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Memory artifacts (Part 2): Holding on to the ones we love as we live through the holidays
5 Resources & One Next Step for Making Your Own Meaning This Season
For those new to this e-community, I periodically offer my readers & clients snippets from my daily writing (tidied up a bit ;-), intermixed with topical and Q & A articles.
A Free e-Book ;-) ▻ To support you and anyone navigating grief as we head into the holiday season, I’ve made the e-book (Kindle) version of Grieving Us: A Field Guide for Living With Loss Without Losing Yourself free on Amazon for 5 days over the US Thanksgiving weekend: Thursday, November 23 through Monday, November 27. Grab it HERE.
A friend, sightless since birth, said there are two kinds of blindness. “Either you see nothing, or you see everything, but the one you love.” You think of that, looking at binoculars, camera, a pair of glasses on the desk that belonged to eyes now gone. What you long to see, can’t be seen, so you hold on to those things, feeling your way forward.
— from my journal, January 2018
Loss is not just emotional or mental (and for many of us, spiritual), it’s also physical. We hold love and loss in our bodies, which carry our memories in so many ways beyond the brain’s neurochemical pathways.
We are physical beings living in a physical world full of things.
At the same time, as I mentioned in my last post, Memory artifacts (Part 1): The magic of bowls, bracelets, a curious cat, and meaning-making, and as I often share in my workshops, human-beings are meaning-makers. Our brains and minds are always trying to make logical sense of the world around us, which is constantly coming into us through our physical senses.
Here’s the magical part. You and I can bring our minds together with our bodies—on purpose—to help us deal with whatever the world throws at us, whether lovely or ugly, in our own unique ways.
To live with loss and still love our lives, requires we each make our own meaning.
I’m not suggesting you try to make meaning out of the death of the one you love, as in it happened for a reason. That perspective is helpful to some and hurtful for others—either way, that’s not what I’m talking about here.
What I want you to know is this: You get to decide what is meaningful in the day-to-day moments and details of living.
Meaning-making is a human superpower that as children we use a lot, but tend to forget to tap into as adults.
As a child, I was told that what separates humans from other animals is opposable thumbs, our ability to grasp with our hands, which opens the door to many survival advantages. But, it turns out that other species, from certain frogs to koala bears, have a similar capacity. Then there are my raven friends who can accomplish surprising feats with just a beak and clawed feet.
What truly separates humans from other creatures is our ability to grasp with our minds as well as our hands, to make meaning.
What is meaning-making?
Meaning-making, in part, is assigning subjective, or personal, value to a physical item, an experience, or another living being.
We do this all the time, usually without even thinking about it. Meaning-making takes other forms, too, that we’ll explore over time. For now, let’s talk about memory artifacts.
In my notebook excerpt above, binoculars and eyeglasses were more than things on a desk, they connected me to someone I loved, and still love, and who’d suddenly left this world. In psychology-land, these things are often called linking items, which sounds terribly sterile to me, and inaccurate.
I call these things that connect us to the ones we love, memory artifacts, because they really are more than physical objects. They are true artifacts of your relationship with a beloved other that are valuable to you, that you imbue, intentionally or not, with meaning.
With the binoculars and glasses, I didn’t have to consciously assign a value, it just happened.
In fact, as you’ve no doubt discovered, sometimes you can get caught off guard by unexpected memory artifacts lurking in unsuspecting places.
For instance, more than one of my clients has found herself weeping over a seemingly random receipt in a spouse’s trousers or a parent’s jacket, the date reminding them that their loved one was alive then, that their living hands held that slip of paper. Poignant and hard at the same time, right?
Recently I was speaking with someone who, poking around in fly-fishing gear, found himself suddenly overwhelmed with sorrow looking at a fly that his son, lost to fentanyl poisoning, had tied as a teenager.
Meaningful things aka memory artifacts can, however, help release pain and bring comfort. With intention and practice, memory artifacts can be a tool for holding on to the one you love in a nurturing, life-sustaining way.
Memory artifacts can be tremendously helpful on ‘special’ days and dates associated with your loved one, including the holidays, which can arrive as a kind of year-end, emotional minefield.
Right now, I’m holding a card with a striped kitten and flowers on the front. It’s lived on my desk for years. I feel its cool, slick texture and see how the morning light creates a sheen to the image. Inside is the wobbly, elder handwriting and hand-drawn heart that I know, in every cell of my body, is my mother-in-law, gone a dozen years, loving me.
There is the flush of sadness in missing her, and then I focus on the joy of her.
Thanksgiving was her holiday. She could host 40 people at picnic tables on the deck of her rural, single-wide mobile home. Anyone was welcome. She was part drill sergeant when it came to organizing it all and preparing the main courses, though mostly she was a walking hug.
There is no way to approach Thanksgiving without Rosie.
For the first year ever, I’m making the Thanksgiving dinner for my husband joined by a few, sweet friends. I don’t really know how to cook, as my husband loved creating meals and did most of the cooking until 5 years ago, when his health decline began.
