Writer Allison Gilbert struggled with how to celebrate and grieve lost loved ones
"Passed and Present" offers ideas and projects to keep memories alive
Editor’s Note: Allison Gilbert is an award-winning journalist and author of “Parentless Parents.” The Memory Bash book tour for her book, “Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive” launched this month.
After several family members died in rapid succession, including my parents, I struggled with knowing how to keep their memories alive.
In the days and weeks immediately following their deaths, I never had to look far to tell a story or hear one. But all too soon, I hesitated to bring them up in conversation. Anecdotes I told my children seemed heavy or forced, and I didn’t want to make my friends uncomfortable.
I also had so many questions that most of my well-meaning friends couldn’t answer.
What should I do with all their belongings – the random collections of loose papers, official documents, silverware, dishes, gardening tools, photo albums, VHS tapes, film reels and 35 mm slides? What should I keep? Where do I even start? In some respects, because techniques for celebrating loved ones are seldom discussed, I felt lonelier at that later time, when I was wrangling their possessions and grasping for ways to honor what they still meant to me, than I did when my parents and other family members died.
Over time, I came to an important conclusion: Nobody is responsible for keeping my family’s memory alive except me. For my parents and other loved ones to continue enriching my life, and for my children to get to know their relatives, it would be up to me to integrate them into our already full and busy routines. So the more I explored ways to rejoice in their memory – cooking reminiscent foods, imagining new applications for old clothing, using technology and social media to frame recollections in a contemporary context – the happier I felt.
Being proactive about remembering has brought immeasurable joy and grace into my life. In fact, as I was researching and writing my new book, “Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive,” I learned something quite astounding: Grief experts agree that taking steps to appropriately remember loved ones is actually essential for healing. Individuals who keep the memory of loved ones alive almost always fare better emotionally than those who don’t.
Honoring past relationships has proven to have such significant restorative power that grief expert J. William Worden developed an entire bereavement-recovery theory about it. Called the “tasks of mourning,” the concept not only includes remembering as a mandatory tenet, but also underscores the obligation of mourners to take control of the process of remembering.
The reason, Worden says, is simple. “Death makes you feel out of control. Being proactive makes you feel stronger. Taking steps to remember leads to empowerment, and feeling empowered is absolutely necessary for living a full, happy, and loving life.” Ultimately what’s most essential, Worden says, is that the mourner “needs to take action.”
There are 85 memory-preserving ideas in “Passed and Present” that aim to answer that question. I call these concepts Forget Me Nots. Below are some of my favorites, eagerly shared with me by readers.
Reach out on social media
Alexandra Zaslow is a role model for harnessing the power of technology for this commemorative purpose. In 2012 she lost her father, writer Jeffrey Zaslow, co-author of the runaway bestsellers “The Last Lecture” and “Highest Duty,” in a car accident. “Being able to post is the best way I know to make sure my dad is never forgotten,” Alexandra Zaslow says. She posts about her dad on his birthday, Father’s Day, and when there’s a story in the news she thinks he’d have an opinion about. She and her sisters keep his Facebook page active and tag him with every update.
I was gobsmacked by this post. Alexandra Zaslow didn’t just inform – she proactively asked her friends and her father’s friends to share their memories, too. Her request resulted in an ocean of virtual story-sharing from relatives, neighbors, friends, colleagues and co-workers.
Her post drew 130 comments. A person her father had worked with shared lines from emails they’d exchanged. Another wrote: “He always made it work, and always put you girls first, working late or early or in between to get it all done. And he was so happy to be able to to do it all.”
By incorporating memories into your digital life, a dual opportunity exists to reflect and receive: You can share memories while simultaneously taking comfort in the stories and support that ricochet back.
Get a tattoo
Is there a symbol that fills you with good memories? Perhaps it’s a shooting star, a butterfly or simply your loved one’s initials. Maybe, like singer Kanye West, you have a date that’s especially significant to you. Nearly eight years after his mother passed away, West got a tattoo of her birthdate inked in Roman numerals on one of his wrists.
Join the conversation
Tattoos can offer a private reservoir of strength. Alicia Barry got a large flower tattooed on her left shoulder blade months after her sister’s death. The yellow petals and green stem are visible to anyone who sees her in a tank top, but no one would ever know the backstory unless they asked. “Sunflowers were my sister’s favorite flower,” Barry told me. “I got it on my left side because we’re both lefties. It also helps me remember she was real. It’s proof of her existence.”
Every drawing tells a story – whether for the world or just for yourself.
Preserve handwriting and recipes
Allison Hansen’s mother used to scribble notes and put them in her lunchbox every day. “Sometimes she would write a poem, sometimes just a simple message telling me to smile and have a good day,” she told me, fondly recalling the loving ritual. “I still have most of them and keep them in a box with other cards and letters she wrote me over the years.”
Four years after her mother passed away, Hansen was planning her wedding, and could think of no better way to honor her mother’s memory than by incorporating a fragment of her handwriting into the special day.
From one of her mother’s lunchbox notes, Hansen scanned the words “Love, Mom.” A jewelry company then engraved the signature onto a charm, which Hansen could wear as a necklace or wrap around her bouquet. She reflected, “It was such a simple yet powerful reminder of her unconditional love and support.”
You can do something equally meaningful with handwritten recipes. Beth Digman runs Prairie Hills Pottery and takes images of recipes and transfers them onto custom-made plates and platters. She made one for me to preserve my grandmother’s “famous” coffee cake recipe.
The significance of Digman’s work is that each custom piece creates an unrivaled opportunity for telli