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Happy Reminders

A few years ago, knee-deep in grief, a parent decided to start surprising herself with what she called “happy reminders.”

She was tired of walking into her son’s room, looking for something she hadn’t seen before and feeling lost. She had lost her son in a car wreck and knew it was a freak accident, nothing she could have prepared for or predicted. But in her fog of grief, she felt like she must have missed something, and she was determined to find it.

“I didn’t realize until later that I was torturing myself,” she explained. “I was punishing myself for letting him leave home that night, for letting him have a car, for not seeing what was going to happen. I made myself play this detective role so I could find the missing clue.”

What would she have done if she’d found anything? “Probably tortured myself further,” she acknowledged. After months of interrogating herself and turning the house upside down, she sat down and thought about how disappointed her son would be in her behavior.

That was the turning point. She asked herself what he would have wanted her to do instead, and the answer was to remember him in a happy way — not a sad one. As a result, she put away all the newspaper clippings and reports she had about the accident.

She decided that the void needed to be filled by something positive. She pulled out little things from her son’s closet that she hadn’t seen in years: art projects, handmade Christmas ornaments, mismatched socks, elementary school photos. She stashed these reminders in unexpected places throughout the house and her car. She did it quickly so she wouldn’t remember where she’d put things.

“The day I opened up the Halloween decorations and saw his face staring back at me,” she says, “I knew I’d done the right thing. That little photo made me so happy.”

Creating Your Own Happy Reminders

The key to happy reminders is that they need to evoke happy times. Pictures from a difficult period in a child’s life or gifts from a relationship that ended in a bitter breakup may not fit the bill. But trinkets that didn’t seem very important may suddenly take on new meaning: a souvenir from a family vacation, a Halloween costume, a long-forgotten sticker collection.

The idea is to collect a variety of items that carry different memories. Hiding a child’s soccer paraphernalia or entire stock of Beanie Babies will certainly bring memories to the surface, but these brief moments of joy will lose their impact if it feels like each one is evoking the same memories like the one before it.

Once these happy reminders have been collected, they need to be placed in unexpected locations. It may be helpful to ask a friend or family member to help with this part; some grieving parents may have trouble fighting the impulse to sit and ruminate with each object, which can dilute some of the excitement of finding the items in the future. Some prefer to do this themselves, knowing their own routines and where they’re likely — and not likely — to go on a regular basis.

How many happy reminders have been hidden can influence how often they’re switched out (if ever). Some parents may prefer to surprise themselves with new objects every few months, while others may “rekindle” their excitement for these happy reminders by putting them away for a while and bringing them back out. Just like grief has cycles, so, too, does our need for physical reminders to focus on the good things.

Happy reminders can’t, in any way, eliminate grief or replace sad memories. But what they can do is keep a child “around,” steer us toward the happy times, and give us permission to stop beating ourselves up. By remembering a child in the light he or she would have wanted, we give ourselves moments of relief and give that child a moment to shine.

Gloria Horsley

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