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Having Fewer Regrets

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Regret: it’s a provocative word, always bringing sorrow and a deep sense of loss; a recognition of opportunities squandered. Unfortunately, when we sit with a newly-bereaved family, one or more of the survivors often carries the heavy weight of regret. It can take the form of a wish, as in “How I wish I had come to see him sooner”. Or regret comes in the form of a “should”, as in “I should have...” Here’s a case-in-point.

Recently a funeral director was serving a family whose ninety-three-year-old patriarch had died. During the arrangement conference, when planning the memorial service, one of the great grandchildren said, speaking so low (as if only to himself):

“We should have written down some of his wartime memories. He always told us such exciting stories, and now they’re gone...forever.”

During the conversation, the funeral director learned the great-grandfather had been an Air Force pilot in World War II; so it’s easy to imagine the tales of danger and heroism he could have told! And his mind had been sharp–even at ninety-three: his stories would have been a fine legacy to leave behind. Not just for his family, but also for future historians. At that moment, everyone in the room (including the funeral director) felt regret: the loss belonged to all in the room.

The sense of shared loss acted as inspiration: the service successfully acknowledged, with the display of old family photographs and war memorabilia, his personal experience of the war which defined his character throughout his life. But, despite the success; for the man’s great-grandson, the regret was still there.

It is, without doubt, one of the saddest words in our language; and chances are (life being what it is) when a family member dies, you’ll have regrets about things you didn’t say, or shouldn’t have said; things you could have done and didn’t.

But there is a regret you can avoid altogether: the regret of neglect and lost opportunity expressed by the young man in this story. All you have to do is deliberately and methodically record a loved one’s memories (and it’s not as hard as you think, thanks to today’s technology).

The Basics

Using a digital voice recorder or camera (even your mobile phone if it has a video/audio record feature); you’ll simply record the conversation. If you’ve got a laptop, tablet (or even a desktop) computer equipped with a microphone and camera; you could use it to record your sessions. Later, you can edit and burn your recordings either to CD (if audio only) or DVD (if a video recording was also taken). But what should you say to start the ball rolling? Here are a few questions “suitable for anyone”, suggested by the oral historians over at StoryCorps an organization whose goal is a lofty one: “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world”.

  • Who has been the most important person in your life? Can you tell me about him or her?

  • What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?

  • Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?

  • Who has been the kindest to you in your life?

  • What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?

There are also questions in other categories, such as "working", "grandparents", "war" and "family heritage". (Check out StoryCorps’ Great Questions page for more inquiry ideas). While you’re there, be sure to look at some of the entertaining, often eye-opening interviews. You can choose to read, watch, or listen; honestly, no matter which you select, you’ll be fascinated and inspired by what you see.

Everyone’s Story is Worth Recording

Now this young man’s great-grandfather was defined by his war experiences (as many men and women of “the Greatest Generation”). War stories can be very exciting; but what should you do if you think your family member has led a less dramatic life; one that could be thought of as merely “ordinary”? Is it worth your time to record their memories? Of course it is. But how can you frame them in a way that’s not only interesting but meaningful?

Here’s an idea. Why not view his or her life through the music that influenced him or her the most? If his or her heart was in the visual arts: painting, sculpture, film...bring their favorites into the conversation. The same can be said for books: if he or she was an avid reader, view their life through the books they loved. If he or she loved delicious food, then use their favorite dishes or recipes as your lens from which to view their life.

Author Thomas Cirignano, in The Constant Outsider, wrote “Each of us is a book waiting to be written, and that book, if written, results in a person explained.” Perhaps it’s time for you to record a lifetime of stories and to some degree, explain what the life was like for those living in the future (thereby avoiding any future regrets you may have about lost oral history).

Yes, archiving your family member’s memories as “oral history”, an archive available to researchers and scholars, is important. But there’s also a far more personal benefit for taking the time to do this: in helping them to tell their story, we get to get them back after their death; to hang on to them longer. In doing so, we hope to capture their life experience, distill its essence and hold it for as long as we can. Then we can take comfort in knowing their story is not forgotten; instead it now belongs to future generations.

Article Submitted by: Tim and Alison Dinan, Owners

Cook Family Funeral Home, Cremation Service, and Hillcrest Cemetery


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