'After dad died, I was desperate to hear his voice again': Meet the man whose job is making memories

·5 min read
Peter Chieu Nguyen with his granddaughter Ella (John Nguyen)
Peter Chieu Nguyen with his granddaughter Ella (John Nguyen)

In the cold, bleak hours after Peter Chieu Nguyen’s death, his distraught son John scrolled through his own phone, desperate to hear his dad’s voice one more time.

"It was 3am and I was searching for videos of dad but I could only find two," says John, 40, a photographer from South East London. "One was of him blowing out the candles on a birthday cake and saying thank you to everyone and the other was of him giving a funny speech after slightly too much to drink. It made me smile because he was always the life and soul of a party.

"It was wonderful to see him again but I realised that was all I had. I would have given anything to have something more – not only for myself but to show his grandchildren, some of whom will have no memory of their grandfather."

Read more: United in grief: The pandemic has changed how we talk about death

The suddenness of Peter’s death only added to John’s feeling of regret. A fit, healthy father of eight (and grandfather of thirteen), Peter contracted COVID when restrictions eased last Christmas and he met with some members of his family. 

John Nguyen at his wedding with his father Peter (John Nguyen)
John Nguyen at his wedding with his father Peter (John Nguyen)

Rushed to hospital on New Year’s Day, his condition initially improved but then deteriorated. He was placed on a ventilator and died less than three weeks later aged 68. The family didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye.

"It was devastating for all of us and now I’m left with so many questions," says John, who lives with wife Renee, 43, who works in the NHS and their two-and-a-half year old daughter Ella. 

Read more: 'Dad died suddenly. Now I help thousands cope with grief'

"Dad had such an interesting life. He fought in the Vietnam war then sailed over on a boat with his young family to settle in Ireland. He became a welder and then set up a restaurant for a short while before coming over to the UK and settling in Birmingham, where he worked so hard as a machinist, putting nearly all his children through university. 

"He was devoted to his family and did everything for us. But I know so little of his early life. I’d love to know what it was like sailing that boat all the way to Ireland and on a selfish level, I wish I knew how he felt when I was born. But I’ve lost the chance to ask that now."

Read more: He made three promises to his wife. A week after she died, a parcel arrived

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John is still in the depths of grief but his sudden bereavement has inspired a heartwarming idea that he hopes will save others from the same pain. He has set up a new company dedicated to recording testimonies of loved ones which can be passed down to generations.

John Nguyen as a child with his father Peter. John says he regrets not asking Peter how he felt when he was born (John Nguyen)
John Nguyen as a child with his father Peter. John says he regrets not asking Peter how he felt when he was born (John Nguyen)

"I actually had the first spark of an idea three years ago when my grandfather – also called Peter – died in his eighties of a heart attack but I didn’t do anything about it," he says. 

"That’s the trouble, everyone always thinks they have more time with their loved ones and we certainly thought we had at least a good ten or fifteen years left with Dad. But look what happened. 

"I saw that memory books – where people write down their stories – were proving popular and they are also a lovely idea. But how much better to be able to record people on camera, not only telling their story but really capturing their essence? Hearing them laugh as they tell a story. Talking about what music they liked or their childhood experiences. 

"I work with experienced journalists who really bring out the best in people when it comes to telling a story. I was determined that this wasn’t simply going to be their biography, their job, their background etc – I wanted it to capture their true character."

The company IlluminateStories.com allows people to create videos for their loved ones. (John Nguyen/JNVisuals)
The company IlluminateStories.com allows people to create videos for their loved ones. (John Nguyen/JNVisuals)

The company IlluminateStories.com is already proving popular not only with people who want to record their own stories but with sons and daughters who want to hear what their parents - or grandparents - have to say.

"It’s been wonderful to hear people opening up about their lives and several have said that they’ve enjoyed the experience and have never told some of the stories before, even to their families," says John. 

"We had one lady who got in touch asking us to record her grandmother who had just been diagnosed with dementia. We went to film her and she has so much to say. 

"A month later, the granddaughter rang us to say we’d recorded it just in time. Although the lady was still alive, her memory had now ‘gone’ but at least some of those stories had been saved.

"That’s what we want to be able to offer with all these films. So when you’re missing your loved one and you need to hear their voice or see their smile again, you can turn on your phone, log in and run the film, wherever you are. I wished I’d done it with Dad but I left it too late. I won’t risk that again with other members of my family."

Watch: Tips for coping with Covid grief and loss

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