How can we get people to tell us stories about my mother-in-law?
July 31, 2012 11:56 AM   Subscribe

My (beloved) mother-in-law died after a year with lung cancer and we will be having a big memorial for her this weekend. What can we do to capture stories and memories from her family and friends?

This is me from last year. I am very grieved that I didn't get many stories out of her and didn't do a good job of writing down the ones I did get. The end came as a surprise. I'd just figured out how to get her talking (It was wine and cheese all along!) and was planning on setting up a big story session the next trip. I'd really like to lean on friends and family at the memorial to help me capture as much as I can and preserve it for the little ones who didn't get the chance to know her.

I managed to get some photos and video during our first visit after the diagnosis, but she did not want to be captured on camera after her treatment started. However, the family has also been wonderful so far and I have lots of pictures from her whole life that I'm making into a slide show that will be projected during the service.

My father-in-law has envisioned the memorial as a place where people can one-by-one share stories. I'm not sure how many people will participate or feel comfortable speaking in front of that many people. Plus, I think most of us are going to be a mess. I'm not sure what we're going to do with videos of us in complete emotional disarray.

I'm planning on having a stack of stamped, addressed, blank post cards that people can take with them and mail later if they have something to share.

But other than that I'm not sure what to do. There are going to be a lot of people there, her co-workers and people from her home town, who we will probably never see again. If they don't feel comfortable sharing it's like little pieces of her will be walking out the door forever.

Maybe there isn't much we can do about that, but right now everything I have fits into a shoe box and it's killing me that I don't remember enough of what she told me to fill more than a few sheets of notebook paper.

So, I need suggestions for getting people talking, capturing what they're saying, and giving them different ways to share, all while giving people the space they need to grieve.
posted by Alison to Human Relations (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I am so sorry for your loss.

I attended a memorial recently for a friend who died of cancer. Her husband and children put together a timeline on the wall at the back of the space where the memorial was held. There were photos and memories already written up on cards along the timeline, as well as lots of blank space, and the visitors were encouraged before and after the service to add their own. Perhaps there is something in that idea that you can adapt to your own needs.
posted by mishaps at 12:03 PM on July 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

Love mishaps' suggestion. I think often people have an easier time responding to a prompt than to something open-ended like "share a favorite memory". Maybe you could use something like this StoryCorps Question list (modifying "you" to "she") and make multiples of each question, one question per index card, adding questions that might be relevant to the group (e.g., more questions about work, or hometown, etc.). Then people can write their answer on the back along with their name and perhaps contact info (or how they knew your mother-in-law). From experience I agree that not many will be willing or able to stand up and coherently or elegantly reminisce about past experiences with your mother-in-law, but anything that gets people talking informally or sharing memories together (and then writing them down) might be easier.

You might also see if you can print up extra copies of the photos you use in the slideshow and ask people to write names or dates on the backs if you don't have that information already--that context is often lost when someone dies. Those can also serve as jumping-off points for conversation.

So very sorry for your loss.
posted by stellaluna at 12:24 PM on July 31, 2012

Can you have a room or even area marked off with a video camera set up so people can pop in, turn it on, and share memories with the camera without putting them on the spot or putting them in front of a large group of people? For people not as broken up as close family would be, it would probably work fine.

Failing that, could you get a digital recorder like reporters use and quietly buttonhole people to somewhere private and say something like "What's your favorite memory of her?" You could have a trusted friend do it if you're not feeling up to it. Or you could leave it out with a little sign explaining how to use it and let people speak into it as they wish.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:29 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

If children or young teens are going to be there, I highly encourage you to let them make art (collage, drawings, whatever) about their memories and just what they think about when they remember her. Kids do so much better when it doesn't have to be formal language. It's also a comforting activity for them to occupy themselves with if the adults are getting highly emotional. If you can have the kids in the immediate family make pictures in advance, and put them on display, that'll also be a happy thing to have at the memorial.

I also think it's worth trying to get as many people as possible to do videos now and play them back during the memorial or a party or something afterwards. You could record people reading letters she sent them, for instance. A music/photo montage (or series thereof) set to her favorite songs/recordings would also work well. Once you have about 25 minutes' worth of stuff, you can loop it and people won't typically find it annoying. I also strongly second the idea of having a private sharing booth. It's surprising how well this works, generally.

Also, geography and cultural milestones are big helpers for people (along with dates and photos.) Ask your father-in-law for concerts or other big events she attended, rock stars she was fond of, things she went to year after year (state fair, etc.) Put up a map of the state or country (whichever feels more appropriate) and let people "tag" it with their memories.

