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Interviewing Our Elders for Their Obituaries

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Grandma Mary with her children on her 96th birthday.
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Interviewing Our Elders for Their Obituaries
"It’s very important for seniors to retell their stories.” ~ Dr. Wendy Scheinberg-Elliott

I wrote my grandmother’s obituary a few weeks ago. While it made me sad to know that she’s no longer with us, I was very proud of what she accomplished in her 96 years on this planet. And much of what I knew about her life I learned from interviewing her for her obituary.

This is the second time I’ve been able to talk to someone about their own obituary, and I highly recommend it. The first was the mother of my first love. The same night I met him, I met her, and she immediately welcomed me into the family. We stayed in touch after my relationship with her son ended, and when she was told she had a few months to live, I went to visit her in California. That weekend, with no other agenda than spending time with her, I learned a lot about her life – things I had never thought to ask in all the years I was a mainstay in her home. After she died, her family gave me the honor of writing her obituary, which was a wonderful way for me to give back to the woman who had given me so much.

As the writer in the family, I’m often called on to write obituaries, but that was the first one I had researched while the person was still alive. It’s so much better – you get to include things that are important to them, things you would never know about if they didn’t tell you. And you don’t have to guess the names of everyone they want included in the story of their life. The experience of getting that information directly from the person you’re writing about cannot be duplicated.

Though my grandmother was spry until the end, when she hit her mid-90s, we agreed it was time for me to interview her for her obituary. And once again I got to learn so many things I hadn’t known before. Though I knew she had played baseball in the ’40s (when women didn’t do such things), I learned that she could catch a fastball without a glove in high school, playing on an all-boys team. I also learned more about how she lived as a single woman for more than 50 years, again at a time when that was not something women did. I learned more about her marriage to my grandfather and how they had ended up in Reno with their three young children, including my step-mother.  I always knew she was an extraordinary woman, but that time talking with her helped me understand more about how she became the person I only ever knew as Grandma Mary.

I’m still very sad that the world has lost both of these amazing women, but I have made peace with it because we had such good quality time together before their deaths.

The Power of Conversation

If you’re close to an older person or someone who knows they’re facing the end of their life, you might consider doing the same. They obviously need to be okay with the idea, but I’ve found that many older people are much more comfortable talking about death than we are. And most people enjoy the opportunity to share the highlights of their lives with someone who is very interested in what they have to say.

Though my experience is anecdotal, science agrees with me. According to an AgingCare.com article, researchers have found that, “Writing on or reminiscing about family history improves self-esteem, enhances feelings of control and mastery over life, and often results in a new or expanded vision of one’s life.”

Interviewing loved ones about their lives also gives you the opportunity to learn about history from someone who actually experienced it. “It’s very important for seniors to retell their stories,” said California State University of Fullerton Professor of History Dr. Wendy Scheinberg-Elliott in AgingCare.com. “It is equally as important for families to be interested in and heed these stories. Much is lost if the younger generation doesn’t take the time to hear them.”

There are also practical reasons to talk to aging parents about death and dying. RealSimple.com shares general information on the importance of talking about wills, power of attorney, advanced healthcare directives, bank accounts and long-term care insurance. More importantly, they share how to get started on having “the talk.”

DailyCaring.com gives us these and other tips for talking to parents about aging in general:

  • Write an outline to organize your thoughts. This also gives you something to follow so you won’t forget important points.
  • Be respectful and considerate. Put yourself in their shoes. Let them know you care about how they feel and what they want.
  • If you’re nervous about the conversation, run your ideas past someone who’s impartial – a social worker at a local agency or senior center, a counselor or therapist, or a leader at your church.
  • Plan for plenty of time to talk in a quiet place where your parents will feel calm and can focus on the conversation.

Getting Started

Don’t think of it as interviewing someone for their obituary. Instead, you’re having a conversation with someone you love and capturing what they have to say.

DailyCaring.com, which is chockful of good ideas, shares these tips to keep the conversation going:

  • Ask questions: To guide a storytelling session, you can find plenty of life story interview questions online and in life story journals.
  • Record the story: Audio recording your older adult’s voice as they share stories adds meaning by showcasing their voice and personality.
  • Go at their pace and ask follow-up questions: While you do want to keep the conversation flowing, it’s okay if your older adult takes long pauses. That gives them time to think and tell the story in their own way.
  • Look through old photo albums: Looking through old albums helps you identify cherished photos that you want to preserve in case they get lost or damaged.

I wish I had read this article before Sandy and Grandma Mary died. While we did look through old photos, it would be really nice to have recordings of our conversations. 

Related: Taking Pen to Paper: The Power of Handwritten Notes

Sharing Their Stories

It can be difficult to publish long obituaries, because many papers charge by the line. You might consider a shorter version of their story for the newspaper, just including the dates, people and information on the funeral service.

Here are some other options for sharing the results of your interviews:

  • There are a number of online memorial websites, most of which offer free postings, with options for paying for additional features.
  • If you don’t want to write it yourself, you can hire a professional writer to interview and write your loved one’s stories down in a publishable manuscript. You can print a specified number of books or use on-demand printing so that everyone who wants one can purchase it themselves.
  • You can publish snippets of stories (sometimes in their handwriting) on everything from picture frames, blankets and pillows to park benches and even jewelry.
  • A scrapbook gives you the opportunity to illustrate their stories with family photos.  
  • Facebook memorial pages allow others to contribute their own photos and stories.
  • After talking with her, I created a Spotify playlist for my grandmother’s 95th birthday. We’ll be able to use the same playlist for her service.
  • Items used in the obituary can be used in the eulogy, allowing it to be more personal and heartfelt.

I know that talking about death can be uncomfortable, but it is one of the only things we know we’ll all experience at some point. Why not use that as an excuse to celebrate the lives of our loved ones?

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