Memory Anchors

Originally published April 2011.

Recalling pleasant and life-forming memories can be so very important when we have lost someone we love. A fear some people hold is that over time memories will fade away, and while this is partially true, significant memories stay with us for a lifetime. Lots of every day bits of interaction do fade and this is because they were really not important at the time –a conversation on what to have for dinner or the need to take the trash out, or what the weather forecast is for the week. However, many memories are anchored so firmly in our senses we need not fear we will forget. Here’s a personal story:

My oldest son had a good friend in college; that friend had been blind from age five and the only colors he could remember were bright orange and bright green. His friend, Mike, had a bicycle built for two so a person with sight could sit in front and steer while he could enjoy the ride and peddle in back. My son and Mike painted the bike fluorescent orange and green. One fine spring day they went out for a ride and Mike said, “Is it a pretty day?” and my son answered, “It’s an absolutely gorgeous day.” Now any time my son sees a bicycle built for two or his wife says, “Isn’t this a pretty day!” And on the first lovely day in spring; guess what memory floods his mind.

Now just a few things about memory anchors –hopefully not too technical, but important. Anchors may be visual (bicycle), auditory (birds singing), kinesthetic (peddling) or a combination. Combinations are the strongest. For example; a woman who lost her brother, when he was just seventeen at the time and she was fourteen, remembers her brother’s birthdays vividly because his favorite cake was not a cake, but a cream filled donut with a single candle on top that represented all birthdays, and the birthday song that was sung by his musical family was done in beautiful harmony. The anchors are in the sight of a donut and candle, the smell of the donut and the hearing of the song –visual, kinesthetic and auditory. Each year on his birthday the family repeats the ritual and the anchors become even stronger. It doesn’t even have to be a birthday for the memory to appear –just a trip to the donut shop will do it every time.

For me; my mother wore White Shoulders perfume so whenever I smell it I recall memories of her loving spirit and dressing to go out with my dad on a special occasion. My dad enjoyed making things and he was very skillful so whenever I use one of his tools or use the box on my dresser he made I recall memories of helping him in the workshop when I was a young boy. Both of those memories bring a smile to my face and tears to my eyes and trigger other memories. You just don’t forget those things.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that some anchors are of unpleasant memories. There are awful examples I am too familiar with in working with bereaved individuals. A quarrel someone had with a loved one the day of their birthday and on that day the person died in an auto accident, or seeing a parent hit the other parent in a dispute over drinking. These can painfully trigger the memories on the birthday or when seeing someone get angry when drinking too much. I have some painful memories from my own life –I suspect we all do. For some of these I’ve sought professional help, for others I’ve managed to forgive if not forget entirely and for others I’ve simply accepted as a part of living and that dwelling on them does not change them, but only diminishes the mostly good things in life and let it go.

When a memory that is anchored in us that makes us feel deeply, it is a message that we are alive. They are opportunities to recall, celebrate and face up to something. While new memory anchors will occur unexpectedly, we also have opportunities to create positive anchors for ourselves, our families and our friends that sustain us all. Perhaps it’s a new a birthday ritual or holiday idea or vacation reunion, event attendance with friends/family, or a memory party during the holidays where we share stories of someone we’ve loved and lost. You may be thinking of some memories now or have some you can share. We’d like to hear about your anchors.

Photo Credit.


  1. Alisha said on April 22, 2011 at 3:27 pm ... #

    Bill, your words once again travel right to my heart. Interestingly, one of my “anchors” is something that is a the same time lovely and quite distressing to me. Since my mom had cancer, she spent a good deal of time bald or partially bald. Now, when I see women (or men) with bald or fuzzy heads, and that unmistakeable cancer-fighting look in their eyes, it also travels right to my heart. I smile, hoping to give them a visual sign of the love and strength I am sending. But it often makes me tear up, thinking of how sick mom had been, how hard she fought, and that in the end we still lost her. Bald heads on brave souls always serve as a strong anchor for me.

