Grief Tug of War: Holding on to Memories as Long as We Can

I am kind of a preservationist.  And by ‘kind of’ I mean only in my imagination.  You see, I am the type of person who ‘preserves’ places in my memory, remembering them exactly as they were during the time when they held the most emotional significance for me.

I like to imagine all the places I have preserved are located on a little cul-de-sac in a neighborhood in my mind.  Each place holds my memories inside and if I enter through the front door, I’ll be right back there feeling the same way I did when the place was real.

When people die, I put them in the places where I remember them the most.  In my mind, my grandmother is eternally standing at her front door waving my family inside as we pile out of our gigantic van, wrinkled and groggy after a 6-hour drive; or swaying to the sounds of her record player with a glass of sherry in her hand while the cool summer breeze blows in through the open windows.  And when my mother died, I put her back in the house I grew up in.  This is where she resides in my memory; in every room and every hallway (although occasionally she goes to church or Wegmans).

I was lucky because, for a long time after my mother died, the house where I grew up stayed pretty much the same. A lot of things happened during and after the course of my mother’s illness that led to my father and my brother’s family co-existing there permanently. This made it a lot easier for me to feel close to my mother. All I had to do was drive north for about 360 miles and I would find myself home, surrounded by artifacts of my past.

Selfishly, I expected my family to stay and preserve the house for me. No moving or making major changes, just keep everything the same and serve as a caretaker to my memories.  It’s not as crazy as it sounds, I mean they were preserving their memories as well I assumed.

Deep down, I knew it wasn’t fair of me to expect them to bring their lives to a halt in the name of preserving ‘what was’, but this didn’t make it any easier when about 6 years after my mother’s death my sister-in-law was offered a job halfway across the country and my father decided to go along with them. My dad living somewhere other than ‘home’ was weird enough but the idea of selling the house to a stranger was unimaginable.

I think my Dad also saw this prospect as unimaginable and it was eventually decided that my sister and her husband would buy the house from them.  It was a huge relief to everyone to have the matter settled in a manner so advantageous to everyone. My sister and her husband moved in right away and quickly set about making it a home for their four children. It would have made my mother very happy to see the changes and improvements they made; things she would love to have done herself if given the chance.

As positive as all this change was it was changed nonetheless, and for weeks after the move I sulked, feeling like I was not only losing a chunk of my family to Colorado but also pieces of my past. I went the longest I had ever gone without visiting home – about 6 months.  I chalked it up to allowing everyone time to get settled and the constraints of my daughter’s new kindergarten schedule, but really I was scared of facing the fact that life had moved on.

‘Move on’… ironically this is one of the worst phrases you could utter to a griever.  It seems counter-intuitive to others because moving on seemingly means moving away from pain. But to those who have lost someone, moving on feels an awful lot like finally losing a game of tug of war. 

For a long time, you resist with all your might while the world pulls further and further away from what it was when your loved one was alive.  It’s a horrible feeling to wake up one day and realize the world has changed so much you can no longer find reminders that your loved one was ever in it.

A little before Christmas, I decided it was time to stop wallowing. The holidays have always been very special for me and my family and I wasn’t going to let my fear get in the way of being with the people I love. My father, my younger brother, and my younger sister were all going to be staying in the old house with my sister and her family, so I decided once and for all that the weekend after the holidays I would finally go home.  

Secretly, I had also challenged myself to prove that reminders of my mother still existed and because my best method for expressing grief and emotion is through photography, I decided I would capture these places on film. I thought about this task the entire drive home, planning out all the places I wanted to go to find her; home, of course, the cemetery, and the church our family pretty much lived in throughout my childhood.  

When I got closer to my old town it was snowing…hard…on top of two feet of snow that had already accumulated.  I knew this was going to make my project a little more challenging but other than that it should be easy.  I was determined.

When I arrived I found the house was the same…but different.  I hadn’t accounted for the amount of change. In my mind I had pictured my sister’s family moving into the house as it was with the same furniture, wall hangings, and photo albums. Why did I think that?

When we headed into the graveyard we found that it was only lightly plowed and, as one may have expected in such weather, pretty deserted.  We were able to make it up a steep hill thanks to four-wheel drive, but then my father, my sister, and I all had to tread through snow above our knees to find her buried headstone.  

