Thank you to Hello Grief and Bill Cushnie for this article.
Recalling pleasant and life-forming memories can be so very important when we have lost someone we love. A fear some people hold is that over time memories will fade away, and while this is partially true, significant memories stay with us for a lifetime. Lots of every day bits of interaction do fade and this is because they were really not important at the time –a conversation on what to have for dinner or the need to take the trash out, or what the weather forecast is for the week. However, many memories are anchored so firmly in our senses we need not fear we will forget. Here’s a personal story:
My oldest son had a good friend in college; that friend had been blind from age five and the only colors he could remember were bright orange and bright green. His friend, Mike, had a bicycle built for two so a person with sight could sit in front and steer while he could enjoy the ride and peddle in back. My son and Mike painted the bike fluorescent orange and green. One fine spring day they went out for a ride and Mike said, “Is it a pretty day?” and my son answered, “It’s an absolutely gorgeous day.” Now any time my son sees a bicycle built for two or his wife says, “Isn’t this a pretty day!” And on the first lovely day in spring; guess what memory floods his mind.
Now just a few things about memory anchors –hopefully not too technical, but important. Anchors may be visual (bicycle), auditory (birds singing), kinesthetic (peddling) or a combination. Combinations are the strongest. For example; a woman who lost her brother, when he was just seventeen at the time and she was fourteen, remembers her brother’s birthdays vividly because his favorite cake was not a cake, but a cream filled donut with a single candle on top that represented all birthdays, and the birthday song that was sung by his musical family was done in beautiful harmony. The anchors are in the sight of a donut and candle, the smell of the donut and the hearing of the song –visual, kinesthetic and auditory. Each year on his birthday the family repeats the ritual and the anchors become even stronger. It doesn’t even have to be a birthday for the memory to appear –just a trip to the donut shop will do it every time.
For me; my mother wore White Shoulders perfume so whenever I smell it I recall memories of her loving spirit and dressing to go out with my dad on a special occasion. My dad enjoyed making things and he was very skillful so whenever I use one of his tools or use the box on my dresser he made I recall memories of helping him in the workshop when I was a young boy. Both of those memories bring a smile to my face and tears to my eyes and trigger other memories. You just don’t forget those things.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that some anchors are of unpleasant memories. There are awful examples I am too familiar with in working with bereaved individuals. A quarrel someone had with a loved one the day of their birthday and on that day the person died in an auto accident, or seeing a parent hit the other parent in a dispute over drinking. These can painfully trigger the memories on the birthday or when seeing someone get angry when drinking too much. I have some painful memories from my own life –I suspect we all do. For some of these I’ve sought professional help, for others I’ve managed to forgive if not forget entirely and for others I’ve simply accepted as a part of living and that dwelling on them does not change them, but only diminishes the mostly good things in life and let it go.
When a memory that is anchored in us that makes us feel deeply; it is a message that we are alive. They are opportunities to recall, celebrate and face up to something. While new memory anchors will occur unexpectedly, we also have opportunities to create positive anchors for ourselves, our families and our friends that sustain us all. Perhaps it’s a new a birthday ritual or holiday idea or vacation reunion, event attendance with friends/family, or a memory party during the holidays where we share stories of someone we’ve loved and lost.