303-916-5996

Do superstitions about death make it hard to ask elders for their stories? 

I met a young mother while dropping my grandson off at his preschool the other day.  We were chatting a little about the sweet stories that children this age tell us about their day.   I mentioned that one highlight of my work is discovering childhood stories from the older generations.  Her response went something like…..

 “Oh, I would love to do that!  I am longing to get my grandmother’s stories – the ones she sometimes tells us at holiday dinners or when I visit her on her birthday.   But, I just never seem to write them down!” 

“Couldn’t you set up a separate time to talk with her?”, I suggested.  

 “Oh, no, I couldn’t do that. I’m too afraid!”

 “You’re afraid of your grandmother?”

“No!”, she chuckled, “What I mean is – it would upset her.  She would think I was implying she is about to die, and in my family, DEATH IS NOT something you talk about. She would get offended and then my whole family would be angry with me! 

“I think I understand.”

“I know it doesn’t sound like it, but I truly do want to have those stories,” she continued.  “I know that pretty soon she won’t be around anymore – it’s very frustrating.” 

Internal Family Dynamics Matter

 The story above reminds us that family dynamics play an important role in how and when stories are passed down to and from us.

 Whether it’s stubbornness, superstition, or our own fear of talking about death, sometimes fear gets in the way of capturing life stories.  Family rules may be so strong on certain topics that we are forced to wait for the dynamics to change (i.e. marriage, divorce, or a period of a generational shift) before stories are told.

 

So, when is it appropriate to ask for stories?

 It is not surprising that family gatherings are good places to hear stories about your family, especially when relatives come to visit from far away. 

 Seize Opportunities

 Weddings, funerals, holiday mealtimes, vacation car rides, on walks, or even while waiting at the doctor’s office or hospital are times when you hear interesting reminiscences.  You may be tempted to be browsing your social media at your such a gathering, but I think you will find it rewarding to turn on your smart phone’s recorder instead!  

 

Investigate Indirectly

You can discover all kinds of stories that don’t involve direct discussion of a taboo subject by focusing your questions on how people overcame a challenging situation. Steer your questions toward life-affirming reactions to difficult circumstances.  For example, if Aunt Betty is a widow and your family avoids talking about her husband’s death directly,  you might ask what aunt Betty decided to do, or change, that helped get her through that difficult time.  We all have challenging situations of one manner or another in our lives, and we can learn from one another’s approach to getting through them.

When is it inappropriate? 

Merely wanting the stories may not be enough to overcome unspoken rules about avoiding certain topics.   In my own family, we freely spoke about relatives who died from war, cancer, and old age.  Those were met with sadness, not forbidden.  However, I can think of at least two instances in which I felt the topic of death was to be avoided or would be in breach of trust to discuss.
AWhen speaking to a person with mental illness.  Speaking with my own mother about her Alzheimer’s disease, or about anyone’s death did not end well.  Especially later, as her disease progressed, those attempted conversations resulted in her complete confusion and distress. So, my family naturally avoided those topics with her.
BWhen someone died from murder or suicide. I have unknowingly plundered into asking questions about someone in a print photograph, only to receive glares accompanied by head shaking and kicks under the table, to get me to cease and desist! I was later told in confidence that the topic of that deceased person is too emotionally painful to be discussed in a casual situation.

A Pocketful of Tips on Asking for Family Stories

1) Approach With Love

Rather than expressing concern that your loved one is near death, approach your loved one with your heartfelt desire to hear about their childhood and the events that shaped their life!  Let them know you feel its important for you to understand their perspective now, rather than later.  Ensure them you want to listen, then make a very concerted effort not to interrupt when they start to tell a story.  Avoid interjecting your own story or any of your own opinions.

2) Make Sessions Fun!  

  • Listen in casual, informal settings.
  • Don’t try to get all the stories at once.  Start with just one or two (you can add more later).
  • No need to write things down. Just ask if you can record their voice on your smartphone.
  • If they don’t know what to say:
  • Suggest describing a few of their favorite photos
  • Ask about the funny stories
  • What favorite foods did they like as a child?
  • Who was their favorite relative at holiday time? 

3) Tell them how happy you are to have some of their stories! 

Everyone likes to get praise for helping. Let your loved one know you appreciate the things they shared. 

Did you know……People talking freely about death has been expanding around the world since 2011.
  
The Death Cafe movement has reached over 4000 communities in 50 countries.  These are casual forums for people who wanted to bat around philosophical thoughts. What is death like? Why do we fear it? How do our views of death inform the way we live? 
Even though the movement’s name contains the “D” word, people often talk less about how to die than how to live!

 

 

I hope this topic has encouraged you to ask your favorite people for some of their life’s lessons, advice, and history during the coming holidays.  It’s important to get the oral histories recorded now. You can decide what to do with them later.  I’d love to hear about your experiences of asking for stories.   Thanks for listening!

 

 

I hope this topic has encouraged you to ask your favorite people for some of their life’s lessons, advice, and history during the coming holidays.  It’s important to get the oral histories recorded now. You can decide what to do with them later.  I’d love to hear about your experiences of asking for stories.   Thanks for listening!

Related Posts

Shares