I Miss the Sound of Your Voice: Grieving Sensory Memory

Creative Coping / Creative Coping : Eleanor Haley

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I have a baby. She's ten months old. She was a late-in-life baby, so her only siblings—both sisters—are 10 and 12 years older than her. Her sisters will likely be out of the house before she graduates from grade school, so I've been a little worried about their age gap. But in the meantime, I must confess the difference in their ages has made for a fun dynamic.

The older girls are smitten with their baby sister. They love bouncing her around and making her laugh. They adore watching her learn new things and when she makes cute little baby fumbles. She's pretty much their favorite.

Their love, however, isn't blind like mine. They think she can be pretty gross with her spit up and drool and diapers, whereas my adoration seems to be limitless. I am unbothered by diapers, and, to be honest, I kind of like the smell of her spit-up. One day, I will miss that smell.  

baby making a mess of food

In a few months, the baby smells and the sound of her sweet giggles will be a matter of memory. And before long, many of these memories will be lost to time. I know this because countless memories of my older children have been overwritten by their newer, more mature versions. I love all their iterations, but—if I had the chance to hop in a time machine and travel back to their babyhood—I'd do it in a second.

Sensory Memory

Memories flatten over time. The characteristics that make them three-dimensional, like sights, sounds, and smells—i.e., our sensory memory —fade incredibly fast; 1/5 to 1/2 of a second to be exact. That's how long we can accurately retain impressions of things like the whiff of perfume, or the sound of a friend's laugh. Practically, this is a good thing. Imagine what a circus your mind would be if you held onto all the stimuli you came into contact with. But emotionally, I sometimes find it sad.

Most of you are grieving, so I don't have to tell you. You already know one of the saddest things about life after loss is that, with time, memories like the sound of a loved one's voice, the smell of their clothes, or the feel of their arms wrapped around you start to fade.

Sensory memories are tied closely to a person's physical presence, and, in the beginning, there's nothing you want more. Arguably, the loss of these sensory experiences is one of the first secondary losses a person will experience after a death.

Most of us fight these losses by doing things like holding onto a loved one's unwashed clothing, looking at their handwriting, listening to their voice on recordings, and frequently looking at pictures of them. These efforts won't fully bridge the gap, but very little could stop us from trying.

"When someone you love dies, and you're not expecting it, you don't lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time - the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone." - John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany

Connecting with Sensory Memory through Writing

There's an exercise we share at the beginning of our Journaling Course to help participants reconnect with sensory memories of their loved ones. We'd like to share this journaling exercise with you today and challenge you to give it a try by following the instructions below. It's really simple.

Step One:

Sit in a quiet place, close your eyes, and imagine your loved one. If they were sick the last time you saw them, imagine them without pain or distress. Imagine them in a place they liked, somewhere they were happy or at ease. Or think about a happy memory you shared with them. Sit with these images and memories for a little while and, as you do, really look at them. Ask yourself:

  • Where is my loved one in this memory?
  • What are they doing?
  • What do they look, smell, sound, and feel like?

This visualization may evoke many feelings. For example, it may be painful, bittersweet, comforting, confusing, or overwhelming. Notice how the visualization makes you feel and try to stay with it for a little while, even if it feels painful.

Step Two:

Get out your journal or a piece of paper and, for the next 15-20 minutes, write a vivid description of your visualization, especially your sensory memory. For example...

  • If you noticed your loved one's blue eyes, what shade of blue were they?
  • Did he embrace you with wiry, eager arms, or in a way that made you feel safe, loved, and protected?
  • If her perfume smelled sweet, was it the smell of fresh lilacs or warm vanilla?

Don't just list facts. Use your five senses—feel, touch, taste, sight, and sound—to make your memory three-dimensional. Try not to edit or censor yourself. Just let your words flow and let them take you where they want to go. Don't worry if you end up off-topic, just as long as you continue to journal about your loved one and/or your grief.

Step Three (Optional, Obviously)

Choose your favorite descriptor and share it in the comments below.

