5 Tips For Interviewing Aging and Terminal Loved Ones

The importance of interviewing a loved one as they are significantly aging or nearing the end of their life is nothing short of an unparalleled experience. In truth, nothing comes close to the intensity and intimacy of this process, which is equal parts delicate, heart-wrenching and rewarding.

Personally, I was not even the slightest bit prepared to give the interview of my life at age 28. I lost my Dad in the midst of a seven year span in which I also lost all four of my grandparents as well as my little brother. The only family member that I possess a final interview of sorts is from my Dad. There are thoughts, questions, and elements that I’m glad I injected into our interviews—but there are also parts that I wish I could redo. If I had had a list of tips available to consult at the time, I undoubtedly would have felt more prepared and may have gleaned more from our conversations.

To that end, I wanted to share these five tips for interviewing a loved one. No matter your situation, I hope they help you to create meaningful memories to carry with you forever.

1. Have Items Available to Jog Your Loved One’s Memory

This process is known as Reminiscence therapy. As my Dad and I thumbed through several photo albums, his ailing memory was jogged by images from our trips to Disney World, Cape Cod, and Lake Tahoe. We spoke about my mom and my brother and my Dad’s cousins and parents and grandparents, all smiling back at him from the pages and pages of collected photographs. We went through special items of clothing, particularly his beloved Buffalo Bills gear. He reminisced about fond memories of victorious games and tailgates and delegated which items I should keep. We poured over written letters and old VHS tapes and bowling trophies and yearbooks. Anything that you may deem meaningful to your loved one, have on hand to discuss.

2. Expect Emotional Extremes

This is true both for you as the interviewer, and unequivocally for your loved one. Your loved one will likely oscillate between every emotion under the sun. They’ll feel joy upon recalling fond memories, and they’ll likely find simultaneous sadness as realizations occur that said joy may not again be felt. These conversations will contain heavy moments, so be well-prepared for the emotions that come with them. Have tissues on hand, perhaps a snack or water, as well as any item that you know will bring calmness for the interviewee.

Remember to ask open ended questions as it’s not ideal for your loved one to answer with a simple yes or no. The hope is that the stories and memories continuously flow. And most importantly, be aware of when the topics may become too much and it’s time to take a break, take deep breaths, or cease the conversation for the day. As much information as you hope to hear, you certainly don’t want to overwhelm your loved one. I vividly remember having mac and cheese and watching All in the Family with Dad when he needed breaks, later on finding ourselves reset and reinvigorated to continue.

3. Record Everything You Can

I didn’t do so properly and I’ll regret it forever. I so wish that I could go back and not only hear my Dad’s voice but see his facial expressions while telling stories and recalling memories. If I had had access to StoryCombs when doing my interview, I would still know his answer when asked about his favorite book. It was a sports title, but sadly two years later, the specificity of the title is unbeknownst to me.

With StoryCombs it’s easy to create narrated photos to combine video recordings with static images. Something like this would have allowed me to retain more of the information my father shared with me in those moments. Whether your loved one will still grace this earth for two more weeks or two months or two years, their story has the power to forever endure in StoryCombs.

4. Express Your Thoughts, Feelings, and Memories As Well

It’s important to remember that this experience is not a one-sided interview. If you’re a believer in signs, there’s no harm in asking your loved one to send you a specific one once they have crossed over. Tell your loved one how great of a parent or partner or person they have been. Discuss at length your favorite memories with them and tell them your own hope for your future. Be overwhelmingly reassuring to your loved one that while you love and appreciate them dearly, that you will be okay after they have passed on. Reassurance is key, and I can tell you from my own experience that your loved one is likely more concerned about your well-being than their own.

5. Leave No Stone Unturned—Ask Every Little Thing You Can

While maintaining delicacy when appropriate is key, don’t be afraid to dive into specifics. If you inquire what your loved one’s favorite television show is, delve into specifics. Ask what their favorite episode was and why, and what caused their laughter or emotions enveloped within this show.

Inquire not only about their favorite book, but go further and ask them to recall their favorite passage or page and why. Perhaps afterward, you can watch that particular episode together or read that specific book to them. Ask about details from their favorite trip, who their most memorable teacher was and why. What was the best day of their life and what are some life lessons they would like to bestow upon you and others? Ask about their greatest accomplishments and what they would have done differently if allowed the chance. Ask what their hopes are for your future. My Dad’s wishes were simple. He desperately hoped that I would finish my Master’s degree and that I would be happy. The former I completed and the latter is a work in progress. For Dad, I put in a concerted effort every single day.

And as for you, my hope is that after reading these tips you’ll feel equipped with the tools you need to put a concerted effort into interviewing your loved one. It truly is a delicate and intimate process, but one you’ll forever be thankful that you were properly prepared for.