Elizabeth Weinstein remembers sitting by her father’s bedside in England shortly before he died in hospice. She thought she knew the story of his life, but learned otherwise after his passing.
“After his death my brothers gave me a few sheets of paper, and on them was my dad’s life story,” she recalled. “The almoner had sat by his bedside, and wrote down everything as he talked about things I never knew.” Her father provided detail to the hospital social worker about his years in the Royal Navy during World War II. “The fact that his naval career was the pinnacle of his life came through and made a big impact.”
Weinstein moved to the U.S., married, raised four children and earned a Ph.D. in community and human resources at the University of Nebraska. She owns a training and consulting firm, specializing in organizational development in Des Moines, Iowa. For the last 25 years, Weinstein has volunteered at Mercy Hospice in Johnston, visiting the dying. In 2015, she remembered the sheets of paper her brothers had given her and was inspired to create the Life Stories Project.
Hospice patients are offered the opportunity to meet with Weinstein, who interviews them about their childhoods, families, education and work and the major turning points in their lives. Weinstein takes written notes and, with the patient’s permission, records the conversation. She asks what they have learned that they’d like to pass on, and what they would like family and friends to remember about them. Then she writes up the patient’s life story, has it bound with a cover and delivers copies to the patient and their family.
“My favorite part is getting to know the people,” she said.
“Because you are talking with them on such an intimate level, it is so powerful. I feel very privileged that they open up the way they do.”
“Going into it you know the relationship is going to be short and sweet, but in some cases, you really do develop a pretty strong relationship with someone. Then, of course, it’s done. That makes it challenging at times.” She has completed about a dozen life stories so far.
Laura Brady, volunteer coordinator for Mercy Hospice, says the Life Stories Project has been invaluable to patients.
“Allowing them, in their last days, to complete a keepsake of their journey has made an incredible impact on our patients as well as their families,” she wrote in an email.
“Both have commented on the power of providing the opportunity for someone to complete their journey and have it written the way they would like it to be seen and cherished by loves ones. We have cared for families that didn’t know their loved one was working on their life story, and one person told us it was the greatest gift to receive after their family member’s passing.”
Keeping the story in the patient’s voice is paramount, Weinstein said. “I’ve always loved writing—but this is not creative, it’s more recording,” she explained. “If I hear things that aren’t grammatically correct or said in an Iowan kind of way, I will keep that in the story. You have to be careful not to correct and edit because then it’s not their story. I’m just a vehicle for capturing this information.”
After each meeting, Weinstein types up that section of the story and during the next visit gives it to the patient for approval. “I might go five or six times because patients get very tired very quickly,” she said. Because they are close to death, interviewees may forget parts of their personal history, or struggle to articulate them. Weinstein said the role requires asking the right questions and actively listening.
Mercy Hospice is now working with Weinstein to expand the program by training other volunteers who are interested in participating. “The response and feedback we have received about The Life Story project has been so positive and heartwarming,” Brady noted.
“Through this reflection, I hope people see that they have added value to this world,” said Weinstein.
“It’s an opportunity to give meaning and value to each life and journey, for the hospice patient to find healing and peace, and give a gift to family and friends. One of the patients I was working with said, ‘You know what you’re doing is a ministry.’ But it’s a gift to me; that’s the way it feels.”
And a way to honor a father who she got to know better when she read his life story. As Weinstein said, “This idea was sitting in my brain for a long time.”