instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Fading Out: Aging and Beyond RSS feed

Sharing life stories with your family

by Pat McNees
"The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative," writes Bruce Feiler in The Stories That Bind Us (NY Times, 3-15-13). He got the idea from Marshall Duke, a sociologist at Emory University, who was asked "to help explore myth and ritual in American families." Duke's wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities, said "“The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges." To test that hypothesis he and colleague Robyn Fivush developed a measure they call the "Do You Know" scale, which asks children to answer twenty questions about their family.

What Are the Twenty Questions? (Marshall Duke, Huffington Post, 3-23-13) In case you were wondering what the twenty questions on the Do You Know scale are.

Life Stories: Children Find Meaning in Old Family Tales (Sue Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 3-11-09) "An Emory University study of 65 families with children ages 14 to 16 found kids' ability to retell parents' stories was linked to a lower rate of depression and anxiety and less acting-out of frustration or anger, says Robyn Fivush, a psychology professor. Knowing family stories 'helps children put their own experience in perspective.' The trick is telling the stories in a way children can hear."

Fathers - invest in your past for your kids (Bob Brody, SFGate, 6-18-11) Learn from his example: Read his posts at his Letters to My Kids blog, starting at June 2010 and moving up the links on the right.

A Mother's Farewell (Joanne Fowler, People's Magazine, 12-4-06). At 50 and facing terminal cancer, Pam Fairmont made a video for her 10-year-old son Connor. Her message: 'I'll always be with you.'

Home for the Holidays: Your story is a great gift for the grandkids (Marjorie Turner Hollman, APH blog, "The Life Story People," 12-9-15). A frail elder, unable to write the checks he usually gave his grandchildren, told stories to his daughter, who made them into a book, a precious gift for his family to enjoy after he was gone.

For Dying People, A Chance To Shape Their Legacy (Julie Bierach, Weekend Edition, NPR, 4-9-11). Imagine that you've just been told you have only a short time to live. What would you want your family and community to remember most about you? In St. Louis, a hospice program called Lumina helps patients leave statements that go beyond a simple goodbye.

The Beneficial Effects of Life Story and Legacy Activities by Pat McNees (PDF, Geriatric Care Management Journal, Spring 2009). Also available on Pat's website
The best Christmas gift--a life story (Patrick T. Reardon, Chicago Tribune, 12-10-11). The gifts he's treasured most have been the autobiographies his wife and kids wrote for him at his request.

The best Christmas gift--a life story (Patrick T. Reardon, Chicago Tribune, 12-10-11). The gifts he's treasured most have been the autobiographies his wife and kids wrote for him at his request.

The best present ever. This video (watch online) from My Special Book, a lovably productive Argentinean firm, shows how someone feels when the family puts together a tribute book. Watch their delighted and happy expressions. Vicky and Eduardo Zemborain live in Buenos Aires but are active in the Association of Personal Historians, many of whose members live in the United States.

Telling Your Story (this page on Pat McNees's website has a ton of links to fascinating and useful material).

This holiday create your family's reality tv show (Debbie Mandel, Examiner.com, 12-9-15) For a modern day twist on the traditional holiday story, create a wonderful generational bonding activity with seniors eager to preserve their legacy and young people curious to learn about their family history. Make a video for posterity by interviewing an older relative. "Politely interrupt, ask questions and include children as a participatory audience. This activity creates a living legacy – a circle of energy between speaker and listener."

The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Tell Your Family History, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More by Bruce Feiler

Children Benefit if They Know About Their Relatives, Study Finds (Emory University press release, 3-3-10)

Of Ketchup and Kin: Dinnertime Conversations as a Major Source of Family Knowledge, Family Adjustment, and Family Resilience by Marshall P. Duke, Robyn Fivush, Amber Lazarus, and Jennifer Bohanek

Dad’s Love Letter to Mom on her 70th Birthday (Julie Barton, 1-19-14)

Fifty Things About My Mother (Laura Lynn Brown, Slate, 5-9-14) A Mother's Day essay about a mother after she's gone. Wonderful way to gather random memories.

From Generation to Generation (PDF, Dara Kahn's story about life story writing classes), Bnai Brith Magazine Fall 2010

A Future Without Personal History (Michael Moore-Jones, Read-Write, 1-19-11) A sixteen-year-old who has never sent a letter wonders what it will be like to have no letters documenting his life -- as his digital records disappear.

Getting Personal: An estate plan should include stocks, bonds — and a life story (Ed McCarthy, Wealth Manager magazine, 5-1-07)

How to Preserve Your Family Legacy (WSJ video, 8-14-15) The WSJ interviews Iris Wagner on the process of creating a personal documentary. She explains that it may take from a few weeks to a couple of years, and one client says that while he may at first be speaking to his parents, he is also talking about his life for his grandchildren and later heirs.

Life story writing: The healing powers of narrative (how putting events into a story may aid the healing process--with good interview questions for the family)

The Life Report (fascinating stories in response to David Brooks' request for readers over 70 to write autobiographical essays evaluating their own lives)
"Mama Always Comes Home" (videographer Debbie Brodsky, Bethesda Magazine, 2-10, on creating a deployment video: a military mom's messages to her children)

My Chosen People (Abigail Rasminsky, The Jewish Daily Forward, 4-2-08) "Here I was, surrounded by four clueless goyim, and I had stumbled upon the meaning of the holiday. I suddenly understood that it wasn’t about remembering the schlep my ancestors made from Egypt to give me my freedom. It was about honoring what we all overcome every day to be where we are..."

Memoir of time spent with Grandma reveals old truths, young wisdom (Kathryn Borel, Globe & Mail, 3-15-13). This is an essay more than a review, but it's a good enough review that I've already ordered my copy of The Truth About Luck: What I Learned on My Road Trip with Grandma by Iain Reid.

My Turn: Saving a life, for those left behind (Jane Lehmann-Shafron, Los Angeles Times 12-12-11). "I have interviewed hundreds of people — most of them in their 70s and older. While I can't be sure that I have added any days to those lives, I am certain that, for my subjects and their families, helping tell their stories has saved their lives by creating a little piece of immortality. I do know that telling my dad's story helped preserve his life and gave new meaning to my own."

My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History, ed. by Paula Yost and Pat McNees, with foreword by Rick Bragg. “At last, a collection that shows the ‘why, what, and how’ behind memoir as legacy.”~ Susan Wittig Albert, author of Writing from Life

How reliable are our memories (how close to the truth)? (a roundup of wonderful articles, 1-17-15)


"A friend took me to StoryCorps as a gift, as a surprise. I had never heard of StoryCorps. So I thought I was going into—I had no idea what I was going in to do. It was a gift. It was a gift. And I was happy to accept the gift.

"And I was surprised to hear myself. As everyone has said, something happens in that booth, where your very private thoughts that rumble around in your head and your memories suddenly come forth, and the voice that Dave just talked about, that’s your soul. Somehow it reaches down and touches that part of us that’s not often touched....

"I think when we don’t speak things out loud, when they stay inside of us, they take on a different meaning. And it’s not only the listener who hears our story. I think when we speak and hear our own words out loud and remember things behind the words and the feelings, it takes on a different meaning. So I became not only a speaker, but also the listener, of my own words. And it had a profound effect upon me."

~Mary Caplan, on her experience doing a 40-minute interview with StoryCorps, Listening Is an Act of Love: National Oral History Project StoryCorps Records Ordinary People Telling Their Remarkable Stories to Each Other (an interview with founder David Isay and participants)
[Back to Top]
3 Comments
Post a comment