Personal stories heal and celebrate

Kerry Little (left), Josh Lee and Kris McIntyre

Volunteer biographers in a Sydney hospital tell the life stories of terminally ill patients and the results offer so much more than just a story for their families.

By Ara Jansen

A story is a powerful thing. Telling your personal story can be a potent tool to look back on the decisions you’ve made and why.

Kerry Little and Colin Tooher

In the documentary A Friend in Death, the Sacred Heart Biography Service at St Vincent’s Hospital offers people in palliative care the opportunity to work with a trained biography volunteer to tell their life story.

Perth filmmaker Josh Lee was inspired to make A Friend in Death after a close friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer
and prompted him to research palliative care. 

“It started me thinking about how we make meaning out of our lives,” he said. “As soon as I came across the Sacred Heart Biography Service, I thought I could do something on it.”

One of the biographers is long-term volunteer Kerry Little, an adult educator and business owner in her seventh decade. She cared for both her parents with terminal illnesses and brings both that experience and compassion to her biography work. 

She usually does about six spoken interviews with each client – if they are able – and at the end pulls together a book with photos telling their life story. Little has learnt from this work that in telling their stories, terminally ill patients often find for the first time their place in the world and see patterns in their lives they hadn’t otherwise recognised. But one of the most powerful things to come from these stories is the patient truly understanding they matter to those around them and their story (and in turn their life) is worth something.

“Some of them speak about things they have never spoken about before,” says Little. “It’s about letting them tell their story. We’re holding the space, holding a spiritual space and being a witness. We use the biography process to connect with them and be empathetic.” 

From research and development through to completion A Friend in Death took about 18 months. Lee says while the subject was heavy, it’s some of the most fun he’s had on a film.

“I loved that this film was inclusive and collaborative with both the biographers and their subjects. People like Colin (one of the interview subjects) were perfect and he brought such humour to the whole experience.  

“This really has helped me contemplate death and what it means. I’m still thinking about it and my view of death has changed to be an important part of life and a meaningful part of life. I now live my life with a strong awareness of how I am living.

“This has shown me the importance of community connection and being part of making meaning in your life. There’s so much you can do with that with the power of storytelling. Stories are so powerful in the way we make sense of the world. I think A Friend in Death is a beautiful insight to that.”  

ED: Palliative Care Western Australia offers a similar service through their Lasting Words project. They are also looking for volunteer interviewers. For more details go to:

A Friend in Death screened on Compass recently and may return to ABC iView.