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. Theoretically, her sisters will 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.
In a few months, the baby smells, and the sound of her sweet giggles with 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.
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.
Connecting with Sensory Memory through Writing
There’s an exercise we share at the beginning of our 30-Day Grief Journaling Online Course to help participants reconnect with sensory memories of their loved one. Not literally, that would be a bit more complicated, but by describing them in vivid detail. 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.
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.
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.
- 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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