When a Parent Doesn’t Want to Talk about Their Past

capturing family history from an elderly grandparent is not always easy

I hear it often—different words, varying specifics, but always the same underlying message:

“His war years were so painful that they are buried deep.”

“My dad’s childhood was unbearable, so it’s a part of his life he would rather not revisit.”

“My mom refuses to talk about her own father; I assume he was not a very nice person.”

Implied: “My parent will never talk about the past.”

But I wonder: Have you ever asked?

I don’t mean a passing remark about how he/she never speaks about their childhood. I mean asking, in a forthright manner, if they would share the stories of their past. Have you ever asked?

Why It’s Sometimes Easier to Talk to a Stranger

I recently heard a story about an elderly gentleman who launched into stories of how his father was an abusive alcoholic: This gentleman spoke without reservation, in depth, and at length. He was speaking to a fellow professional personal historian who had been hired by the gentleman’s grown children.

At the end of two hours of sharing his painful experiences, he indicated that his children would not want to know about any of this.

“They specifically told me they would like to know about your father,” she responded. “Why do you think they aren’t interested?”

“Because they never once asked,” he said.

This man’s children had made it clear that they thought their father would never open up about his own dad. Had they ever asked him, though?

Chances are, they may have made passing remarks about their father’s difficult childhood. Perhaps they treaded lightly because they knew it was difficult terrain. Maybe they asked, but their dad assumed they wouldn’t want the whole messy story.

When family members are the ones trying to capture stories of the past, assumptions can unintentionally impede the way. Consider some of the negative assumptions that may arise when family members interview their elders:

My kids think they want to know, but the reality will be too painful for them to hear.

I can’t imagine my daughter will want to know any more than the basics of my childhood.

I don’t want my son to have negative impressions of his grandfather.

Conversely, when an outsider—whether it be a biographer or a caregiver—asks, the storyteller may feel welcomed in a different way. The assumptions are more positive:

I have been invited to speak. This person wants to know my stories!

This person has no preconceived notions about who I am—I start with a clean slate.

How to Get Stories from a (Seemingly) Reluctant Storyteller

If you would like to ask your parents or grandparents questions about difficult periods from their past, here are a few tips to generate open conversation:

  1. First ask if they would be willing to speak about the specific topic. Clearly express your genuine interest, stressing how learning more about your loved one’s past will help you understand them (and maybe even your own childhood) better.

  2. Indicate further why you are interested: Would you like to shed light on your great-grandparents or other individuals further up the family tree? Are you seeking examples of resilience to fuel your own growth? Are you simply curious about this person whom you love beyond compare, wishing to know them as a person in their own right and not just in relation to you (as your mother, say)?

  3. Don’t merely hear; listen. Hearing is a passive act; sounds come to us and are received. Listening, on the other hand, is an active endeavor. Pay attention to what your family member is saying. Make eye contact, ask follow-up questions, feel empathy. It is okay to begin from a list of prewritten questions if you go into the interview with an open mind, letting the conversation twist and turn with the currents.

  4. Be prepared to be surprised. Beware those nasty assumptions again! You have undoubtedly constructed a narrative around the unknown portions of your relative’s life. Chances are that any storyline you have imagined may be far from the truth. Be willing to listen openly and, most critically, without judgment.

  5. Reserve judgment. Yes, this one’s worth repeating. Listening to your loved one’s stories is a privilege. They are trusting you with precious memories. They are making themselves vulnerable. Reward that trust by engaging with them genuinely, bearing witness to their life, and seeing them sans judgment.

When a Professional Is the Way to Go

If you are uncomfortable trying to glean stories that you think your parents or grandparents may be uneasy speaking about, consider hiring a personal biographer to conduct interviews. Reach out to see how we could work together to preserve your family legacy.

Related reading coming in future blog posts:

  • Why It’s Important to Capture Difficult Family Stories

  • Providing Examples of Resilience to the Next Generation