportunity to create a life review video. Using Dr. Chochinov's questions as a guide, the patient is filmed talking about their life experience and sharing their most precious thoughts. "We find the questions are helpful for most people," explains Lee. "For others, they have a particular story they want to tell."
Family members are encouraged to share photos that can be incorporated into the video. The final version is copied to a DVD and/or thumb drive and given to the family.
On her 93rd birthday, Anne Stern (of blessed memory) shared her life story on video. In preparation for filming, her daughter, Joan, went through a lifetime of photos with Anne. "We looked though the photos and talked about the people in them and the events taking place" says Joan. "My husband and I watched the video at my mother's bedside during her last days. Though she wasn't awake, I feel as if she may have been listening." Since then, Joan has shared the video with family and close friends. "The video is a priceless gift of memories to cherish always, and also gave me more insight into my mother's experiences and how they shaped her. I am so grateful to Skirball Hospice for making this opportunity possible."
"With each family we are learning more about what is meaningful at the end of life and how the process can help families grow closer and potentially heal old wounds before their loved one dies," says Lee. "Each video is unique to the person telling their story."
According to Dr. Ira Byock, a pioneer in the field of palliative medicine and hospice care in the United States, we can view the time at the end of life as a developmental stage, such as adolescence or mid-life. According to Dr. Byock, "This developmental crisis, this notion that life is coming to an end, has lots of capacity for suffering, but there is obviously a capacity to grow from this experience, too." Lee would like to think "the life review video project gives the patient and their family a chance to grow and heal until the end of life."
The life review video team is made up of a staff member (spiritual counselor, social worker or volunteer) who is close to the patient, a volunteer videographer and volunteer film editor. "We greatly appreciate our volunteers for playing such a big part in making this special memory possible," says Lee.
For more information about volunteering with Skirball Hospice or the life review video program, please contact Lee Rothman, volunteer coordinator, at Lee.Rothman@jha.org or (818) 774-3040.