Harvesting memories during the holidays
photo of the fall harvest
Joanna Lillian Brown is the author of Caring for Dying Loved Ones

Joanna Lillian Brown is the author of Caring for Dying Loved Ones

Thanksgiving, Channukah, Christmas, New Years, Eid, and other holidays and holy days are often times when families gather from far and wide. If you will be seeing members of your family or friends in the coming days or weeks, consider taking the time to harvest memories by listening to each others’ stories and recording them.

What you need to harvest memories:

  • a quiet space (turn off the television or radio to eliminate competing background noise)
  • set aside time to listen and share memories, whether one-on-one, or in a group

Especially if there will be an elder or elders present (and that elder may be you!), this opportunity to share memories should be regarded as a priority for the holidays. It may not come again soon, or may not come again, ever. In my own life, I have taken for granted that there would be another time in which to ask my grandmother, my father, and my mother to tell their stories and name the people in the photographs from long ago.

The truth is that we never know when someone may lose their ability to speak, or lose their ability to remember events and people from the past.

I am thankful that I did harvest some memories. The one video in which my 96 year old grandmother baked a pie while talking to my sister and my cousin and me, is a very precious possession that will be passed along to the next generations. And, the notes that I took while caring for her at the end of her life have also been passed along to others in the family. I do regret that I never did take out the shoeboxes full of photographs until my father had died and my mother’s stroke had suddenly removed her ability to remember many of the names and places in those sepia-toned images.

I hope that my regret will be a gift to encourage you to act now, while you can still do so.

You don’t need to have sophisticated or expensive equipment with which to harvest memories. Whether you choose to take hand-written notes, record a video with a smart phone, or tape stories with a hand-held digital recorder (smaller than a cell phone and available for less than $40), however you harvest memories you will have something precious to enjoy in the coming years and hand on to others.

Some of the questions you might ask (or answer yourself) are:

  • When did you leave “the old country” and why? Where did you live when you were growing up?
  • What was it like growing up during (the Depression, WWII, etc.)?
  • How close were you to your brothers/sisters? Harvesting Memories During the Holidays
  • What did you enjoy doing as a child?
  • Who were your closest friends?
  • What were the traditions or cultures shared in your family (or in your neighborhood)?
  • When and how did you meet (dad, mom, etc.)?
  • What music did you like listening to earlier in your life (and now)?
  • Where did you work and what did you do for work?
  • What are you most proud of, or satisfied about, having done in your life?
  • If you had the ability to live your life over again, what would you do the same, and what would you do differently?
  • What do you want future generations in our family to know about you?
  • What advice do you have for them about how to live a good life?

Not only will these memories be precious to you now, but you will be able to hand down to the next generations the history, culture, and traditions of your family. And, when the time comes to do so, out of them you will be able to create a meaningful obituary, eulogy, or tribute video that will honor them and touch the hearts of many.

Go and harvest some memories!


Joanna Lillian Brown was in her late 30's when she became the hospice care coordinator, and a primary caregiver, for her 97-year old grandmother. When speaking with dozens of family members, work associates, and friends, she was surprised to learn that no one she knew had been with someone at the time of a loved one's death. During the final three months of her grandmother's life, she kept a journal of her thoughts and fears, as well as notes about special moments shared with her grandmother and family members. The experience of being with her grandmother at the time of her death was a deeply spiritual experience that removed her fear of death. Eight years later, she and her spouse bought a home four houses away from her elderly parents to provide them with daily support. She was a primary caregiver for her father during the last two years of his life and was with him as he died. Again, the process of journal writing provided a path for reflection and comfort during the challenges of caring for a loved one. Following her father's death, she provided daily visits to her mother, enabling her to stay in her home for another five years, until she had a stroke. For the last eighteen months of her mother's life, she provided direct care to her mother in a nursing home every evening, where she learned about the problems inherent in even excellent nursing care facilities. She was with her mother when she died at 4:00 am on May 7, 2008. Following her mother's death, Joanna reviewed her journals from prior years and began to wonder if her reflections could benefit someone who had not yet been a caregiver. A supportive writing coach encouraged her to continue writing, and the book Caring for Dying Loved Ones: A Helpful Guide for Families and Friends was written within a period of 20 months, based on journal entries, stories contributed by personal friends, and additional research. Joanna Lillian Brown also provided hospice care to her earliest childhood friend, who died at the age of 54 from pancreatic cancer. She has been a caregiver or hospice caregiver to several members of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Northampton and Florence, Massachusetts, where she and her spouse, Jo Lower, have been members for 20 years. She has written and given eulogies for her mother, her father, and three close friends, as well as designing and participating in memorial services. Throughout her years of caregiving, Joanna Lillian Brown has worked full time in the fields of alumni relations and development.

Related Articles



When Carolita Johnson became a live-in caretaker for her 87-year-old mother, reimagining this new life as a multi-year writing residency helped her...

Being a Human Being

Being a Human Being

"Many of us are programmed to take action. We want to fix. We want to solve. And we take pride in fixing and solving. But sometimes there is nothing...

Popular categories

After Caregiving
Finding Meaning
Finding Support

Don't see what you're looking for? Search the library

Share your thoughts


Share your thoughts and experiences

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Join our communities

Whenever you want to talk, there’s always someone up in one of our Facebook communities.

These private Facebook groups are a space for support and encouragement — or getting it off your chest.

Join our newsletter

Thoughts on care work from Cori, our director, that hit your inbox each Monday morning (more-or-less).

There are no grand solutions, but there are countless little ways to make our lives better.

Share your insights

Caregivers have wisdom and experience to share. Researchers, product developers, and members of the media are eager to understand the nature of care work and make a difference.

We have a group specifically to connect you so we can bring about change.