Preserving Memories: Hard Work But Necessary

It’s been almost 2 years since our sister Colleen died, and we still feel like we can hear what she would say if we could call her up to tell her some piece of news from our lives. But recently, in gathering some memories of her, at first we had a hard time coming up with stories and remembering specifics. The inability to bring up vivid memories induced panic. It’s only been 2 years, what will happen 5, 10 years from now? What if we have already forgotten or continue to forget funny stories from growing up or some piece of wisdom she gave us? We wanted to know more about how to preserve her memory. Our set of shared experiences is now closed. There is no chance to make new memories.

There seems to be some belief tied to the idea of “moving on” that it is natural and maybe a few feel that it is even necessary to forget the deceased somewhat. But most people continue to have some kind of relationship with the person they lost, and want to keep that person’s memory alive. Figuring out a new relationship with them can be empowering and lead to happiness. In our experience, the pressure to move on comes at the same time that the too short sympathy period ends, and when the condolences dry up, so do the stories that other people share with you about your loved one. Then it can feel like not only do you have “grief brain” - or the distracted, everyday forgetfulness that comes with grief - but your memories that include your loved one seem to be slipping away as well.  

We began searching for ideas and, initially, we came up with the obvious: talk about your loved one often and share stories with others. If you’re like us, memory gets fuzzier as we get older, and repetition helps us to remember stories. We also find that pictures help to recall details, so looking back through photo albums - hard copies or online - can restore memories. We ordered extra copies of a photo book we made for our sister and enjoy looking through it whenever we miss her. Another approach is to write down memories as they come up in a journal or create a memory jar of stories and pictures that you can pick out to view any time.  

In “Passed and Present”, author Allison Gilbert talks about the task of remembering as part of grief and reminds us that “[w]hen it comes to keeping the memory of our loved ones alive, that work is up to us.” She offers unique, concrete strategies for doing so. Some of our favorites among her suggestions include using social media to invite stories about your loved one, such as posting on Facebook on an anniversary and requesting others to comment with their memories, making a playlist of songs that remind you of your loved one, keeping their recipes with an anecdote about them, and making a memory game with family pictures that include deceased relatives to help your children remember them (we were excited to see Shutterfly offers these personalized games!)

{Shane} I have some pieces of jewelry and clothes of my sister’s that remind me of her whenever I see or wear them. I love getting compliments on them because it makes me think of her and what good sense of style she had, and sometimes I imagine telling her what so-and-so said about her fabulous necklace. I treasure gifts she gave me or my daughter. I also have a few things that I gave to her, which came back to me after she died. Some were nice gifts I gave to her as an adult, like a pretty gold tray, and others were gifts I gave to her when we were children that bring back funny memories to me whenever I see them, like the scrapbook of quotes and poems I made for her in high school. I loved making crafts as a kid and since Colleen was my cool, older sister, I often made them for her. She didn’t always want them, like the poor ugly teddy bear I sewed for her thirteenth birthday when she was too old for teddy bears. But she must have appreciated my efforts if it still exists to this day. I wish we could still talk and laugh about all my arts and crafts.

Recently, a fleece sweatshirt of hers that I loved to wear was ruined by my dog. I was so mad at myself for leaving it out, and at the dog for chewing a hole in it - really, what dog mistakes a sweatshirt for a chew toy? I realized then that some of the tangible objects I have that remind me of Colleen will inevitably get ruined or lost or maybe fall out of style and wind up in the back of my closet. That doesn’t mean I want to stop wearing them or using them now, but it does mean I need to think through making concerted efforts to preserve her memory on several fronts, with and without tangible things.

{Jessica} I often find myself holding and rubbing a necklace that Colleen gave me. Sometimes, I reflexively do it and other times when I am thinking of Colleen. I wear the necklace often because if I wear it, then I feel like she is with me. When she gave us all this necklace, she was very sick and knew that she was dying. Some of the thoughts of her bring me back to this time, to her looking so ill and frail and to a very painful time. I get frustrated that I can so easily bring myself back to those terrible memories, yet have to rack my brain to remember that time as children when Colleen snuck dessert into our shared bedroom after I had gotten in trouble and lost my treat. Perhaps it is easiest to remember the sad parts as they are my most recent memories, but I want my memory to only go to the happy times and to the image of Colleen as the beautiful, strong  sister that I miss. I like to look at pictures of her when she is having fun and remember all of those good times. My hope is that I can erase that sickly image of her.

It is hard work to think of old memories and I’d rather just be able to call my sister. I recently found myself having some very sad days when I wanted to call Colleen and get her advice on something but was unable to. I realized in those days that I will go through most of my adult life without her and would come across moments like this often. I decided to just talk to her and imagine what she would tell me and it helped me to move on. I continue to talk to my children about her because I don’t want them to grow up without feeling like they knew her. That is my big fear, that we will get too comfortable in going on without her. I want her to always be with us and on our minds.

Friends and family can help to preserve memories. It is always nice to hear others speak fondly of our sister and we are always looking for new stories and new ways to have her on our mind.  Share funny stories, send along pictures that you come across, or a note that you find. Consider asking specific questions about a deceased loved one to help spark memories. There are parts of their history that only you may know and that are worth sharing. We encourage everyone to be a part of preserving memories of those that have died. And if you have lost someone and want to do more to preserve your memory of them or maintain a connection with them, don’t be afraid to be proactive - whether that means making one of the memory projects mentioned here or simply talking more about your loved one and asking others to share memories with you.

Tell us in the comments section below - What do you do to preserve the memory of lost loved ones?