Now is the time to ask your loved ones about their lives
I’ve spent years collecting intimate interviews. Take it from me: a conversation about life’s big questions is the very definition of time well spent.
Today we are faced with a pandemic that plays to our worst, most basic human fears: uncertainty, mortality, loneliness. Perhaps most devastating of all is the combination of all three — the terrifying prospect that we might die alone, without the embrace of a loved one, with words left unsaid. These feelings and fears are palpable for all of us: first-time parents, bored college students, furloughed workers and, perhaps especially, aging retirees who are uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19.
If there is good news, it is that we have more time to reflect on the relationships that really matter in our lives. And there’s a ready solution for anyone with a smartphone or computer and an hour to spare looking to use this time to build a deeper connection with a loved one: record an interview. We’ve been recording conversations between friends and family members at StoryCorps for the past 16 years. Trust us when we tell you: For people sheltered in place looking for something meaningful to do, it’s the very definition of time well spent.
The first task is finding an interview partner — a grandparent you want to honor by listening to his or her story, a teacher from your past you never took the time to thank, a friend with whom you have words left unsaid. If you have a relative who says: “I don’t want to do this. I have no stories to tell,” say this is for the great-great-grandkids to hear one day. It’s often the most reluctant people who end up telling the most remarkable stories.
Set up a time and place to have the conversation — at an appropriate social distance, of course — so that it feels special. If you are face to face, pick the quietest space you can find where you won’t be disturbed. Turn off all distractions.
Prepare questions beforehand. We have a list of questions that we’ve found particularly compelling over the years, but the most important questions are the ones you’ve always wanted to ask: How would you like to be remembered? What has given you comfort in this time? Think of it as an opportunity to unearth wisdom that can be passed from one generation to the next and use the opportunity accordingly.
Talk about things that matter. There is something extraordinary that can happen in the formality of an interview — a microphone gives you the license to say and ask things you may never have talked about before. You can do video or audio, but I always prefer audio. To me, the soul is contained in the human voice.
Stay focused, listen carefully and avoid interrupting. Ask follow-up questions. If the person you’re interviewing doesn’t want to talk about something, don’t force it. Look your interview partner in the eyes. One of the sayings we often use at StoryCorps is “listening is an act of love.”
At the end of the interview take a minute to turn the tables and tell the person what they mean to you. Thank them for the time. All family relationships are complicated, and sitting face to face with a loved one and asking important, sometimes hard questions takes courage. It reminds us of our mortality. It also reminds our loved ones that they matter and won’t be forgotten. Take the risk — you won’t regret it.
Then make sure you put the interview in a safe place, and make copies of it. When I was younger, I interviewed my grandparents on a cassette recorder, and that cassette disappeared. To this day, 45 years later, I find myself occasionally looking for it, hoping that it might magically appear. Don’t make the mistake I made. Making sure these interviews are safely preserved is one reason I started StoryCorps. (If you record your conversation via our new recording platform, StoryCorps Connect, it will be automatically archived in the Library of Congress.)
I’ve been thinking this week about a StoryCorps interview with an 87-year-old Chinese immigrant named Kay Wang. It took a lot of cajoling by her son before she finally relented and recorded a conversation with him and his daughter. Even once the interview began it was tough to pry answers out of Wang. “Tell me about working at Bloomingdale’s: What did you do?” her granddaughter asked.
“You know what I do! I’m not going to tell you!”
“No, you have to talk about it!” Chen pleaded.
“I am a detective!” Wang shouted in exasperation — and went on to tell a rollicking story about busting a famous fashion designer for trying to shoplift a $3,000 dress. What they didn’t talk about in the interview was that she had end-stage cancer. She died a few weeks after the conversation.
Before sheltering in place with my family, almost every day I’d have someone come up to me and say, “I wish I had interviewed my grandmother” — or mother or brother or father — “but I waited too long.” It’s easy to put these conversations off. It’s human nature to say, “I’ll get around to it eventually.” But why shouldn’t “eventually” be now?
We can use this time to reach out to a relative or friend and ask life’s big questions and listen carefully. There has never been a more important time to connect meaningfully with our loved ones and preserve the wisdom of our elders. “Eventually” is here.
Dave Isay is the founder of StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization that has recorded interviews with more than 600,000 Americans and archived them in the Library of Congress.