Patients’ Life Stories ‘A Gift from the Heart’

Established in 1979 as St Joseph’s Unit of Continuing Care, Mercy Hospice Auckland is one of New Zealand’s first and foremost hospices.

Life story facilitator Lexie Candy (right) with Mercy Hospice volunteer coordinator Julie Read… ‘dying people can teach us how to live.’

It provides a multidisciplinary care for people facing life-threatening illnesses, in the community and its 15-bed inpatient unit.

The services of Mercy Hospice are given at no charge to patients or families. Donations and bequests contribute significantly to hospice funding. A team of more than 500 volunteers are involved in supporting its services.

The death of a much loved husband after just seven months of marriage left Lexie Candy wishing she had known more about the story of his life.

“I knew the basics of George’s childhood, how he’d grown up on a dairy farm and played cricket and rugby,” Lexie recalls. “But I didn’t know how he felt or what it was really like for him. Now I’ll never know; it’s so frustrating.”

Her experience led Lexie to enlist her mother’s help in writing a family history. “Even though we’d always been close, I discovered lots of things about my mother I never knew before. We had lots of fun writing it, but I also learnt of family tragedies. It was a reciprocal gift of time and love.”

Lexie’s mother gave a copy of her story to all her grandchildren. “They just loved it. They saw their grandmother in a new light – as a young girl with hopes and dreams and as a capable, practical wife and mother, not just as an old lady.”

A friend who worked at Mercy Hospice Auckland shared the story with volunteer coordinator Julie Reid; it was the beginning of a new venture for the hospice and a new career for Lexie. More than 12 years on, she is now one of 15 trained facilitators helping patients to write their life stories.

As well as their initial volunteer training, Life Story facilitators share a seven-hour workshop led by consultant biographer and university lecturer Dr Deborah Shepard. “Her experience and expertise give professionalism to our work,” says Lexie.

Patients decide on the shape and length of their stories, which can vary from a card or a letter to a full-sized book. There is no charge for the facilitator’s service, but patients may contribute to production costs. Between them, Lexie and Julie work to ensure that patients and writers are well matched.

The work brings its share of surprises. “My first patient was a grumpy old man who thought he had led a very boring life, but we discovered that he had some great contributions to make,” Lexie recalls.

“I was amazed how he went from thinking he had nothing to tell me to being someone who looked forward to my visits. I believe he went to his death feeling validated and satisfied with his achievements.”

Writing a life story may mean healing for patients, even though there is no cure, says Lexie. “The healing may bring acknowledgement and commitment to their relationships. The process may include forgiveness and making peace with the people who have been important to them. It’s a chance for exploring the meaning of life and for spiritual growth.”

Over time, Lexie has come to see that the process of writing their story can be just as important to patients as leaving their memoirs. “The more I facilitate, the more I realise the therapeutic value to patients in telling their life story.

“As I sit beside them, I am reminded that every life is a precious, priceless gift. I am constantly inspired by people who maintain magnificent emotional strength and integrity, in very difficult circumstances. The dying can teach us how to live.

“I say to people who are wondering whether or not to write their story to think of it as a gift from the heart, a chance to leave behind a little bit of themselves for generations yet to come.”