Sand, Sun, and Meaningful Conversation

Revealing the Secret Key to Summertime Happiness

Author Allison Gilbert with her mom in the 1970's

That’s a picture of my mother and me on Fire Island circa 1974, a popular getaway spot off the coast of Long Island, New York. No vehicles are permitted and bicycling feels freeing for parents who don’t have to fear children being hit by a car. I’ve always cherished this photo but appreciate it even more now that I’m a mom.

Looking at it lately, I see things that were invisible to me before I gave birth: I notice my mother carrying our towels and I’m just carefree, riding my tricycle. I’ve also come to recognize the way I’m dressed reflects the outsize love my mother had for me. With red hair and pale skin, she has me absolutely covered — a straw hat to keep the sun off my face, and a long-sleeve shirt so large it goes to my knees.

Alongside these memories, I now have several questions, too: How did she manage to prioritize family time while meeting the demands of her office? Did she make business phone calls while I napped or was she able to completely disengage? These are the questions I’m struggling with this summer, and I wish I could have asked her all of them. But she died before my children were born. Despite this guidance gap, I’m excited to tell you there’s an upside to this story.

Recently I discovered a wonderful tool that can help facilitate the kind of conversations I wish I’d had more of with my mom. It’s a simple deck of cards. The Have the Talk of a Lifetime Conversation Cards, created by National Funeral Directors Association (the group that partnered with me on this post), helps prompt meaningful discussions. There are 50 cards to a deck and each one is printed with a different question. Questions like: Who has been the most influential person in your life? What is the scariest thing that ever happened to you? For what are you most grateful? You can certainly add your own to the mix, and that’s what I long to have done with my mom.

Taking the time to talk substantively with loved ones brings families closer. Michael Hebb, founder of Death Over Dinner, writes how important such conversations are in his essay for Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Journal, “Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death.” He believes that while it may seem paradoxical, discussions about death “can give us an immediate and renewed vitality.” He goes on to write, “talking about death, is also talking about life.” 

The Dinner Party shares Hebb’s enthusiasm for thoughtful conversation. In a post following the death of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s husband, the Dinner Party team (Lennon Flowers, Carla Fernandez, and Dara Kosberg) wrote how they also believe talking about loved ones (and of course death, too) can lead “to a whole new way of working, and being, together.”

So, as your family travels in long car rides and gathers for reunions and campfires this summer, please don’t miss the opportunity to start meaningful conversations. Crack these opportunities open. Learn more deeply about each other. Ask questions. The cards can help. When my family goes on vacation in the next few weeks, perhaps to Fire Island, I’ll be tossing a deck of cards into my beach bag. It’ll be next to my straw hat and long-sleeve shirt.

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