Oh, and try and gather as much relevant info (not necessarily specific to her) as you can - like, was she on the swim team or in the chess club? Would there be memories tied to the school's mascot or photos of the band? Is there a "spot" in town that all the kids hung out at when she was a teenager? Get her yearbooks out and put them on tables, if you can. Same with stuff like programs from her wedding and any plays she was in and such. Those kinds of things will trigger stories for other people to share.

It may - depending on the specific people involved - be appropriate to put up photos of other friends from this same era who have also passed on, especially if you want to elicit stories from her youth. Most memories of that sort are tied to a larger social structure, and so the context of "everyone from high school" or "Madge, who was in the wedding party" helps people figure out what memories to share.

Don't have people write stuff on the backs of photos - it can mess the photos up and there's not much space (and people get terrifically distraught if they make a mistake, even when you tell them it's a spare copy.) Have them write on index cards taped underneath the photos.

(Please make sure to have comforting foods, lots of water within easy reach of speakers and attendees, and plenty of separate boxes of tissues.)
posted by SMPA at 12:36 PM on July 31, 2012

I wouldn't be inclined to share at a memorial, but I would happily leave my contact info and follow up later, so I think you should have a way to make it easy for people to do so (and make it clear to them that it's important to you).
posted by mrs. taters at 12:45 PM on July 31, 2012

Videos and slide shows are great, but a large picture board can be lingered over, and people can talk about their memories of that event, the time, what they did or how they felt. Some how hard copy is easier to 'process' and can be lingered over. (Do you remember the time that....Come look at this picture!) Try to put up baby pictures and ones of her as a child. That starts parents saying, "Oh, Cousin 2 has her nose." This can be a trigger for stories they will tell each other and perhaps later record on video, tape, or write out. Do have a tape recorder for people who won't want to be videoed.

Can you ask people to bring photocopies or reprints of pictures they have that no one else might have copies of? If people want to bring a photo that they don't want to give up, you could have a special board on a table with pictures under glass, and assure people they will get them back. Suggest that the people near to you write out what they want to say. That way, if they're overcome, you still have the hard copy, and they could even pin it up for people to read. (Sometimes writing things out is a good idea for anyone speaking at an emotional event.)

If your MiL had a collection or favorite hobby, perhaps you could haul in a couple representative examples to show who she was and what she enjoyed doing. (Here's some of MiL's favorite roosters from her chicken collection.) Did she have a favorite recipe? Print it out to distribute. A favorite poem? Read it out loud. Song? Announce it, and play it even if it isn't "appropriate".
posted by BlueHorse at 3:07 PM on July 31, 2012

Huh. That's tough.

Were I you, and similarly motivated to have something to pass on to those who were not able to meet her:

I would sit down with your father-in-law to determine a time and place for one or the both of you to say what you said in your post to the people who are at this memorial. Her family, and her family-to-come greatly treasures the stories and memories these people have of her, and that the best way for them to honor her memory is to share the pieces of her that made her such a special person.

Then you're going to want to go door-to-door on them. Wander around the memorial and try and make sure that you've talked to everyone (or every group) at least once, if not twice. Ask them if there is anything that they would like to share, say that you wanted to make sure they didn't miss the opportunity, etc. Don't be too bright about it; put your serious face on a little bit.

A lot of this will be down to attitude, which I don't know how to put into an internet comment, but you'll be making this acceptable/appropriate/desirable by how you present it.

Postcards are a fine idea, but people may have a hard time writing down what they think fast enough to make the process non-frustrating. Consider bringing a tape recorder too.

Most of the suggestions in this post are pretty fine. I like the idea of having a private sharing space with a recorder. Having a way for people to contact you later is fine too. Giving people prompts for specific information like stellaluna's suggestion is very good to. Maybe a central area for that (with index cards for filling out and a box for them to go in), since it encourages shorter, staccato answers?

I think the best thing you can do is be respectfully insistent, though. People have stories; among other reasons that they might be unwilling to share them is that they don't think they're important or good enough. You've got to personally invite them to do so, and let them know why it's important to your family (and find a way to do it so that complying with your request is gratifying to them).

Make eye contact. Say please. Let them know you mean it. Let them know that you know they have good stuff to share. Stay on your game and don't stop shaking the trees until you get on the plane to come home.
posted by Poppa Bear at 8:08 AM on August 2, 2012

« Older How do things work in really small towns?   |   Product of Norway Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.