How to Talk about the Past in a Way that Brings Family Together

When someone in your family tells you a memory, pay close attention. They are sharing their modus operandi for life with you. If there are unhealed traumas from the past, talking about painful memories can help your family member heal.

Memories are blue prints for how to do life.

Children have millions of experiences by the time they are around five to six years old but they only remember a few of them. Why do they remember only a few and why those particular ones? When children are born into this world they quickly have to figure out how to survive, emotionally and physically. It is the emotion surrounding an event that determines meaning. With their limited knowledge and experience of life they come to conclusions about self, others and life. Then they live their life according to the conclusions they’ve come to, whether those conclusions are conscious or unconscious. Memories after the age of 6 are important as well; they tend to confirm or disconfirm previous conclusions.

How to talk about memories.

1.       Listen to the memories without interrupting. Your parent, spouse, child, sibling, cousin or other relative is telling you something important about themselves. Paying attention to them shows them you are interested in them and care about them.

2.       Memories can be happy, neutral or unhappy/painful. Enjoy the happy ones, be curious about the neutral ones and be empathetic with the painful ones. Often, healing can occur through the expression of feelings alone. It is possible for a child and an adult to heal emotionally from talking to a caring person about an experience they had as a child or young adult.

3.       Validate their experiences and the meaning they make of them. Do not argue about whether the events happened or not.  Just because you don’t remember an event does not mean it did not happen.  Or, if you remember the same event differently, it means you made different meaning out of it. Do not be concerned about the truth or facts of the memory. It may or may not be accurate. It is not about the facts; it is about the meaning the person made of their experience and the facts.

4.       Do not assume you know what their memory means. Ask “What do you make of that?” Say, “Tell me more about that.” Invite your family member to say more by being curious about it.

5.       Validate the feelings generated in the memory, positive and/or negative.

6.       If you want to share memories of your own, wait until they are finished.

Note:  Memories are not static.  As a person ages and their circumstances change, their memories may change, or even be forgotten completely.

Reminiscing is healthy if family members are open to listening to each other.

The above holds true of people who are non-family members as well.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea

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