Monday 14 November 2011

Keeping memories alive

In a new house there are few memories. A fresh chapter in our family history has begun, and any memories this house holds are not ours. Someone else's stories murmur within these walls, celebrations, sorrows, quarrels,  moments of love, all there, but not ours.
Ours are elsewhere, in the woods, running and whispering through the trees in a scarlet coat; in an orchard on Dartmoor, bouncing on the trampoline and making daisy chains under the apple trees; skipping by the river Dart, under the shade of the big old horse chestnuts. We have so many memories, but because we have moved, they have stepped back a layer into our family history. They are no longer current, no longer fresh, it seems as though they are no longer alive.

What do you do when someone you love dies? What do you do? Do you try to forget they ever existed to blunt the sharp edge of raw unfettered grief? Do you plunge into an abyss of nostalgia and weeping for the past, and barely acknowledge the present; or do you struggle on with your life, punctuated by the agonising balm of triggered memories?
The agonising balm...ferreting in an old coat pocket of Lily's and turning out ten pussy willows, a Fry's orange chocolate wrapper, a rainbow string, a crumpled bit of tissue. 'Her fingers last touched these things! Where did she get that chocolate from? Weren't those the pussy willows she collected on our last mother's day walk along the tidal road, when she picked the pampas grass and wanted to make it into angel wings?'

Yes really, angel wings.. like she knew.

It's not only tangible Lily objects which act as triggers. Some little girls of about seven have fine straight hair the colour of a mouse's back, in semi profile their heads have a familiar shape, sometimes they have a similar cardigan to one of Lily's, or even an identical skirt, they might move with her easy, unobstrusive grace. Just for a second, if I screw my eyes up I could just pretend...

Sometimes we all look through her wooden box. She didn't have lots of stuff but it's all in there and we handle each scribbled note and china horse as if it were a precious jewel. It brings up emotion, unexpected anger from some, quiet withdrawal from another. We don't do this much. Since we've moved it's like she's taken a step away, or we've moved further on and left her behind. Her photo is still in the kitchen, with a candle and some flowers next to it, but she seems less present. Maybe she wants to go back to the woods, maybe she's still there, running up and down in her little red coat with no one there to play with.

Maybe that's rubbish.

We've been busy. I'm busy unpacking and simultaneously packing to move on again. There's the Advent Fair coming up at school and I'm making dolls and curry for it. I'm trying to write. Hugh is building our new home. Maybe it's us that hasn't connected with her, maybe she's knocking at the window and our heads are too busy to hear her.

Is that the way it is with someone who dies? No matter how you try, life on earth just moves on and away and we forget, not fully but in a soft focus, fuzzy kind of way?

Sometimes a flash of clarity, the exact tone of her voice, the set of her jaw when she was sulking...what would it be like without photos, without memorabilia?

My lovely friend Ruby has written about her experience of losing someone close where no keepsakes or belongings were kept and nothing was discussed, she talks about this at In our family we are lucky to have photos, a couple of video clips, school books, hair clips. But really, am I being too attached to material props? Are we all? They are comforting, but are they a distraction from the Lily that is real now? Do they put a barrier between us and a very real connection with her in spirit form? Doesn't our preoccupation with material things prevent us from connecting to the spirit that is in everything, even ourselves? 

Old coat pockets and sweet wrappers will eventually rot and fade away, Lily's love will always be there.

If we believe that nothing ever really dies, then why is our grief at losing the physical form so excruciating?

Do you have any experience of this? How do you remember your loved ones who have moved on?


  1. It seems that these days I find myself presented with thoughts about death a lot. Truly I have not ever lost anyone intimately close to my heart, yet my dad was recently diagnosed with final stage terminal cancer and was not given long to live. I live on the side of the world from him and it was very tough for me to process when I first found out. Not long after a dear friend passed unexpectedly and I wrote a post about my thoughts on dying here;

    Having never experienced the kind of grief you are going through I will not try to offer advice but only wish you spiritual growth through it all.

  2. Hello Lovely, I know it is no where the same, but I lost my Dad, who I adored in January 2009, and the circumstances around his death made it a shock and so difficult to accept. My beautiful son was born 3 weeks after my Dad left us, so in terms of time, I am aware of the time passing as my baby becomes a toddler and then a little boy. People say, time is a healer and I understand that, but I also feel that as each day passes, each week, each month it is longer and longer since I saw him last and that part is harder. Sometimes I actually get a fright and my heart thuds when I realise its really real, he really did die. I suppose thats what happens when someone passes away unexpectedly.
    You write so beautifully about your daughter and your feelings towards her life and death. I wish I could express myself so well.
    I dont know what blogs you read, but I am 'friends' (online) with a lovely lady who gave birth to her daughter on 22nd July 2009 and who sadly lost her daughter on the same day, hours later. I have learnt so much about raw emotion from Jeanette. If you want to read her blog, here is Florence Violets story

  3. When a friend of mine died in his early 20s, his mother wrote to all of his friends asking for photos and letters, anything we had that we would be willing to give her, because their family had never seen the point of taking photos - until then - and had very few. On the other hand, my parents-in-law had a son die in an accident at 18. They couldn't move away from the house they had lived in with him fast enough. When they find old photos, they usually send them to us, as if they don't want to keep them, but don't really want to lose them either so they send them to his brother.

    I wonder if one reason death is so difficult for us is because, as humans, we are in love with certainty and control and this is one domain where it is truly impossible, ever, to be prepared for, or to ever know how to carry on afterwards.

    You wonder if you are too attached to material props, as you call them, but I wonder if all material things aren't imbued with spirit, because it really can feel like there is something there.

    This was such a sad post, but I loved it. And I can't believe Lily was wanting to make angel wings. That was startling to read.

    I miss you!

  4. Oh thankyou so much all of you for sharing your stories, I really appreciate them, it's easy to imagine we are alone in the midst of the turmoil, but, of course we all suffer loss and grief and all react in our own ways.
    Thankyou for the link to your blog Christina, I will look at that, and love and blessings to you as you travel this path with your Dad's illness, spiritual growth is certainly the shining thread that emerges from deep loss I think, thankyou.
    Val, thanks for your link too, and how hard for you to lose your Dad at such a time, I agree that, especially with a sudden death, even months and years afterwards it does still shock and surprise. Sometimes I have to read the name on my daughter's grave over and over again, it just doesn't seem real.
    Laurel,how sad about your parents in law, for them and for * (don't know if you want his name mentioned)Yes I see what you mean about material objects, I think I've just got a downer on material objects generally at the moment, but I do agree that certain things can be imbued with a tangible essence of spirit...thanks for your (very prolific) commenting, love Henrietta


Welcome to the comments... I would love to hear from you too!