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Today's Family Magazine

Questions adults should ask their parents

By Cheryl Maguire

“Now I’ll never know the answer.”

I’ve heard my mom say this many times since her parents passed away. Often, she has a question about a childhood memory or a possible genetic medical issue that she wishes she had asked her parents while they were still alive.  After she makes this declaration, she sounds sad that she is left with these unanswered curiosities that only her parents know.  Of course, she misses her parents but there is also a sense of regret that she didn’t ask these questions when she had the chance.

Michelle Blanchard Ardillo, 64, a freelance writer and an academic tutor, has had similar feelings about her parents who passed away.  “I wish I would have pressed my mom and my dad to talk about their childhood and their parents.  I feel a void where those connections should be,” she says.

Gretchen Kubacky, Psy.D., a health psychologist and author of, “Moving Through Grief: Proven Techniques for Finding Your Way After Any Loss,” shares her personal experience after losing her parents.  “I wish I had asked my mother more about her relationship with her father.  I also would have liked to know if she had truly wanted to be a stay-at-home mom or if she felt like it was a predetermined choice.  For my father, I would have wanted to know more about his experience growing up as a first-generation German-American,” she says.

Since my parents are still alive, I would like to try to prevent these feelings of regret, so I turned to the experts to learn more.

“When your parents die, you want to have as few regrets as possible and the assurance that you did the best you could for them.  Only by asking the questions in advance will you know this for sure,” says Kubacky.

Questions to ask
So where do you begin? The process can seem overwhelming and sad since most people have a hard time discussing death or dying.  Amy Pickard, a grief coach, created a Departure File ( that includes questions related to childhood memories, accomplishments, and other reflections.  You could ask your parents to fill out the form if it is easier for them or use it as a basis for conversation starters.

Clare Bidwell Smith, a grief counselor and author of, “Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief” recommends using Pickard’s booklet or using Conversation Cards to help facilitate discussions. Based on Kubacky and Bidwell Smith’s experience working with their clients around grief they highlight some key questions you could ask:
  • What do you think happens when we die?
  • What do you imagine the afterlife to be?
  • Are there certain ways you'd like to be remembered?
  • Are there signs you think I should look for that will remind me of you?
  • What are songs I could play to remember you by?
  • Are there any places I could travel to that you loved and visited?
  • When I'm sad and missing you, is there something you think I should do or remember?
  • What's your strongest childhood memory?
  • What was your first date with (the other parent) like?  Or, how did you meet?
  • What are you most proud of in your life?
  • Do you have any big regrets?
  • If you could have done one thing differently in your life, what would it be and why?
How to handle parental resistance
So, what should you do if your parent doesn’t want to answer your questions?  How should you handle it?  The experts offered some suggestions about how to respond when your parents don’t want to discuss certain topics.

Kubacky suggests that you respect your parents' desire for privacy but also keep gently coming back to the topics.  “Many people are uncomfortable talking about illness, death, and money.  But it is in their best interest, as well as yours, to share at least enough information that you can quickly and easily shift into caregiver mode if need be,” she says.

Pickard explains that her father is not a “touchy-feely emotional share and care guy” so she knew she had to frame her questions in a way that he would feel comfortable responding. Instead of asking him a personal question she asked, “What are the ten traits that you think I got from you?”  At first, he responded, “I don’t think about that kind of stuff.”  But then he called her an hour later and listed traits like her sense of humor and sports ability that he shares with her.

Pickard also stresses that sometimes you might have to ask the question a few times before they answer, or they might not respond right away like her father.  “Just keep at it.  If your parents don't want to talk about stuff, you've got to just keep pressing them and try to figure out a way that it'll be palatable or try to be creative in getting the information that you want,” she says.

Why these questions are Important
“When we lose someone we love, we are left with myriad questions that are difficult to find answers.  We are also sometimes left with a sense of guilt that can contribute to anxiety and depression,” says Bidwell Smith.  This is why it is important to have these conversations while you still have the opportunity.

Pickard explains that reminiscing is a powerful way to remember that you are living and how you have lived.  “When you have these conversations with your parents, you will never regret it,” she says.

She goes on to say,  “It's those conversations with your parents that provide the most nutrition for you when you're grieving.  Those are the conversations that are going to stand out in your mind and provide you with the most comfort.”