The last goodbye: stories from the dying

Annice Henderson has been privileged to hear some remarkable stories in 20 years of working with the dying, as she helps them to record messages for their family.

Mrs Henderson, 64, of Roleystone, is a stalwart volunteer with Silver Chain's Hospice Care Services which provides palliative care in the home, grief counselling and other support services to dying people and their families.

Mrs Henderson, a former florist, says that she had no grand plan when she originally offered her help.

Quickly "what seemed like a good idea at the time" became an enduring labour of love.

"I had left one job and was looking for something to occupy my time so I went along to the volunteers centre and they checked my skills," she said.

"I'm a really good listener. Silver Chain's Hospice Care sounded interesting and worthwhile and the rest is history."

History is also often something very important to people experiencing the last days of their life and Mrs Henderson has helped hundreds record their life stories.

For much of the past 20 years she has recorded official oral histories and final messages as part of Silver Chain's Recollections service for clients.

"When I go to record a message, it is because the people have requested it after hearing about the service from their nurses and carers," she said.

"By the time I meet them, they are enthusiastic but some underestimate the time they have left and so are usually pretty weak and sometimes can't express all those millions of thoughts that they'd like to.

"It can be very tiring and I sit with them for as long as it takes."

Mrs Henderson did some initial training in oral history which emphasised preparation, types of questions and responses and little input from the recorder.

"In reality, with dying people it is very different," she said.

"You are meeting people who have just had realisation and acceptance that they are going to die and there is not a lot of time left.

"I usually start recording with a short introduction including who I am and what we are doing, sometimes something about the place or to set the mood and then they start," she said.

"The older people want to tell it all - they want to start right at the beginning and the younger ones usually have a message to give.

"They all mostly just want to leave a message for their children or grandchildren - to let people know that they love them - but that can also be embellished with a bit of life story.

"When we are finished, I give them the tape and it is theirs."

Mrs Henderson said that years of experience with the dying - assisting people from toddlers to parents and the elderly - helped her keep her emotions in check.

But it was not always easy.

"There is a very fine line between being detached and being cold," she said.

"You still need empathy and understanding but you can't become too emotionally involved."

Mrs Henderson says her husband, a retired engineer, is a good sounding board when she needs to talk, while her Silver Chain team leader and a psychologist are always available.

She feels remarkably privileged to be allowed into people's lives and to be told things that often no one else has ever been told.

"Sometimes I am told really intimate stories because the people don't know me and this can be a great relief," she explained, recalling a client who revealed a devastating childhood assault which had been a life-long secret.

"I have met Dutch ladies with unbelievable stories of survival who, during German occupation, had nothing to eat but tulip bulbs.

"One lady told me how her family sheltered a Jewish boy and how he was found and taken away to a concentration camp.

"She cried when talking of that boy and the telling can often make people relive the memory."

Mrs Henderson said that older people often had more to say and generally, at 75 plus years of age, had got themselves "sorted out" and could tell their stories with a certain level of detachment.

Recording the farewell message of a young mother, who was dying of breast cancer, for her four-year-old son was an altogether different challenge.

Mrs Henderson, who developed a passion for genealogy while recording the history of a client who shared a similar naval background to her own father, is reluctant to place restrictions on client recordings.

However, she says it is important to explain to clients up front that she will not record anything "untoward", including hurtful messages.

The Recollections Service is available to all Silver Chain clients, not only hospice care. Phone: 9242 0242

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