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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How to write a memory book for a child after the death of a loved one

When a beloved grandparent dies, how do you keep that person’s memory fresh for your child who is very young? I recently talked to Stephanie, a friend who was struggling with her own grief and wondering how her six-year-old daughter would remember Grandpa, who had just died.

I suggested that she interview her daughter about Grandpa, and preserve the girl’s responses in a little memory book complete with family pictures. I told her I’d made memory books for four different children. My hope was that the parents would read the books to their children so the memories would never fade. The grandparents would remain “alive” for the kids as they grew up; the wisdom of the elders would stay vital in the young people's ives.

Stephanie had a lot of questions for me. She wanted a sort of template. So here goes….

General tips on interviewing a child
1. Remember that "play is children's work." Make the experience playful. You could each work Play-Doh or doodle with crayons while you do the interview. Be gentle and slow; don't put pressure on the child.
2. Record the answers with a tape player or in writing - whichever works best for you. I hate transcribing from a tape, so I stick to carefully written notes. You could entrust note-taking to a good scribe who sits nearby while you play and ask questions. Try to get answers verbatim!
3. Prompt but do not lead the child. Ask fair questions where the answers could go either way, not necessarily the way you want them to go. Your questions should be open-ended enough to encourage the child to reach back into memory, but specific enough that the child has a "diving board" of memory to jump from.
4. Take cues from the child. When there are signs of being tired, that's your cue to end the interview session and continue it another day.
5. Trust your judgment; you know the best questions for your family. None of my questions may fit your situation. Make up your own!
6. Use photos as memory prompts.

7. BEST TIP OF ALL - from three decades of work as an interviewer for newspapers and magazines: Follow one answer with a question that springs from that answer (not necessarily from your prepared notes) and listen closely when the interviewee thinks the interview is over! That's when the gold nuggets pour out.
Ideas for questions that will prompt memories of Grandpa, Grandma, Uncle or whomever
1. How did you feel when Grandpa walked into the room?
2. How would Grandpa say hi to you?
3. Did Grandpa ever pick you up? spin you around? give you horsey rides? have you sit on his lap?
4. How did those things (in #3) feel?
5. Would you ask Grandpa to do (#3) again? Would he?
6. Did Grandpa make you say please?
7. Did Grandpa teach you manners?
8. Did Grandpa give you any special foods? Did he buy them or make them? Did you help?
9. What did Grandpa teach you (i.e. fishing, woodworking, piano, singing, gardening)?
10. What did Grandpa say about #9 above?
11. Do you think that you learned something from Grandpa? What?
12. What did Grandpa's face look like? (Get details - eyes, nose, mouth, hair.)
13. What did Grandpa's smile look like?
14. What did Grandpa's voice sound like?
15. What did Grandpa's laugh sound like?
16. Did Grandpa ever take you anywhere? What did you do there together? Did you like it?
17. What did Grandpa's hands look like? Fingers? Nails?
18. What did Grandpa's clothes look like? Colors? Style?
19. What was your favorite thing to do with Grandpa?
20. What is your favorite memory of Grandpa?
21. What did Grandpa think of you? How could you tell?
22. Did Grandpa have other people in his life? Who were they?
23. What did Grandpa do when he wasn't with you?
24. Did Grandpa ever tell you a story? Can you tell the story?
26. Did Grandpa ever sing you a song? Can you sing it?
27. Did Grandpa ever make something for you? Tell about it.
28. How old do you think Grandpa was?
29. How are you going to remember Grandpa? (i.e. in a certain scene or event)
30. How will you feel when you remember Grandpa?
31. What do you know about Grandpa? Did he ever do anything that was hard to do?
32. Do you think you can be like Grandpa some day when you're grown up? What hard thing do you think you might be able to do?
Questions to go with photos - for great captions in your memory book
Show the child pictures of Grandpa with or without the child and other family members. Ask:
1. Tell me about this picture.
2. How do you think Grandpa feels in this picture?
3. What do you think Grandpa is saying in this picture?
4. What are you doing in this picture? What are you saying?
5. Tell about other people in this picture. How do they feel about Grandpa?
To assemble your memory book
It doesn't have to be fancy. The child could illustrate it. Use photos if you can. You can make a simple scrapbook or a very professional-looking bound book (through online sources, Walgreen's, etc.). If you create your own book, you might consider laminating it and perhaps making extra copies for other loved ones.
I like chronological order for a memory book, but you could organize sections in any way that's pleasing to you - perhaps through groupings of family memories, work memories, and so on.
Remember that feelings are more important than the exact who, what, where, and when of events.

Keep the writing in the voice of the child. You don't have to rephrase anything. Example: "I remember Grandpa. When he let me sit on his lap, I felt good. Sometimes he spun me around and around. I got dizzy but I didn't care."

Good luck!

 Gail Grenier is the author of Calling All Horses, Dog Woman, Don't Worry Baby, and Dessert First, all available from


  1. Thank you; this is really helpful!

    1. I'm so glad it helped. My condolences for you in your grieving.