It has taken me three months to finish reading Yasmin Gunaratnam’s most recent publication, Death and the Migrant -a collection of accounts of transnational dying and palliative care in English cities. It wasn’t overly long or complex, nor was I lacking in the time to devote to its reading. It took me three months to read a hundred and sixty one pages because every time I encountered a narrative from a care practitioner or a dying person, I also found myself reflecting on the time that I have not spent listening to those around me.
I can honestly say I cannot remember the last time I gave someone the justice of letting them speak without me interjecting. As Prue Chamberlayne has shown in her discussion of using biographical narrative methods with ‘Laura’, the manager of a homeless hostel, there are often long biographical trails behind those who work in the caring professions that can affect their capacity for ‘emotional thinking’ and listening to difficult stories.
Let me give you some background about myself - when I was six years old, teachers became increasingly frustrated with me not ‘doing as I was told’ and not learning at the same pace as other children in my class. It turned out that I had glue ear (a condition where your inner ear becomes filled with fluid), which stunted my listening and learning capabilities. Ever since then I have made a subconscious effort to make up for lost time.
I am the talker, the socialiser, the comedian, the anecdotal storyteller. It is because of these traits that I have fallen into a caring profession. I work with vulnerable people who are homeless and I try to provide them with support to maintain their independence and help them to develop and/or refine their life skills.
I cannot remember the last time that I was with a homeless person and just let them speak and tell me their stories. Any information that I tend to know about them is generally gleaned from case notes or instrumental questions that will help me to deal with their current problems. I couldn’t really tell you what their life has been like and from their own personal perspective. I don’t know how they felt at the height of their troubles or what their most memorable life events are. I can’t say that in all my years of working in the charity world I have been privy to any poignant childhood memories that I have helped to elicit.
In the support work field, we are part of a paradigm of holistic care, which means that services make a point of taking the ‘whole person’ into account before making a diagnosis of what support and care can be offered. Having read Death and the Migrant, it seems to me that it is narratives and stories that are missing from my profession. If I listened wholeheartedly, unabashedly and sincerely, perhaps I could provide truly holistic support to those I want to help. This is more than suggesting the value of incorporating narrative skills and knowledge into the development of a package of care, it is also thinking about listening to stories as care. Might skills in eliciting and listening to the stories of others reconfigure the balance of complex emotional relationships between the listener/professional and storyteller in ways that validate the vulnerable ‘other’?
Excuse the cliché, but perhaps it is time for me to sit down and let someone else do the talking...