We all have stories within us – memories of our teenage antics, meeting a first love, moving houses, first jobs and long-time careers – all the different threads that make us who we are today. Sharing these stories can offer perspective, insight, and healing for the storyteller and those that receive them.
Why should we care about those stories, and how can we best collect them?
How Our Stories Matter
Preserve Family History
Sharing stories helps preserve family history and helps children know their ancestors. Stories tell us who we are and where we came from, and this is important information for children to know. According to an Emory University study, children were asked “Do You Know” questions about their family history, and the data shows that the more children are aware of their history, the higher their emotional well-being. Also, the study shows that as children learn how their relatives lived through difficult times, such as war and natural disasters, they grow in confidence that they, too, can overcome difficulties.
Sharing stories draws us together. When recalling together key shared moments, both the joyful and the sad ones, family members can feel a sense of belonging and connectedness to each other. Even on a community level, sharing personal stories can help to bring people together across divisions. Often, in the hearing of another’s story we hear something that reminds us of our own experiences, and this has potential to build bridges between generations and cultures, helping us focus on commonality over difference.
Sharing stories about the health of ancestors is important information for health history. Was there cancer or another chronic disease in your family line? What kind of health did your parents live with? What did they die from? Understanding a complete family health history can inform how we live today.
Research from the field of narrative psychology shows that storytelling can improve well-being. When a person examines their stories more closely, reflects on what they mean and edits them as they evolve, those stories can help facilitate healing and growth. Additionally, the act of sharing those stories with others, even when feeling vulnerable, also adds to healing.
As people get older, they naturally reflect on their lives.
In her work with people at the end of their lives in hospice settings, Erin Fitzgerald, FNP, notes that allowing and encouraging loved ones to share their stories can help to relieve stress in a dying person.
“Sharing our stories and being heard by others reminds a person that their life has value. It can help a person see their life in new ways and can help to release tension or anxiety in the person,” Fitzgerald said.
Get Started Collecting Stories
Getting our loved ones to open up and share their stories can sometimes take a bit of coaxing.
“Someone may feel they have nothing of importance to tell you, or perhaps they have something they want to tell you but struggle to say it,” explained Fitzgerald. “Be gently persistent, not in a badgering way, but in an open way. Encourage your loved one that you want to hear anything they have to tell you.”
Other Tips for Story Collection
Make the Time
Encourage storytelling in moments when you are in a quiet space free of interruptions. Scheduling a time and location can help ensure that each of you is prepared. Mostly, Fitzgerald said to make sure you have the time to fully listen. “Listening to someone’s story is a way of honoring that person and their life experiences,” she said.
Ask Open-ended Questions
Questions that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no” will lead to more detail. Questions could be something like, “What was your childhood like?”, “When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?” or “How would you like to be remembered?” You can find good questions to ask online; here’s a good source.
Know When to Keep Quiet Resist telling your own story, or adding your own interpretation, until the other person is finished with theirs. Remember, you are there to listen.
Use Props, If Needed
If you’re having trouble getting started, consider going through a collection of photos together and asking questions about what you see in the pictures. “Tell me about the dog in the photo,” or “What did your house look like on the inside?”
Make It a Conversation
Bring up your own shared memories, too. It can be a good time to tell them what good qualities you’ve most admired in them, or how much they mean to you.
Ways to Record the Conversation
If you hope to share your conversation with others in your family or keep it long after your loved one has passed, you’ll want to determine your method of recording it.
Decide if you want to take handwritten notes, create an audio-only version or a video and use what you have at hand. Recording devices you can use include: a cell phone, tablet, computer, a digital voice recorder, a video camera, or you could download a free app that walks you through a type of interview process. Perhaps your loved one is located a distance away and having an email or virtual video conversation are the best options. You could use a paid email-based program or a free video platform to conduct your interview.
Each of these options allows you to capture the interview, share it with others and keep for the future. You’ll find additional recording methods and programs from an online search of family history tools.
Consider Your Best Opportunity
Family gatherings can be a natural opportunity to invite story-sharing of all kinds. Some of that story-sharing occurs naturally over meals together. Perhaps a holiday get-together is a good opportunity for you. There is even a National Day of Listening each year on the day after Thanksgiving designed to encourage young people to take an hour that day, interview their elders and submit their recordings to a national archive of stories where they will live on in perpetuity.
Fitzgerald encourages that any day can be a good day to listen to another’s story.
“Any time we pause and look at our loved one and tell them how much they mean to us by asking them about their lives is a good day for story-sharing,” she said. “It can be a wonderfully healing experience for both of you.”