Lastly, we went to the church and, alas, found it locked up for the day.  When my mother was alive we always had a key to the church, being locked out made me feel like a stranger.  I wondered had someone been there would they even know who my mother was?  

At least I knew they would recognize my father.  Once you’ve attended a church service with my father you never forget him; as a professional opera singer, he takes the Sunday hymns very seriously. Getting back in the car I felt totally defeated.  I felt as though my worst fears had been confirmed, I couldn’t find my mother anywhere.

But all this searching had done something, it had opened a dialogue between me, my sister, and my father which we carried on throughout our different stops.  My sister is the youngest in the family and she was in her senior year of high school when my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  She, my father, and my mother were the only ones living at home at the time and they had all been in the trenches together.

My father recalled the day my mother got her diagnosis, the doctor had not minced words and they left his office knowing she had just been handed a death sentence. He shared things I had never known about my mother, like her reaction to the diagnosis, and how utterly helpless he had felt.  I felt close to my sister and my father at that moment and even though the details of our conversation were very sad, talking about these dark days made me feel closer to my mother; closer to her pain and closer to her strength.

Despite my earlier resignation, I decided I wouldn’t give up on my project. The next day was Sunday which meant I would be able to get into the church before the service started.  When we arrived the next day, my father and I were welcomed with open arms and I was given free rein to photograph whatever I wanted.

For the next 45 minutes I roamed the one place on this earth that was honestly and truly just as my mother had left it; the sanctuary, our family’s regular church pew, and the classrooms where she taught preschool for years.  I left the church that day feeling relieved. I had connected with my mother’s memory, as well as my family, in ways that I hadn’t even anticipated.

5The house I grew up in.  Even the snowman is buried.
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                                          My sister’s Christmas tree in the same bay window where our Christmas trees have sat for 31 years.

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                      My mother’s headstone sits on top of this hill.

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                     My father and my little sister at my mother’s grave.

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My family spent a lot of time in this gym, from helping my mother with her pre-school to coffee hours after church.  It is exactly as it was when we last attended as a family.

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The sanctuary where my family worshiped for 31 years. My mother led countless children’s choirs here and when my older sister saw this picture she commented, “To me, mom will always be kneeling in front of the steps of the altar, leading little kids in song.”

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My family sat in these two pews for as long as I can remember.  Most Sundays we fit in one but on special days like Easter and Christmas Eve the grandchildren were there and we took up both rows.  I edited this photo to include a line from one of my mother’s favorite hymns, “…it is well, it is well, with my soul.” and I sent it to my younger sister.  In response, she shared the following with me…”The Sunday after Mom got her diagnosis, this was [the hymn] we sang in church. There’s a line in there about not fearing death. To me, it felt so ridiculous. I, for one, was terrified to lose her. So I started to cry, and my voice must have wavered or something because Mom grabbed my hand hard behind the pew. I’d like to say the gesture made it easier, but instead, after that, we were both crying.”


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January 2, 2020

3 responses on "Grief Tug of War: Holding on to Memories as Long as We Can"

  1. This hit so close to home for me. I lost my mom to cancer a year and a half ago. We also were in church all the time growing up and she was very involved with the church. Everything from Singing and running the sound for services to cleaning the church, leading Family Intercessory Prayer Night and so many other things. It’s almost ironic the similarities that your mom and mine have. It is Well With My Soul is my mom’s favorite hymn too. I say is because she still is in existence. Just not on this earth. With Jesus, maybe singing A new song. I look forward to seeing my mom again and I miss her so, so much. I struggle with my emotions and often suppress them. Reading this made me burst into emotional tears and I am grateful. Though it hurts, I need to deal with those emotions and your story has helped me do that. Thank you. I hope the best for you and hope that God blesses you and your family.

  2. This was wonderful and bright tears to my eyes.
    Thank you for sharing your heart and experiences. It was great to see how others intentionally remember their loved ones.

  3. As the member of a cuhrch that has suffered the loss of three infants this summer, I pray for this family and for their cuhrch family. I pray that God will comfort this family through their cuhrch family. I pray that God will strengthen their hearts and their faith. I pray that God will hold them up in a way that only He can.

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