Grief and Oral History: Keeping Memories Alive

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Grief and Oral History: Keeping Memories Alive

/ Post by Codi Lindsey

by Litsa Williams

Almost every time I delete a voicemail from someone I love, I have a thought that some might consider morbid:

What if this person dies and I’ve just deleted my last recording of their voice?

I know, a little morbid. But having worked in end of life and grief for a decade, I know all too well that people can disappear in an instant. I also know all too well the pain of missing someone’s voice, of trying to remember the sound and realizing it is slowly slipping away.

Then there are the stories. I remember when I was young, my paternal grandmother would tell me stories about her childhood, her parents, about all the objects and the artwork in her home. After my dad died, she would tell me stories of his childhood and his wild days in high school and college.

I also remember stories about my maternal grandmother’s life in West Virginia, where she ran a restaurant as a Greek immigrant. She would talk to me as she cooked, telling stories about food and family… but each year my memory of the stories get fuzzier and fuzzier.

A couple weeks ago, I went to a workshop in Baltimore put on by the wonderful women who make The Rise of Charm City. They are kindly sharing their expertise with the community to help and inspire people to gather oral histories. These could be histories big or small, from public figures to family members. As I sat and listened during the workshop, my grief brain started swirling. I wished I had recorded my grandmothers telling their stories; it would have been so easy. A few hours and a tape recorder… I could have had their voices and their stories preserved forever. I thought of all the stories people told about my dad and my sister’s boyfriend, John, when they died. At the funeral and in the months after, I would see people and they would reminisce, telling me stories I had never heard. Though I felt like I was soaking the stories in, I didn’t write them down, and I certainly didn’t record them. Though I thought I would remember each of them forever, slowly they have faded… yet another loss that suddenly seemed preventable.

As a grief therapist and blogger, I love StoryCorps. (If you don’t know what this is, you should go check them out immediately! They are pretty much the biggest, coolest oral history project ever.  In fact, I’ll  include a little video about them below). I love oral histories like The Rise of Charm City. Needless to say, it immediately seemed absurd I hadn’t taken the initiative to preserve these voices and stories. 

My Message To You…

Once I got over kicking myself for not starting ‘oral history’ efforts in my own family, my grief-blogger brain started swirling. It occurred to me during this workshop that, if I hadn’t made the effort to do oral histories with my family, there is a good chance many of you haven’t either. The technology is there, and the process is so easy… All it might take is a little nudge to get some of us moving on recording these family stories. For me, it was that workshop. For you, maybe it will be this article. So this is just a little push to get you thinking about the stories you’ll wish you had audio of some day. Maybe it will be family stories about the person who died, maybe it will be family stories from those who are still living about their own lives and memories, maybe it will be something else altogether.

Whatever it is, if recording family stories and histories is calling out to you, here are some tips, tricks, and ideas. I gathered these from The Rise of Charm City Oral History Workshop and from my own research (mostly on the StoryCorps website, where they have soooo many tools and ideas!).

Getting Started With An Oral History Project

Sit down and ask yourself the following questions to get organized.

  • Who will you record?
  • Will you record people individually or together?
  • Where will you record?
  • How/when will you ask the person to record them?
  • What questions will you ask?
  • What will you do with the recording(s) when you’re done?

Tips for Equipment:

Keep it simple – the most important thing is to get started, not to let equipment be a barrier. Your smartphone likely has a ‘voice memo’ or other recording feature that will allow you to record.  Verizon has some tips for recording audio on your smartphone. If you want to upgrade, a Zoom recorder is a mid-range option that will give you better recording quality without breaking the bank.  This is a recorder we own and are familiar with.  Another suggested in the workshop was a Tascam recorder, which looks to have great reviews.

Tips for Recording:

  • Ask the person (or people) you will be interviewing if they have a preference where you record. You need somewhere quiet, but they may prefer their house to yours, their office to their house, etc.
  • Find a quiet space and minimize any background noise. Even though it may initially seem quiet, sit silently in the space and listen closely for things like clocks ticking or appliances humming. These may seem like small things, but they can be distracting on a recording.
  • When you start the recording, test to make sure everything is working before you officially get started. The last thing you want is to ask some great questions, get some great answers, and realize the equipment wasn’t doing the job!
  • When you start, make sure you say who you are and have the other person say who they are (and their relationship to you or your loved one). You know who you are and who they are, but years later if someone is listening to this audio you want it to be very explicit.
  • Make sure you state the questions into the mic, so both the questions and answers can be heard.
  • Try to avoid verbally acknowledging people while they talk. Though we normally say things like, “yes” or “that’s interesting” while people speak, to show we are listening and engaged, this can interfere on getting a clear recording. Try to acknowledge by nodding instead of speaking, to keep the audio clear.
  • Make note of things you want to come back to. Though you might have questions you plan to ask, while giving an answer the person you are interviewing might say things that spark other questions, or follow up questions. Don’t interrupt, but make a quick note so you can go back and ask the additional questions.  If you have a better attention span than I do, you can do this mentally.  Personally, I would stick with a pencil and paper nearby.
  • At the end, ask the person if there are other things they would like to share that you didn’t ask about.

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