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24 Comments on "I Miss the Sound of Your Voice: Grieving Sensory Memory"

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  1. jackson  October 15, 2022 at 9:13 am Reply

    good post

  2. A  June 22, 2022 at 6:42 pm Reply

    It is just coming upon 2 months since my best friend’s unexpected death. I actually have been doing a lot of the grieving actions described above. I have been wearing his wristwatch and carrying around one of his favorite shirts. It unfortunately doesn’t smell like him anymore….
    Since the first day, I have been journaling about my feelings, the things I loved about him, or things he told me about (always have been a writer by habit.) I may try channeling sensory memories through writing. I am afraid that I’m already starting to forget about how he looked, smelled and sounded, moved and behaved….. I know the memories are still there, but afraid of them fading already and ultimately, for good.
    I look at his pictures every day. That shirt has soaked up countless tears. I have voice recordings and some videos, which I enjoy looking back on and listening to. He had a lovely speaking voice. So smooth and calming. I loved his unique smile, with a missing top tooth on each side at the very corners. The way that smile always showed so strongly in his dark brown eyes. I miss his warm hugs; He would show up at my door, we would embrace, kiss, and I would bury my face in his neck and just inhale his scent which I adored. I can’t remember quite how it was and miss that so much. He would sometimes wear this Tommy Hilfiger cologne and I would tease him that he smelled like the mall. I miss his hands which were suited to carpentry and construction, but sensitive enough for painting and food preparation and fine cooking.
    It’s unsettling to me how he tends to be strangely absent from my dreams, despite how much time we spent together. When he does show up, I can’t see his face clearly.

  3. kathleen  August 22, 2021 at 11:20 pm Reply

    When I close my eyes I can hear my son’s laugh so big and hearty because I have it on voicemail. When he laughed his eyes that were the bluest yellowest greenest color lite up his whole face and made everyone around him want to be near him. I have photo’s to hold on to that visual of his sparkle. I wear his cologne and use his deodorant when I want to smell the good parts of him but I miss the stinky feet and BO that were just as much HIM as his good smells and just as comforting to only me I suppose. I sometimes wonder if what I remember about certain things about him are real memories or memories I have distorted or changed over time to fit my desperate need to remember him.

    • A  June 22, 2022 at 7:57 pm Reply

      I really felt that last line…. trying to remember specific things can be tricky and memories can seem dreamlike….

  4. Dawn Freeman  March 19, 2021 at 9:11 am Reply

    My husband was a bigger than life presence. I so miss his arms, his hands, his laughter, but mostly his physical being. I know I’ll be reunited with him in Heaven one day with Jesus. I have this unmistakable knowing that he is present even now in a spiritual sense and that it is just a moment in Heaven’s time that we are apart. He died in December of 2019 and I don’t want to forget the best parts of him so I am consciously ingraining everything I loved best about him and letting go of anything that causes me pain. It is a process and some days are easier than others, but rewriting the narrative that caused me pain has been instrumental in my healing. He is well and healed and I am well and in the process of healing, thanks to God and some pretty awesome friends and family, including great resources like this. Thank You.

  5. Shey  March 19, 2021 at 8:22 am Reply

    I miss my husband calling me before he would get up and get ready for work. I miss his presence him holding me at night . I hate we never had the last opportunity to see each other before or had that one on one conversation about our marriage before he died suddenly on 3/6/2021. Watch over me Eljay

  6. Sandra A Holloway  March 1, 2021 at 2:54 pm Reply

    My son Edmond died 33 years ago.He was only 22 and I adored him.I was cruel one evening and he left.He died that night.The older I get the worse the pain is becoming.I can’t look at his pictures anymore because it makes him seem to real and that hurts.I’m just waiting to die so we can be together.He was handsome,smart and funny,but he just couldn’t find happiness.

    • Cindy  January 15, 2023 at 5:23 pm Reply

      Your post broke my heart! Its only been 16 months since I lost my son. It still doesnt seem real. I cannot imagine carrying this pain for 33 years, 20 years or even 10 years. I pray every day that God will have mercy on me and let me go soon. I have so much respect for you for surviving as long as you have. Its a daily struggle to WANT to stay alive. Having no choice, I guess we just learn to live with it. I am so sorry for your loss. No mom should be forced to go thru this💜

  7. Lost_Forever  August 7, 2020 at 2:02 pm Reply

    I miss seeing my best friend smile and light up my world in just one second.

  8. beckyvancemail@gmail.com  August 6, 2020 at 5:44 pm Reply

    I lost my son, Kyle 6 years ago 4 months before his 30th birthday. He was struck by a car on his way to work. He lived 3 days before they took him off life support. I could not be there because I was in the hospital in a different state having knee surgery. It was torture to not be there to hold and love him and be there when he woke up. Fortunately his dad could be there and repeatedly told me I couldn’t have survived seeing him like that. He also wasn’t completely truthful about Kyle’s condition. He knew when he got on the plane that Kyle was going to pass. He was EVERYTHING to me. We were best buds from the moment he was born. I remember his “natural” smell (which was lovely). His hardy laugh and teddy bear hugs Even though he has been gone for 6 years I still feel the same way I did the say he died. I just breathe, cry and grieve. I LONG to die so I don’t have to feel this way anymore. And hopefully be with him for all eternity it doesn’t get any better. Thanks for listening to me. I have no one to talk to.

