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Memory Keeping during Terminal Illness, Grief, and Beyond

Hello all, today I am bringing you a different type of post. One that I really didn't ever think I'd be writing. As you can tell from the title, I have experienced a recent loss and it's taking its toll.

When I was looking for information on memory keeping associated with grief or loss, I didn't find much. But, what I did find was valuable and I'll mention those resources later on in case you are looking for more perspectives or information to guide you during hard times. I'll be discussing with you my story of loss, my thoughts on grief and memory keeping, and how my perspective of scrapbooking and memory keeping has changed. I'd also like to say a quick thank you to those who reached out to me or to my family during this difficult time. Your kind thoughts are sincerely appreciated.

As a disclaimer, these experiences are all my own and everyone's experience and preferences will be different. My thoughts are reflected here as a tool for anyone else who may feel lost during difficult times, but these are not rules or regulations and anyone can do whatever they feel is best.

I'll start with my story of loss so you can understand my starting point. My mother had been battling cancer for 16 years and it was eventually deemed terminal cancer by her doctor. At that point in time, I lived in a different state than my parents, so I moved back home to help take care of her and spend time with her. During these last six months, there have been a lot of hard times, but also good times that are irreplaceable. Then one day out of the blue, things got really bad and we went to the hospital and her body simply couldn't take it anymore. I'm still working through these moments of time, they are still a bit blurry and I am still so incredibly sad at the thought of losing such a wonderful woman.

The past six months flew by way too quickly. And things are still in the disbelief stage, it doesn't feel real. And although I'm just starting this journey of loss, I wanted to share my experience with you not only as a therapeutic process for myself but also as a helping hand for anyone in a similar boat. So, I'll take you through some of the stages I went through when processing her terminally ill diagnosis, my stages of grief thus far, my plans of making memorial pages, and more.

Documenting Diagnosis + Terminal Illness

As I mentioned in the above story, I wanted to move home as soon as possible once she received the diagnosis. Living 6+ hours away wasn't going to work since I wanted to spend as much time at home as possible to make memories and to help her be more comfortable. I was fortunate enough to be able to keep my job and start working remotely from home. Once I moved home, I found myself longing for new memories to have and to hold when the time eventually did come.

I took a lot of photos when we went anywhere or did anything, especially of her, and all of us together if possible. We got great photos of us at the zoo and at restaurants when we went out to eat. I even took candids when no one knew, and those are some of my favorites. These aren't profound memories, but it's nice to remember the good times that happened during this rough period and to have something to reflect back on. I did not photograph the bad times, but some people might want to document things like that. All of those things are totally up to you. Remember that you are part of their story and their story is a part of your story.

Another issue that came up was her physical appearance starting to change. She started not wanting her photo taken, which is another reason I was taking candid photos. These special photos were for me and not for the whole world, so I took them when I could. I have not documented any photos about her illness previously, but when I feel comfortable doing so, I'll be happy to have so many photos to spark memories and to document this trying time, the good and the bad. Photographing simple things during this time can also lead to some great storytelling during your coping stage. Photos of hands, favorite spots, daily routine items, all of those are easily forgotten memories. However, don't spoil this precious time together forcing photos. As I mentioned, candid photos can be some of the best and they don't interrupt moments.

Once your life is given a time limit, you would probably start making lists of things you wanted to do or get done, as my mom did. She did a lot of things that she wanted to in this span of time, including writing each of us (her family) a letter. She planned on writing a lot more and didn't have time, but I will forever cherish her handwriting on the pages of that journal. We digitally preserved these pages by photographing and scanning them so they can last forever. One thing people don't think about is preserving handwritten pieces. Hold on to those dear items whether it be a grocery list or a signed Christmas Card. Handwriting is a beautiful memory to hold on to.

Celebration of Life

I've never experienced a loss this closely before. I didn't know just how much work the family has to do to decide things like the ceremonies and all of the funeral options. It was truly overwhelming. The funeral home we chose puts together a beautiful photo slideshow if you provide the photos. I dug through boxes and boxes of photos to find as many as I could of her. I dug through folder after folder on different computers for digital photos of her.

It was both a joyful and sad time to reflect back on those photos. One thing that really broke my heart was when I went through my scrapbook albums and only had a handful of layouts that are about just her. That will surely change in the future. If you find yourself in a similar situation, maybe take some time to write down some of the top stories you'd like to document about your loved ones. Or if you are lucky enough to still have some older relatives, try to interview them and get their stories written down. I purchased this Favorite Things journal for my mother to have fun filling out a couple of birthdays ago, and although she didn't get to finish the whole thing, the bits that are filled out I'll treasure forever because they are pieces about her that I didn't know about.

While there are no rules for funerals, I found it nice to have the layouts of her out in a book for people to flip through. I used pocket pages for extra printed photos in the album as well. There are several other wonderful ideas for having friends and family participate including Project Life cards to write a memory with that person on or to have people bring photos with that person. I know that there are also people who do photographs at Funerals, but again that is a personal decision. You can read more about it in Heidi Swapp's story linked at the bottom of the post.

The Aftermath

After these very emotional times, I still feel very sad and at a loss for words. Cards started flooding our mailbox every day, we receive homemade meals, and we received nice messages. It's nice to know that your loved one was so loved. I find myself wanting to write things during this period of uncertainty.

I recommend a physical journal rather than typing on a laptop or your phone. It makes the words sink in and it's easier to remember. Journaling so far has been very therapeutic. I'm not sure if I'll do anything with the words on these pages or if they'll sit in this journal forever, but it is a form of documenting and it is still important.

Everyone works through grief differently, trying as many options as possible for you until you find what is right is the best route. Maybe crafting is the answer for you. Scrapbooking the obituary or some old photos you found of your loved one might help you heal. I found that making some cards for the thank yous we are sending out is also therapeutic. Sometimes the real problem is when. I had a hard time coming back to crafting at all, I waited two weeks before I was in my craft room again and it still didn't feel right. Scrapbooking happy memories while feeling sad is just an odd mixture on the inside.

As for the questions "How?", "When?" and "Why?", well, that's up to you. Everyone processes loss and grief differently. Maybe you want to create a tribute mini album about the brief time before the loss, maybe you want to just make a video slideshow, maybe you don't want to create anything. Whatever you do decide to do, make sure you give yourself enough time. Depending on how much time you need, you might be crafting a week, a month, or maybe a year after your loss. Healing takes time, maybe scrapbooking is part of it and maybe it isn't. Don't feel guilty for wanting to memory keep and don't feel guilty for not going into your craft room. Both are perfectly okay and might just be a step in your process. The "Why?" might be the hardest part to determine. It might just be a coping mechanism to write down your memories, but it could also be a therapeutic time that helps you get used to a new normal.

I wish you peace if you are working through a difficult time or loss. The stages of terminal illness diagnosis, sicknesses, and losing a loved one can be very, very rough, but know that you are not alone. If you need help with grief or talking to someone you can visit this list of Telephone Hotlines or you can send me a message on Instagram to chat.

Additional Resources:

I found these other blog posts helpful when I first wanted to explore ways I could capture my feelings during this difficult time. I hope you find them useful as well.

If you have any questions for me about my personal process please let me know. This is evolving and developing as time goes on. Some of these thoughts might change, but I wanted to write something while it was weighing on my mind. I hope this can help you or someone you know make sense of all of their feelings. Thank you for reading.

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