Grief and Oral History: Keeping Memories Alive

General / General : 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. 

A Project For Those With Serious Illness:

StoryCorps has a great project that partners with hospitals and hospices to help individuals with terminal illness and their families to do interview and share their stories.  You can check out a list of partnering organizations working with StoryCorps on this Legacy initiative here.