  2. Kathryn said on April 22, 2011 at 4:46 pm ... #

    A crow, oddly. After my mom died, a neighbor came to my sister (they really did not know each other much at all) and dropped off a story he’d written that was published in a birdwatching journal. The story recounted an event that occurred on Halloween week about a year prior. It was also the time in between my mom’s cancer diagnosis and her starting radiation. This meant she was still up and active and very much the Mother we knew growing up. In the story a handful of neighbors meet-up to help save a crow who is struggling about the street, trapped in a fish line. It was my mother who ultimately picked-up the crow, petted him and cooed at him that everything was going to be alright. She was also called “The Crow Whisperer” at one point in the story. It was beyond touching that a complete stranger had painted such an accurate and concise portrait of my mother. Without his knowing it, the story was a summation of the way my mother lived her life everyday. Helping those in need and giving love. He didn’t know my mom had since died, or even had cancer that day. When I was handed that story and read it, it was as if I’d been handed the tiniest sliver of my mom, for just a moment. Like I had her back again. Whenever I see a crow, I feel like she wants me to know she is near.

  3. Alive and Mortal said on April 23, 2011 at 12:02 pm ... #

    This is a beautifully written equipping article. Thank you for supporting the grieving with tools that help us nourish our bonds.

  4. Christina said on June 8, 2011 at 5:49 pm ... #

    I just read your article and it really has me thinking. I was 27 years old when I lost my husband to cancer. He was 30 years old. Our son was 7 and our daughter was 1 at the time of his death. Now, 6 1/2 years later, I am still not over my husband and I am not over my loss. I love him like he was still here. I’ve tried to move on but I have had one failed attempt at a relationship after the other. I feel I am incapable of loving anyone again because no one I’ve dated even comes close to being the wonderful man my late husband was. I find myself looking for excuses as to why I can’t be with this man, or that man…it’s always something. In the end, the relationship doesn’t work out because he either runs from responsibility or he chooses a different woman. I can’t help but think there is something wrong with me but I do try to make these relationships work. I just can’t move on and I am so scared that my late husband was my one and only true love. That I will never find love again and I will be alone for the rest of my life. I’m only 34 years old. Everytime I have a failed attempt at a relationship, it’s not the guy I am sad over…it’s my late husband. I start grieving him all over again, like he had died yesterday. I don’t know what to do or how to handle this. I need help.

  5. Adrienne Crowther said on February 20, 2012 at 3:42 pm ... #

    My husband passed away 2 1/2 years ago. His love for Bob Dylan was known by all who knew him. So whenever I hear a Dylan song, I can picture my husband singing in the background. It always makes me smile and I have a flash of his presence at that moment.

    Certain foods also trigger strong memories of him. He loved to cook and he really appreciated great food – especially grilled steak. I appreciate grilled steak now more than ever and I know that it’s because I remember loving how much he enjoyed it.

    While he’s always with me in my heart, these sensual experiences trigger happy memories for me.

  6. Amanda said on February 20, 2012 at 4:23 pm ... #

    Thank you for this article..I have things that trigger either wonderful memories, or at times, just the opposite. Its been 5 years since I lost my daughter and the bad memories, while are very heartbreaking, I am coping better through them.
    On a side note, to a previous letter on here…Christina, you wrote on here last year about your husband. I will keep you in my prayers and hope you have recieved the help you need at the loss of your husband.

  7. Candace allen grossman said on December 29, 2012 at 9:24 pm ... #

    I came across this wonderful post. I lost my brother in april 15th 2012 . Had absolutely no idea. My dad who is 85 found him dead. His heart just quit, it was broken physically and emotionally. My brother just gave up, in fact he had told me at least three weeks before he died, that he was not going to make it. But of course i was like no brother your going to be al-right. little did I know, i miss him everyday.

  8. DONNA said on January 5, 2013 at 9:43 pm ... #

    My husband of 28 years died of leukemia, after unnecessary and painful chemo treatments. He was 58, a very fit and healthy man, never sick. I feel he watches over me, and sometimes I hear his voice, telling me what to do, as he so often did! I have been told by many people that these feelings are common. I go outside at night, look up, and sometimes talk to him. Our daughter also feels that he is still caring for us, as he did so much in life. Who can say, no one knows. We loved him more than life itself.

  9. Deborah Benson said on February 18, 2013 at 1:07 pm ... #

    This too shall pass! My stepmama always said that when things got rough or even when they were good. She was saying, “Nothing ever stays the same.” and it doesn’t. No matter how bad they get or how good they are, they will change. That phrase always reminds me of her and the encouragement and love that she always gave me. She never had an unkind word to me. Was always my encourager and as I’ve discovered since we lost her, my rock. It’s been hard to go forward without her, knowing that she’s not there to talk to, to get advice from, to love and to be loved in return.

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