Volunteering for hospice? Ask a different kind of question.

Posted by Lisa Fortini-Campbell, Volunteer

Volunteering for hospice? Ask a different kind of question.

Like many people these days, my mom has gone nuts for genealogy. Not only did she buy Ancestry.com kits in bulk for all of us at Christmas, but she spends a couple of days every week at a genealogy resource center in Cleveland where a lovely lady helps her search the vast databases the Mormon church has made available free to everyone.

Mom loves the detective work and when she discovers a name she’s been following in a census or on a birth certificate or in an obituary, she’s thrilled. But, it’s frustrating for her, too, because she realizes that all she knows in the end about these long-departed relatives are their names, dates of birth and death, and if she’s lucky, an occupation or some other tantalizing detail. She can’t help but wonder: What was their story?

How did her great grandfather who spoke no English meet and marry his Irish wife? Why did another great grandfather leave Bavaria and travel to Baltimore in the middle of the 19th century? And who were the three women he married, one after another, as soon as the previous one died? She aches to know and regrets not having asked her parents to tell her what they knew when she had the chance. So now she urges me, “Don’t make my mistake. Whatever you want to know, ask!”

As a hospice volunteer with JourneyCare, I recently went to visit a new patient. I knew his name, his age (97), his condition and that he’d been a doctor. Straightforward enough. But when I introduced myself, he said, “I have had a long and blessed life ... except that is, for the Hitler years.” Suddenly it struck me that underneath that bare-bones description was a repository of nearly a century of stories—stories that would soon be gone. And so, thinking of Mom, I said, “I’d like to hear all about you—anything and everything you want to tell me.”

My hour with him made me think about how seldom I stop to ask the people I meet in the course of my daily life for their stories. Instead, I ask them the superficial questions we all ask each other: What do you do for a living? How many kids do you have? Where did you grow up?

I get the facts. I might learn my new acquaintance has five children, homeschools them and volunteers at her church. Or I might learn she drives a Prius, votes for Democrats and is a dentist. I don’t ask for more because I assume that the labels I give them—“stay-at-home mom,” “Christian,” “liberal,” “environmentalist”—tell me everything I need to know, but of course, they don’t.

So, in honor of my mom’s longing for stories and my patient’s eagerness to tell his, won’t you join me in my resolution to ask a different kind of question: How did you decide to homeschool your kids? What did you learn about politics growing up? What got you interested in health care?

Ask an unusual question and you'll get a different kind of answer, and the thing all human beings love to hear—a story!

Become a JourneyCare volunteer! Learn about our many volunteer opportunities on our website.

Comments (1)

  • Shawna Oertley

    02 October 2018 at 14:00 | #

    What an insightful, refreshing look at our interactions with others! Glad I saw this : )


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