Every person alive has a story to tell. As we progress through life and collect more experiences, these stories become even more meaningful. The idea of leaving behind a legacy that lasts beyond death is comforting, especially when people face the uncertainty associated with end-of-life.
For some people, this may come in the form of collectible items, works of art, or personal diaries. However, for those who don’t have tangible objects to leave as keepsakes, dignity therapy opens up a new door for creating a remembrance of their life.
Dignity Therapy: Crafting a Lasting Legacy to Honor Life’s Journey
Dignity therapy is a relatively new concept in the field of psychology, but it’s one that continues gaining more and more attention. The idea is simple: give people facing the end of their lives a chance to tell their life’s story by sharing memories or experiences to a scribe. Dignity therapy allows those who are at the end-of-life to leave behind a legacy that will continue on after they have passed away.
At its core, dignity therapy is about helping people find meaning and purpose in their lives, even in the face of death.
The concept was first introduced in 2002 by Harvey Chochinov, a Canadian psychiatrist and palliative care physician. He developed this therapeutic process in order to decrease anxiety for people close to death and increase their sense of purpose. It’s a form of person-centered care that focuses on the individual’s values, beliefs, and perspectives.
At its core, dignity therapy is about helping people find meaning and purpose in their lives, even in the face of death. One of the key features of this tool is the life review process. This involves working with a loved one, therapist, or volunteer, to create a narrative of one’s life, focusing on the experiences, people and events that were most meaningful. The goal is to create a document or video that can be shared with loved ones, providing a way to pass on one’s legacy to future generations. This process can be deeply meaningful and emotional, both for the person undergoing the therapy and for their loved ones.
patients who received dignity therapy reported heightened sense of purpose, more connection to their loved ones, and increased sense of self-continuity.
Now, certain universities are recognizing the impact of giving their students a chance to be involved in this valuable and transformative practice. At Scripps College, sophomores are able to take a “Life Story” class in which they participate in a course focused on the life process, and carry out biographical projects for elderly adults in the community. Mary Knaak, one of the students who took this class in her second year of college, said that it helped her understand the later stages of life better, and connect with a community of elderly folks. Although she didn’t have much in common with her life story-teller in terms of background, life experience, or beliefs, the process helped her appreciate the experience of someone in a different stage of life. “I gained an understanding and sympathy that I otherwise might not have known,” she said. Other participants also took away valuable insights into the human experience, saying that their elder counterparts disproved a lot of stereotypes about late life.
On the research side, several studies have shown how effective dignity therapy can be for the wellbeing of people in the last parts of their lives. One study, conducted in 2019, looked at the impact of dignity therapy on advanced cancer patients. It found that patients who received dignity therapy reported heightened sense of purpose, more connection to their loved ones, and increased sense of self-continuity. Another study looked at the impact of dignity therapy on people with dementia. The researchers concluded that the therapy was effective in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improving overall quality of life. Furthermore, the patients’ loved ones reported high satisfaction with therapy. Other researchers found that the therapy was effective in improving the mental health and decreasing feelings of suffering.
The dignity therapy patients in this study also reported that the therapy would be helpful for their family, and reported less depression compared to the control group. While all of these dignity therapy trials happened in a clinical setting, luckily, people at the end of their lives can access the same benefits of dignity therapy without participating in a scientific study.
Nowadays, there is more than one way to leave behind a life story, including documenting a digital life story. Keeper Memorials enables people to create a “living memorial” where they can begin collaborating on their own memorial page before they pass. They can store and share their most cherished photos,videos, write out the milestones in their life, build their family tree, and write their own life story all on one platform. Once they pass away, the assigned “Keeper” of the site, usually a close friend or family member, publishes the memorial page. Using this tool can have a very similar effect to dignity therapy, allowing dying people to have agency over their life tribute. They have a Free and Premium offering you can try.
Dignity therapy and tools like it offer a powerful antidote to the fear and uncertainty that often accompanies the end-of-life.
When approaching death, it can be comforting to know that one has the power to make their story last. Dignity therapy and tools like it offer a powerful antidote to the fear and uncertainty that often accompanies the end-of-life. By inviting dying people to share their stories and reflect on the things that matter most to them, dignity therapy helps to unlock a sense of clarity and purpose that is all too often missing from our daily lives. Whether through the written word, recording, or the creation of a digital memorial, the act of bearing witness to someone’s life story can be a deeply transformative experience, both for the storyteller and for those who bear witness to their journey.