Dear Daughter: Mourning Lost Memories

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

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Dear Daughter,

You will be 5 in a few short days. You’re starting preschool, you’re learning your letters, you can play Mary Had a Little Lamb on the piano. It’s happening: You're finally turning into a real girl. Overnight, you’ve gone from a ball of baby fat clinging to my ankle to a knobby-kneed, wiry child with interesting thoughts and a streak of newly found independence.

Last week, we spent a day together--just you and me--and it was so damn lovely. It was a normal day with the usual 'to-do' list but, in between errands, we talked about preschool and friends and the past summer. As I drove, the top half of your head bobbed up and down in my rearview mirror and I could tell by the animation in your eyes how you felt about each topic.

The things you think of and the questions you ask are charmingly born from the misguided connections and concerns of your almost 5-year-old mind. Your thoughts are so authentic and clever I feel like following you around with a tape recorder like an overly sentimental paparazzi.

five-year old daughter

You’re always singing to yourself about something. In fact, just this morning I overheard you singing an ode to your oatmeal. The other day when I heard your gentle song, it was as though someone pressed play on an old home movie. All of a sudden, I had a flash of my mother saying to me “…when you were a little girl you were always singing. You’d quietly play and sing to yourself forever." My mother had this memory of me and now I have the same one of you.

But if I think about it, this is one of the few things I know of myself as a little child and it makes me sad that, unless someone tells you, your memories will be limited as well. You won’t remember being stubborn or easily excited. You won’t remember the days we spent together, the games you played with your sister, snuggles, giggles, or even your infamous standoffs. Memories fade... This is the sad reality, and you are too young to recall most of these moments much less categorize them as significant.

five year old girl playing with doll

When my mother died, she took so much of our history with her. Like family photographs in a house fire, they melted into ashes and floated off into nothingness. What was my first word? How old was I when I took my first steps? Did I cry when my mother left me at kindergarten for the first time? Was I stubborn? Was I independent? Was I a scaredy-cat? I don’t know any of these things and, with five brothers and sisters and a father who traveled often, I’m not sure anyone can help me piece these details back together.

In truth, the loss of this information never really bothered me until I had you and your sister. These were small details of little consequence, something people with mothers who kept meticulous baby books might know... and this just wasn't my mom. Since becoming a mother, though, there have been so many moments when I step back and say to myself – I wish I could ask mom about this.

Many of my questions are no more than silly curiosities and small comparisons. Others, like wonders about how my mother felt as a wife, woman and working mother, feel more important. As I lay with you at night, I remember my mother laying with me and I wonder – Did she love me as much as I love you? Was our bond as strong? Did she laugh at the silly things we said? Was she enchanted by the sweet sound of her children quietly singing?

five year old daughter

I could be wrong, but I think someday you’ll want to know some of these things. This is why I'm writing to you today, so you’ll have clues. I’ll leave some things to the imagination; I know you’ll be kind to my memory after I’m gone and I want my day in the sun. Just kidding… kind of. But one thing I never want you to wonder about is how much I love you. It's the same unbreakable love that my mother had for her children. No matter how many memories times steals from us, please never forget I loved you and your sister each and every moment of each and every hour of each and every day.

I love you,


What To Do If You're Mourning Lost Memories:

Go to the Tapes: The videotapes, that is (or film strips). If you're lucky, at some point someone in your family was bitten by the home video bug. Check out whatever old videos exist.

Unearth Old Baby Books, Letters, and Other Writing: It's pretty common to look at old writing and correspondence in search of clues about your loved one's feelings, thoughts, and experiences. If you are looking to know more about yourself and your childhood, baby books are usually filled with small details.

If the writing wasn't public property (I.e, private letters or diaries), strongly consider whether or not you think it's appropriate to read. We recently wrote a post to help you decide whether you should read your loved one's old journals, letters, and diaries. There are definitely people on both sides of the argument.

Dust Off The Photo Albums: Whenever I go home, I flip through at least one or two of our old photo albums.  Photos are visual reminds of your family history, and looking through them can trigger all sorts of memories.

If you have kids, you may want to let them look through along with you. Looking at old family photos helps them visualize friends and relatives they may never have had a chance to meet. Also, your kids might love seeing what you looked like at their age.

Talk To People Who Knew You As A Child/Knew Your Loved One: Ask close friends and family what they remember of you as a child. These people may also recall details about your early relationship with your loved one or thoughts and feelings your loved one had shared with them in the past.

How to Preserve Memories:

Write Letters: Read this article about why you should write letters to your children for them to read at different points in their lives.

Take Photos: This is a no-brainer, and these days you pretty much always have a camera with you. Just be sure to take the extra step to print your photos and/or save the digital images somewhere safe.

Write In Your Photo Albums Or On The Back Of Photo Prints: Somewhere in the early 2000s, my older sister decided to put all our hundreds of family photos into albums. When she was don, my mother and a few other family members went through and wrote notes next to the pictures.

Get It On Video: There's no better way to preserve the sounds and sights of the present than video!

Actually Finish The Baby Books: Call me a hypocrite, but I only made it through seven months of my first child's baby book... but still, I know they're a good idea.

Journal Your Family History: Keep a specific journal for archiving important events and milestones in your family history. Don't just write down dates and events, go a step further and write specifics about what happened and how it felt.

Let Your Kids Read Your Journals: If you are okay with your kids reading your journals someday, give them permission and instructions on when it's okay to read them and where they can be found.

Tell People How You Feel Now: Tell people how you feel while you still can. Tell your kids you're proud of them, thank your parents for all they've done for you, and tell your family members you love them.

You already know what I'm going to say so go ahead and subscribe without me having to tell you.

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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

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You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

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3 Comments on "Dear Daughter: Mourning Lost Memories"

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  1. Diane  January 1, 2015 at 2:15 pm Reply

    Singing…….what a great memory. My Kristen loved to sing. And sing she would at the top of her lungs especially in the shower. I remember one morning while we were living in a condo (the front door being inside a long hallway) I had taken her brother to school and when I got home and stepped off the elevator I could hear Kristen singing at the top of her lungs all the way down the hall way. Up to the day she passed Kristen loved music, all kinds of music. Another fond memory that recently popped into my head was at 10 years old she bought these 2 stuffed bears with part of her Christmas money and she gave one to my mom. These where not ordinary stuffed bears. They were white and wore black tuxedos. Push the palm of their paw and they said “Welcome to the year 2000.” They sounded so annoying! I could go on and on but along with the smiles of the memories are the tears that knowing the last New Year to remember was 2010.

  2. Jessica Gallo  September 9, 2014 at 12:15 am Reply

    Just wanted you to know you were stubborn 😉 I wish I could remember when you walked and talked. I do know mom always marveled at your tiny little hands, ankles, and feet. You were little. You sang all the time. Especially when playing with the little people in the dollhouse.

    • Eleanor  September 9, 2014 at 9:46 am Reply

      Ha, thank you :). That sounds a lot like Ginny. I guess in truth I don’t even remember exactly when my own kids walked and talked…but I know Mom would have been nice enough to make something up.

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