Sorting out our ‘virtual shelf’ of memories

Do you sometimes struggle to remember happy times? Is the sadness of your loved one’s passing overwhelming you? Here’s an idea about creating a memory board, but first a personal reflection:

Awhile back I embarked on a project of making more space in my home office, and began by going through my bookshelves. It’s amazing what you collect over the years – fiction, non-fiction, and some books that defy easy descriptions. I ended up with several big boxes of books ready to give away. The process wasn’t quick: I found some books I had always meant to read, and started dipping in and out of the pages, and got nowhere fast!

Some of the books in the give-away pile were from old writing and editing projects, long since finished, and were adorned with post-its, highlights and notes. They were my notes but it seemed almost as thoughIMG_20180306_153505_resized_20180306_042757480 they’d been written by another person. There were some books that I used to enjoy but now dislike. It felt good to put them onto the ‘discard’ pile.

But there were also happy moments: I shook open one particular book that I often read decades ago, and lo and behold, out fell a picture of Catherine as a baby. So cute in her stroller, with her thick wavy hair even though she was less than 6 months old in the picture. It was a welcome discovery.

Who we were in the past isn’t the same as who we are today

There’s a quote:

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

It is true of ourselves too. When I look at some of the books I used to read and my own annotations, I realise I see a lot of things differently now. I’m not entirely comfortable with some of my old opinions; my present outlook on some subjects is quite far removed from what it used to be.

I guess in our own personal histories, we all have that mixture of good, bad and plain odd. Our past “self” can seem strange to us.

This seems to reflect a significant part of the experience of living with grief: looking back, trying to sort out what was good and was not, trying to make peace with ourselves. How many of the bereaved struggle with regrets or guilt? How many of us replay the last conversations, wishing we had said more or wishing we had left something unsaid?

Finding the good memories

Memories aren’t quite like the books on our shelves. If we have books we don’t like on our literal physical bookshelf, we can discard them, but if we have sad memories, then they stay with us.

I’ve observed from my earliest experience of bereavement, and from conversations with others, how for some people it can seem like their “virtual shelf” of memories is so overloaded with sadness there are virtually no happy thoughts there at all. This seems particularly the case if their loved one’s life was troubled, they suffered a lot before they died, or if they had a traumatic death.

But I truly believe there are good parts in every person’s life. Maybe it is as simple as how they enjoyed their coffee, or how you celebrated birthdays. Maybe it was their talents or funny odd sayings or sense of humour. Maybe it was their pleasure at getting a job or passing an exam. Maybe it was their kindness or the friendships they had. Sometimes we need to dig deep, rummage through our thoughts, to find the happy memories. It can take an effort, a determination.

If you’re someone whose shelf is filled with sad memories, I hope you’ll yet find some happier thoughts, some moments and conversations to treasure.


Rummage through memories and pick out the happy ones to cherish and enjoy

An activity to try

Here’s an idea – a project: Get a noticeboard. Pin up pictures of your loved one enjoying themselves. Fill up the board with these reminders of happy moments. Write favourite sayings or typical jokes they made on slips of paper and add them to the board. Put up postcards of places they visited, or a picture of their hobbies. The date they qualified. A label from a bottle of their favourite drink. A tea bag or a chocolate bar wrapper. A photo of their pet or their car.

You get the idea – pictures but also other items that are reminders of whatever it was they enjoyed, their happy moments.

Put the finished board where you can see it, enjoy these happy reminders, and hopefully also share it with others.

Of course working on this can be bittersweet and even quite emotional, but if this is something you want to try, you might also find it is a helpful activity. The focus is on who that person, child or baby really was; the emphasis is on their life, rather than the sadness of their death, and it can be quite encouraging.


A ‘Memory Display Frame’ project is something we work on during our “Living with Loss Part 2” week retreats


A grieving father produced this in memory of his daughter, complete with symbols of what she enjoyed. We can safely assume dear Lydia liked going to the beach.

Read more here:

The geography of grief

About sudden death

2 thoughts on “Sorting out our ‘virtual shelf’ of memories

  1. Pingback: Guilt and grief: avoiding a snowball of devastation | A Valley Journal

  2. Pingback: Bereaved of a loved one with mental illness or disorder | A Valley Journal

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