AMHERST, Mass. (AP) — When Ralph Lowen and his first cousin stood before his uncle's casket at a wake three years ago, his cousin murmured something he had heard before from people in mourning.
"She said: I wish I had asked ..." said Lowen, a painter and former psychotherapist. "And I realized I had heard that countless times before. Loved ones die and those left behind are often left with so many questions, or so many things we wish we had said."
The comment gave birth to a very fledgling project Lowen launched recently by the same name designed to give terminally ill patients a chance to record their personal history.
"I Wish I Had Asked" appeals to Lowen's affinity for oral history traditions and history in general, plus as a scholar of emotional complexities in his former job as a therapist in New York City.
Lowen's own father died when he was just 3, and his mother, a mathematician, shut down emotionally, he said; not an entirely unusual response to grief.
"Everything sort of went downhill from there ... I have huge gaps in my memory. There are so many things I wish I had asked her," Lowen said.
"I Wish I Had Asked" has thus far been a self-financed venture, with Lowen buying his own equipment to conduct weekly audio recordings of cancer patients with varying prognoses. He records weekly discussion groups through The Cancer Connection, a support center across from Cooley-Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.
Executive Director Betsy Neisner said she has participants at her center who found the recording sessions moving, and even joyous.
"One of the women told me that she can't remember the sound of her mother's voice. Now, her family will always have that. And when you're dying, you start physically looking terrible but you still have your voice," Neisner said. "She has the recording now and her family will always have it. She still finds it difficult to listen to, though, because it was a goodbye."
Neisner said that Lowen has exactly the kind of easy way to make his subjects feel comfortable.
"One woman said Ralph is facilitator, therapist and artist. He made it really easy for her to talk," she said.
Lowen has a standard list of questions he can use as a starting point, or to spur on the dialogue if it begins to drift away. Some include easy ones like: "What are you most proud of?" and "What is your best memory of childhood?" Others are more difficult, like "Do you think about dying?" and "Are you scared?" or "How do you imagine your death?"
Lowen hopes that the project will become widespread enough for him to seek grants and donations so he can train others to do the sessions and buy more equipment.
"Right now it's more important for me to be doing it than to make any money at doing it," he said, but noting that he is aware of his own mortality. "But, I'm getting older. I won't be able to do it forever and I'd like for it not to end with me."