When the Memories Slip Away

My first year as a clinician with Experience Camps for Girls, my campers were in their bunk getting ready for their very first night together when one of their counselors noticed that a brand new camper was crying. When the counselor asked her what was wrong, the camper whispered, “I can’t remember my mom.” She was trying to picture her mom’s face. Trying to recall what she sounded like, but at that moment she couldn’t. She was terrified that she’d suddenly forgotten her mom and wouldn’t be able to get the memories back. 

Those of us who know grief, know that feeling…that moment when the memory feels further away, when you can’t quite picture their face or hear their laugh as clearly as before. Memories can change over time and the fear of forgetting is a natural part of grief. Many children worry that they will forget their person or lose the memories that they have. When a child tells you that they are afraid they’re starting to lose their memories, all you have to do is talk with them about their person and ask questions gently. By being open to talking and sharing about the person who died, you can help them create new memories and build a stronger sense of connection to their person.

Here are things you can do with grieving children to soothe this kind of worry, invite conversation, and help them cultivate memories of their person:

  • Build a library of memories (which can be borrowed from others): Invite family and friends (yourself included) to tell stories and share memories about the person who died by writing them down in letters or recording them via audio/video. Explore together these “borrowed” memories from others.
  • Collect photos, memorabilia, audio recordings, and videos of the person who died from family and friends: Go through these items with the child, and maybe even create a digital photo album and/or scrapbook that the child can look through any time to feel connected to the person who died. Weave together photos, drawings, magazine cut-outs, and more to build a scrapbook that paints a picture of who their person was.
  • Most importantly, talk about the person who died: It may be difficult to do at first, but talking about the person who died helps the child feel like their person is still a part of their lives. Encourage family, friends, and the child themselves to talk about them too.

That first night of camp, when I sat down with my scared, little camper, I told her it was normal to feel like we can’t quite remember our person who died sometimes. It doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten them, it just means we want to feel connected to them right now. Then I asked her about her mother in a gentle tone with curiosity: What was her name? What did she look like? What kinds of things would they do? How did she make the camper feel when they were together?

When she couldn’t remember or didn’t know the answer, we talked about the concept of “borrowing memories” from others and who she might know that would share memories of her mom with her. We took our time collecting little pieces here and there, slowly painting a picture of who this wonderful woman was. Eventually the camper stopped and said, “I can remember her now. I’m ready to go back.” And off to her bunk she went, ready to spend the week with her new friends playing, laughing, and remembering her person.

When children worry that they are losing memories of their person, they are afraid that they are losing their connection to them. All you have to do is remind them that they are always connected to their person and that you can help them find those old memories and borrow some new ones together. 

Allison Crooks is a licensed marriage and family therapist and the new clinical director for Experience Camps for Girls in California. She has worked there as a clinician alongside the amazing staff for the past three years and is incredibly grateful for the opportunity to lead this year’s clinical team! Allison has a private therapy practice in Santa Monica, California and works primarily with middle- and high-school students. She also volunteers as a clinical supervisor with Southern California Counseling Center, helping to train associate therapists on their way to licensure. Visit www.AllisonCrooks.com.