When her husband died suddenly, Hannah Richell was determined to treasure their history together – and embrace the future with their two children.
There is a glass jar in our house stuffed with folded pieces of paper. If a stranger were to open it and read the handwritten slips inside, they might find themselves a little baffled.
‘The loveliest green eyes that crinkled at the corners when he smiled.’ ‘Learning to play guitar and driving us crazy playing the same notes over and over again.’ ‘Returning from early morning runs around the bay with smoothies for the kids.’ ‘Singing Frozen songs at the top of his voice in the car.’ ‘He made the best yorkshire puddings.’ ‘He loved us…and we loved him.’
It is heartbreaking to reduce the love of your life and the father of your children to fragments of memories scrawled on to pieces of paper. But when my husband Matt died suddenly in 2014, the very notion of memory became all-important to us as a family. The children were just three and six when Matt was killed in a surfing accident at Tamarama beach in Sydney. They were faced at a young age with the unimaginably hard lesson that life is fragile and impermanent. On one seemingly ordinary day, they learned that one of the people you love most in the world can walk out of the door and never return.
I knew, even in the midst of acute shock and pain, that one of my biggest fears was that there might come a time when the kids would no longer remember Matt. This brilliant man who we were lucky enough to share our days with would, over time, fade for them – become relegated to the shadowy past. I felt a responsibility to help protect their memories and to honour our history together.
It was a close friend who told me about memory jars. She explained how they could offer a safe way for grieving children to access happy memories and help the broken-hearted start conversations about their lost loved one. So we sat down with pens and paper and began to talk about Matt. My daughter remembered the ‘spiky’ feel of her dad’s shaved head under her hands as he gave her piggybacks across the park. My son recalled the way he could curl into the crook of his dad’s arm when he read a bedtime story. I remembered the special light that shone in Matt’s eyes whenever he stepped from the waves after an ocean swim. We all remembered the unique kind of grumpy he could get when he was hungry. We shared our stories and wrote them down before placing them in the jar.
Now, whenever the time feels right, we write down our memories and store them safely in the jar, ready to pull out on those days when we want to connect to the past, or the days when we are afraid we have forgotten the sound of Matt’s laughter or the feel of his warm hand in ours. And then the jar is closed and returned to a shelf. Because, perhaps most importantly, we are learning to cherish the past, while still seeking to embrace all that the future holds. For what sort of life would it be to live purely in a bubble of memory and regret? Yes, we know first hand that life can be unfair and that death can take the ones we love too soon. This fact could make us timid and afraid; but as a mum I try to encourage the kids to live each day with intention – and to seize and appreciate the unfolding moments that will one day form new memories. I want death to make us bigger and bolder, stronger and more resilient, not smaller and more fearful.
Some days this feels easier than others. Some days the grief rears up, acute and painful. Some days I feel guilty to be alive and smiling when Matt is not. And of course not every day can feel life-affirming and uplifting. Not every moment contains something to treasure and feel grateful for. There’s standing in a supermarket queue while your daughter throws a tantrum at your feet…or dragging the bins out on a dark night…or waking in the small hours with a cold, empty space in the bed beside you. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that ‘happiness’ isn’t a goal on the distant horizon forever to chase and that new treasured memories aren’t permanently out of reach.
What helps on darker days is to remember how Matt lived – and to remember that he would wish us a life filled with love. Some days it helps to break the routines. There can be joy in unexpectedly mixing things up. It might mean waking early to see the sunrise or eating cookies for breakfast, just because. Sometimes it could be being a little late for school because you got sidetracked throwing fallen blossom at each other. Another day it might be finding yourself in a pet shop and leaving it half an hour later with an unplanned hamster, or taking a different route home simply to pass a field full of newborn lambs.
We are finding satisfaction and a life-affirming thrill in saying yes to new things. We try to embrace new challenges such as scaling a climbing wall or showing up to a dinner party alone. Sometimes, the challenges are bigger and more daunting, such as moving house and countries. After 11 years of life Down Under, I finally felt the need to press the reset button and return to England. But we’re learning as a family that you never feel more alive than when you face down your fears.
Living moments that will become cherished new memories doesn’t require grand or lavish actions: it doesn’t mean booking fancy restaurants or spectacular holidays. Rather, it’s about simple acts and moments of presence. It’s about paying attention to the moments in our days that connect us to the people and places around us. Stopping to listen to a busker playing a beautiful tune. Watching the clouds change shape across the evening sky. Bouncing a basketball with my son or threading daisy chains with my daughter. If we pay attention to the small, quiet moments, we often find our happiness.
Certainly, those folded slips of paper in our memory jar often mark the simplest, most everyday moments of the closeness that we shared with Matt. I’ve learnt that those are the things we most cherish and which help to remind us that he existed and our love was real, and that we are continuing to make a lifetime of beautiful memories – memories to fill a hundred memory jars – however long our lifetimes turn out to be.
How To Cherish Memories
Pay attention to the small but meaningful moments in your day.
Live with intention – say yes to new opportunities and encounters. Make a point of creating new memories.
Break your routine and do things that scare you – nothing makes you feel more fully alive nor creates more vivid recollections.
Honour your past. Talk and share your special memories with loved ones.
Write things down and store your memories in a safe place – a jar, a box, a diary.
Remember that none of us is getting out of here alive. Seize and acknowledge the things that make you happy today.
Hannah’s new novel The Peacock Summer is published by Orion, price £16.99. To order a copy for £12.74 until 15 July, go to mailshop.co.uk/books