I’m a bit nervous about making a lovely Thanksgiving gathering, even this tiny one. So, I hold the card and ask Rosie for advice.
Just be funny, sweetheart. Be your usual quirky self, and they’ll be so distracted and laughing that they won’t really notice whatever is going on with the food. It’s Rosie’s voice in my mind. Teary-eyed, I’m smiling hugely.
Seems like good advice, don’t you think?
It’s life-affirming to hold the card that her hands long ago tucked into an envelope, sending it through the mail, and through many years, so it could help me in this moment, though she never could have known that.
Still, I am the one who has assigned this physical, ordinary card meaning, which right now equals Rosie, fully present, as I write, whispering the secret to a good Thanksgiving. She’ll be there Thursday, too, as I wrestle with a big, bald bird and a roasting pan.
What are your memory artifacts for holding on to the one you love when you need to feel their nurturing presence? What new memory artifacts might you create by tapping into your meaning-making power? How might a memory artifact or two help you through the holidays?
Below are some resources to inspire your thinking about the things that might connect you to the one you love in a life-supporting way.
Big read: Glass, Paper, Beans: revelations on the nature and value of ordinary things, by Leah Hager Cohen. While this book, at the literal level, is about understanding the sources of the ordinary things we often take for granted in our lives—cup, newspaper, coffee—it’s also a deeply thoughtful exploration of how things connect us physically and emotionally to others. Things are one way of knowing others, feeling their very individual and temporary lives, even when they aren’t physically present.
I was pulled into this book in just the first pages of the Prelude, as Leah writes: “I am flooded by the conviction that I could know them all, the people in this shop …. It’s not unlike the feeling I used to get as a child, when, periodically, the object in my hand, be it a spoon or a crayon or a shoelace, would seem in an instant to declare itself, all at once coming to my attention as something with a life that extended beyond my pudding or drawing or shoe.” Leah’s writing is engaging—part lyrical, part journalistic, part storytelling.
Little read: Rather than an article or essay to share with you, I want to point you to an Instagram account called Saved Objects. It contains, at the time of writing, 64 posts sharing images of objects that connect a diverse range of people to the ones they love and have lost. Just reading the short, story-like posts and seeing the things that only have meaning, through love, to one or two people, underscores the power of memory artifacts to help us take our loved ones with us as we continue on the journey through this world we’re meant to live. https://www.instagram.com/savedobjects.
Listen: I’d like to share an audio chapter from my book, Grieving Us, called, “Missing.” It offers some insights into the pain and power of memory and meaning-making. It introduces the idea of memory artifacts, and a related approach, I call an artifact ritual or memory ritual. Click below to listen.
Watch: Joy is never more elusive than when we’re grieving, yet it is there, hidden in the folds of dark emotions and difficult thoughts. Our senses and the world of things, can be a door, an opening into the joy within. How? it starts by paying attention in the moment, and seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching what’s there. In fact, an emerging body of research shows a clear link between our surroundings and our well-being. We live not so much by letting go, but by letting in. I come back often to this TED Talk by Ingrid Fetell Lee, called Where Joy Hides and How to Find It. Ingrid is a designer who became intrigued by the idea of designing the human environment to inspire joy. Watch, and see what you think.
A Poem for the Path Forward: In the last two weeks, two dogs have died in my private universe. One I knew well, the other I didn’t know at all. They were deeply loved by people I deeply love. If you’ve never had a dog in your life that meant everything to you, then it might be hard to understand dog grief. Just know that wherever there is love there will one day be grief. Memory artifacts are part of it, too. So I want to share this Jane Hirshfield poem:
Bone The living dog has found the old dog's toy. She brings it to the kitchen, the blue rubber a little cracked from all that time outside. My memories, my counting and expectations, mean nothing to her; my sadness, though, does puzzle her a moment. Then she keeps on chewing. Time's instruments are thumb piano, oboe, ocarina, flute, and a dog. Its movements run through her body flawlessly. Only we can sing with a catch in the throat. She hears the thought. — “Catch?” She's ready.
One Next Step: In my small group, life-rebuilding program, Inviting Joy Into Grief—I’ll be reopening a new version of it soon—there’s a full section on how to hold on to the ones you love as you step forward on your life journey.
One of the optional exercises is a personal project called Creating Your Beloved Box. It’s about intentionally identifying and collecting a few, or many, things, aka memory artifacts, that you can use to help you feel connected in a meaningful way to your beloved other.
If you’d like to give it a try, you can download the handout from my program by clicking the button below. (Note: If your grief is still very raw, you may want to wait to create a Beloved Box to avoid emotional overload.) While it’s normal to feel sadness and longing, the goal for this process is to help you get to a place where you can remember with gratitude, peace, and well-being.
One Request: I’d love to know what resources are helping you now, and how you will make navigating the holidays meaningful for you.
Please share in a comment using the button below, which will help others living with loss, too. Or if you’re reading this in your email and wish to be more private, simple hit reply and share with me directly.