If you could ask a loved one just 5 questions before they died, what would they be?

This is a question broached by Jeff Baxter in one of his recent blogs and highlights our fear of losing precious memories of those we love. As our parents grow older we all have a natural concern that their experiences and achievements through their full and eventful lives will be lost to their children, grandchildren and those to follow. Few people take the time to record the events of their lives while the current generation, now in their 80s, are notoriously reticent to share their personal histories.

"After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world." ? Philip Pullman

How often do we speak to people who's parents lived, and fought, through the last war where they have little information on what they did and how they survived? Old soldiers are notoriously tight lipped on their military and wartime experiences and extracting that information is difficult if not impossible.

What we can all be quite sure about is that our parents are not about to take out a writing pad or a dictaphone and begin recording their "life and times'. It makes sense though to try a few strategies to extract their stories in ways that do not appear intrusive or contrived.

Jeff Baxter suggests five pieces of information that can form the beginning of the record of a life story. In other words, this is a way of breaking the ice, a kind of gentle beginning.

  1. What has been your biggest success in your life? - This question will define what success is, what it takes to achieve it, and what difference it can make.
  2. What has been your biggest challenge in life? - This question will speak to what conditions create challenge, how to overcome the challenges, and what can be gained from such challenges
  3. What has been your biggest regret? - Give me a chance to learn from your mistakes, make my life as fulfilling as possible
  4. If you could recommend one book to read, what would it be, and why? - Distilling a favourite book list down to one or two books is tough, it is revealing in terms of the essential qualities of that person, and it provides a tangible resource that people can obtain and benefit from and remind them of that person.
  5. Who has been the most influential person your life? - This question could just simply lead to interesting stories, but it also naturally leads to a discuss about how and why that person was so impactful.

It probably won't be possible to ask these questions all at once. It may take a few sessions, particularly as you may be pleasantly surprised by the interesting perceptions and the amount of detail.

With different family relationships and finding the right time, it may be that you will need to enlist the help of more than one family member. My experience of my own grandparents is that they gave me information and insight that my parents were unaware of, or that had not been shared with them in any detail. The relationship with grandchildren is different to that of their own children that lends itself to a greater sharing of experiences. Maybe grandchildren just have more time or access to their grandparents. My grandmother would babysit my sister and I during school holidays and was a constant source of stories on all sorts of subjects.

If you have teenage children with a good relationship with their grandparents this is a great family project to embark upon. They can do this informally using their smart phones as recoding devices or voice recognition software that will type up the notes automatically. The trick is not to make the process obvious.

The important thing to get through to the "project team" are the objectives of the exercise. My view is that we should record interviews that accomplish two primary objectives. First, to capture the person and their story. All the basics of who they are, where they came from, and what they have experienced that shaped who they are. Second, to draw out their wisdom. We want to record and share the life lessons learned. It can only be good for teenagers or young adults, to get an understanding of the "olden days", life experiences of how it was, why things are as they are, the differences with more modern times. The five questions listed above can be used as prompts to get the ball rolling.

While a record of life and experiences is important, what is probably more important is how our loved ones "feel" about things. We want to have evidence that speaks to the importance of the relationships that our loved ones have had, both with us and with others.

Jeff Baxter did some informal research on the importance of "feelings" about things and people with interesting results. He ran a questionnaire that separated the relationship theme into two specific content categories: "Impact of Relationship" and "Expression of Unconditional Love". Respondents suggested that they wanted to know that the life of their loved one was enriched by their presence. They wanted to know that they contributed to the growth and happiness of that person. It was not specifically said, but Baxter interpreted many of these responses as people wanting to feel as though they played an import role in their loved one's life.

Second, people wanted to hear expressions of love from their loved one towards them. It was touchingly reiterated over and over again by many respondents that the simplest and most important written content they could receive from a loved one was "I love you, I always have, I always will". Statements such as this, as simple as they are, as obvious as they may seem, as unnecessary to write as they may appear, are of the utmost importance in remembering someone.

Several respondents told stories about written work they had inherited from loved ones. Every single person spoke about how their loved ones journals or letters brought them comfort, a sense of connection, and wisdom. Every single respondent spoke of how these items were amongst the most treasured of all things they had.

Taking steps today to record and protect the precious aspects of the human experience of our parents ensures that no matter what happens, the value of those essential elements of "self" can continue to be experienced by those most important to us in the future. Your family will be all the stronger, more fulfilled and connected because of it.

"The Universe is Made of Stories, Not of Atoms" - Muriel Rukeyser

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