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Purposeful Listening

Telling Stories

Listening is the first skill in hospice

Telling Stories

The Rev. Pat Underkofler, chaplain of Compassus in Yuma, Ariz., encourages hospice workers to listen for their patients’ stories.

Marilyn was one of our patients who had long lived on her own with a debilitating disease. She was a wife, mother and survivor whose determination allowed her to live life to the fullest, despite many trials.

When Marilyn first came on service, she lived in a rural area in a small mobile home where it was difficult to tell where the outside ended and the inside started.

But Marilyn was adamant about her home, and she defined space within it. Each area within reach of her chair — the dining area, the library, the living room — was clearly designated by walls only she saw.

On the surface she may have seemed rigid, and even nonsensical. I think it was Marilyn’s creative personality that helped her find order in the midst of chaos. It was how she managed her life and the impossibility of it. Her boundaries helped her maintain a sense of peace in spite of it all.

She soon discovered we both enjoyed reading and history. Marilyn could no longer read due to failing eyesight, but she loved for me to read to her. I began by reading short stories from the Chicken Soup books, which led to many stories from her childhood, as well as those of her parents.

Marilyn grew up in Yuma, Ariz., and her mother was a local teacher who taught many generations of leading Yuma families. We soon moved to reading slim volumes of Yuma history selected by the librarian who brought books to the nursing home.

She knew the family names of the earliest families here, as well as the various names of infamous outlaws, sheriffs and other local legends. Marilyn took delight in correcting my pronunciation, especially of rivers, names of towns and family names.

She often said this was better than television and kept a list of points of interest to “research” later.

Marilyn is completing her research now with the Ultimate Teacher, Our Lord. She was a blessing to me and to others in her world.

People and their stories are powerful and personal. For some patients, it has taken the perspective of time to see any value in their stories; for others, they need time to heal. Some have tucked their stories so far back that perhaps it is the change that hospice represents, that moves them into the forefront.

I share this as a witness to some incredible people we come to know, if we can see beneath the frail, often frustrated patients and into the stories they carry in their hearts and spirits.

This article originally appeared in Everyday Compassion magazine. To browse full issues of the magazine, click here.