The Blessing of Memory

February 16, 2024

Tomorrow will mark the one-year anniversary of my mother-in-law’s death. This week I’ve been mulling over what I might write about her to mark this milestone. I had no time to process her passing and write about it because I was immediately thrust into the trauma and chaos of my own mom’s last illness and death, but Carol was an important person to me. She was always loving and welcoming, and I can count only a few times when we disagreed or were at odds.

I’ve thought a lot about grief this year, trying to feel it without being undone by it. Trying to understand the process and work with it to heal. I like this passage about mourning, from George E. Vaillant’s book Aging Well: “Counselors sometimes forget that the psychodynamic work of mourning is often more to remember lost loves than to say good-bye. The primate brain is constructed to retain, not relinquish, love…. No one whom we have ever loved is totally lost. That is the blessing, as well as the curse, of memory. Grief hurts, but does not—in the absence of conflict—make us ill. What is more, just as rivers expose buried geologic strata, so may the erosion of living uncover life-saving memories of love, formerly obscured by pain, resentment, or immaturity.”   

In my experience, once I’m past the initial searing pain of loss, remembering loved ones does bring comfort and joy.

Our family all has favorite memories and stories about Carol. She loved to share “life lessons,” and every one of us has been on the receiving end of these. I especially enjoyed her quirky humor, her eagerness to help others, as well as her spirit of curiosity and adventure. She loved to travel, and it was at her suggestion that she, my husband, son, and I rented an apartment in Manhattan in 2007 for a quick Christmastime getaway, one of our happiest family memories. My husband traveled to China with her in 2006, and she and I took a two-week trip to Greece, also in 2007.

Carol in Greece

She also taught me to value and respect things of the home, to remain a lifelong learner (one of the last gifts I gave her was a book about physics for the layperson—she was fascinated by the subject), and being around her so much for the last years of her life made me realize how little we understand and respect our elders here in the U.S. She made me kinder.

Last night I came across the following on Instagram. It made me think of her—she absolutely would talk to anyone and she had a spirit that embraced life fully, the good and the bad. I think she would fully agree with these sentiments:

        Darling, go ahead and just love your life.

        Take pictures of everything. Capture the

        moments, big and small, that make you feel

        alive. Tell people you love them. And mean

        it- truly mean it. Talk to random strangers.

        Learn their stories. Do all the things that

        you're afraid of and stop playing small.


        Stop being worried about all that

        can go wrong when the only thing that

        matters is all the magic that could go right.

        There is so much life to be lived. So much

        love to receive. Open yourself up. Bloom.

        ~ Alysha Waghorn

This post is for Larry, Mary Lynn, James, Sarah, Richard, and Sam. I love you all, and I wish you comfort and healing today and every day. We miss you, Carol.

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  1. Kathy what a wonderful tribute to your mother-in-law. She sounds like and looks like she was not afraid to live her life to the full. For that I am certain the memories of her spirit live on. The words you found on Instagram are so inspiring. Take care and savor all the great memories. Hugs!

    1. Thanks, Debbie. I just loved that quote, and it did make me think of Carol.