    • Trish  September 12, 2020 at 9:29 pm Reply

      Becky, This is such beautiful writing. Your son Kyle sounds like such a robust and loving person. You are a mother to him always. I lost my son, AJ, two years ago. His person got so much more present and large when he left unexpectedly. Only 23. He was at work. I like that you are mindful of breathing and crying and loving toward eternity. My nine year old told me that AJ is with us, that she could sense him, and that he could see us but we could not see him until we passed through the veil. Please know this profound statement, and that it is something I believe. I don’t know where she got the sense, but I believe her and it sounds like the love you have for Kyle is so similar to mine for AJ.

  9. Sandy Latting  July 13, 2020 at 10:05 pm Reply

    Everything was big about my brother, his heart, his voice, his laugh, his height. He wasn’t overweight, just tall. When I would pick up the phone I would hear, “Hey Sandy!” Not hi or hello, but his booming voice saying hey. I can still hear it in my mind and I don’t want to ever forget it.

  10. Cherie  June 1, 2020 at 1:21 pm Reply

    He called me, “Mum,” & his embrace. He was a hugger with me & totally unselfconscious about it.

  11. Nancy Garcia  June 1, 2020 at 9:49 am Reply

    I was scrolling on my Facebook page and found that my brother in law had posted a video of my late husband. In the video my husband was saying that we need to get over some things and move on. Stop crying and go on. It was a video he had sent my brother in law as he ( my brother in law) had been going through some serious personal family problems. Hearing and seeing him threw me for a huge loop. I was not expecting to see this . Others commented on how it was wonderful to see him and hear his voice. To me it difficult

  12. Em  June 1, 2020 at 8:21 am Reply

    what is life but memory? this is a great exercise. I have had many losses in my life, family and friends. The mind’s eye (and other senses!) can be a rich and containing place through the healing process, it will only end when memory does. Keeping alive the connection for ourselves is so important. Thank you.

  13. Lala  June 1, 2020 at 6:25 am Reply

    I don’t remember my Dads voice.
    My Grandpa died without me getting to see him as I moved to a different country.
    My best friend died and we live thousands of miles apart so I never got to meet him IRL.
    Family friend died and due to lockdown, I couldn’t attend his funeral.

  14. Grayce Simpson  May 29, 2020 at 9:13 am Reply

    Thank you for your insight into the feelings of grief and loss. So many do not understand! Your posts make me aware that how I feel is a normal part of grief!

  15. Svava  May 28, 2020 at 6:35 pm Reply

    I miss my son. He was only 24 years old. I miss him, his smile, his laugh, his singing, his playing the piano and guitar, watching him play basketball with his brothers, talking with him, hugging him, the list goes on and on. I’m going to try and do this exercise.

  16. Leslie  May 28, 2020 at 4:06 pm Reply

    I miss my daughters laugh and her beautiful smile. She was only 25 and it was sudden so my memories are blocked by the painful sadness but I’m going to do the exercise and see if it helps. Thank you

  17. Julie Benjamin  May 28, 2020 at 1:36 am Reply

    I knew my mom was not going to be around long. She called alot and left messages sometimes. So I saved a couple. One she calls my name and just asks how I am. The other she was excitedly telling me to watch an eclipse of the moon, laughing and giggling. They are both wonderful to hear when I am in need.

  18. Joy  May 28, 2020 at 1:23 am Reply

    I miss the way husband looked at me. With such passion and desire to build a life together. His eyes would ignite my efforts in all we built together.

  19. Ann's daughter  May 27, 2020 at 11:16 pm Reply

    I miss my mom’s hands….hugging me, rubbing my back, running gently through my hair….

    • Tish  March 2, 2021 at 2:00 pm Reply

      I really don’t know what to put here. I have unbearable and unbelievable pain after my son William passed on May 8, the day b4 my Birthday and Mother’s day. I still don’t want to be here even though I have a husband and 2 more grown children. I thought I had it all but I quess all was to good for me William was only 36. I’m just waiting for my day to see him again. I’ve been in the church since I was 3 do I know to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. My life really sucks now and I can’t wait for it to be over.

      • Isabelle Siegel  March 4, 2021 at 1:21 pm

        Tish, I am so very sorry for your loss. If you are thinking of hurting yourself, or even if you just need someone to talk with, please call the National Suicide Helpline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit their website where you can do a live online chat https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/


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