Neon script "You are what you listen to"

In 2001, hospice nurse Dottie Kluttz started practicing “story medicine.” She’d sit with patients nearing the end of their lives, turn on an audio recorder and ask them questions about themselves. “I believe the person dying, who is the storyteller, wants his story told, wants to be remembered for more than one generation,” she said.

Her work is called story keeping — preserving someone’s memories and wisdom, and providing a chance for them to talk through things still unresolved.

Kluttz gives people homework between sessions, where they or someone writing on their behalf can jot down brief answers to question prompts. But she doesn’t have a set formula for the best questions to ask. Instead, she asks people where they’d like to begin their story. After conducting story-keeping sessions for roughly 1,500 people over more than two decades, she’s learned to trust the process: “The story that must come out is the story that does come out.”

Kluttz’s work inspired the Institute for Story, a project of the nonprofit Hospice Savannah in Georgia, which uses storytelling to honor grief and promote healing. It recognizes the unique power of narrative in shifting a person’s internal voice, in meeting and understanding others, in mending divides and building bridges in a community.

Stories of coping during COVID

Last month, the institute hosted “Story Under the Stars,” a kickoff to a two-day conference that followed, where people from throughout the community gathered to tell and hear their stories of life during the COVID pandemic. Among them was Amanda Lewis, who described the start of the pandemic as driving down a highway and seeing a storm in the distance. “But you don’t know how hard it’s going to rain.” Lewis was in an accelerated nursing program in early 2020, then began working at Savannah’s Candler Hospital, where she tended to critical care patients with COVID. She loves nursing and nurturing others. Even so, she said, “I noticed people kind of went into self-preservation mode, and it’s hard to care about other people when you do that.” Societal cracks, she said, turned into chasms.

Another storyteller was Savannah Mayor Van Johnson. When he was elected in late 2019, he was excited about the opportunities ahead. Then the pandemic hit. Johnson canceled Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities — a beloved tradition and powerful generator for the city’s tourist economy — in March of 2020, and again in 2021. Johnson’s decision prompted sadness, anger, even death threats. Despite those challenges, he remains convinced that protecting people’s health was paramount.

To support connections during the pandemic shutdown, Johnson launched “Friday Night Live,” an online chat on Facebook where he answers questions and hears people’s stories. “That’s what we did to get ourselves through,” he said.

Author and sociologist Bertice Berry recorded stories and posted them online during the pandemic; social media followers begin recording their own stories. Berry said she joined the Savannah Hospice board in part because of the organization’s use of narrative to help people heal: “I believe that when a story is told out loud, it sets somebody free — usually the listener, and always the teller.” She described the power of being open with people and leading interactions with love.

One of her beliefs has been printed on T-shirts: “When you tell a better story, you live a better life.” She encouraged people to clean their own “mental filters” — to stop viewing new experiences only through the past narrative and instead to listen for gratitude from others and remember it, because it means each person has helped someone else.

“Story medicine” in work and society

Exercises in writing craft were part of the conference, but the skills involved in story work reached beyond that: ways to use data to tell the story of an organization, to improve workplace culture and to form listening and learning groups that can help bridge racial, political and societal divides. Example: One exercise instructed people to listen to someone else for two minutes without speaking, but instead to demonstrate attention through nonverbal expressions and body language. Another session asked people to speak the name of a lost loved one out loud; the Savannah Conference Center echoed with the names.

Hospice Savannah continues to use story keeping as part of its end-of-life work. The hospice keeps an archive of their clients’ stories and gives a copy to family members, who have found comfort in both the stories and the sound of their loved one’s voice.

Kluttz, whose story work inspired the program, has since retired from Hospice Savannah but still gathers stories from people who are dying and those who grieve them.

As unique as the stories are, she said a common theme emerges: People nearing the end of their lives tend to be reflective, looking back on what they did well and what they did not, and wanting to pass that wisdom forward to those they love: “Here’s what I learned from. Here are my dreams for you.”

She acknowledged emerging research that shows that a variety of chemicals are released in the brain as people tell and listen to stories. But she takes her own inspiration from what happens when she records people’s stories: They become lighter and happier; they brighten as she tells them everyone has done something extraordinary and helped someone in some way; they realize their life story is worth sharing and preserving.

“I know there are a lot of people studying this,” she said. “But I don’t care about the science of it. I care about the magic of it.”


Betsy Taylor is the editor of Health Progress, the journal of the Catholic Health Association of the United States. She previously was a reporter at several newspapers and at the Associated Press. She is a board member of the St. Louis Press Club.

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