Clearing out a kitchen cupboard the other day (yes, definitely a lockdown effect) I came across a small glass jar; the type that usually appears on a hotel breakfast table containing jam. The hand written label, in my late mum’s neat script, says ‘Salt’ and indeed that is what is inside. As I held the jar, a cascade of memories tumbled into my mind.
Jewish tradition has it that when someone moves into a new home, they are given a symbolic gift of bread and salt: bread, so the owners never experience hunger, and salt so their life will be full of flavour. The loaf of bread has of course long since gone, but I reflected that the little jar of salt has moved house with me for the best part of 40 years. Mum gave it to me when we moved to the first home we owned in Addlestone when Stella was just a baby, before James was born. Three more kitchen cupboards in the Addlestone area held the salt, then Shaun and I moved to Knaphill in 2012 and most recently to Devon in 2017. For every move the little jar has been carefully packed and unpacked and placed at the back of the cupboard. It is synonymous with my mum and given all the memories, represents a far greater memorial than its size would suggest.
When I gave a Zoom talk about the mourning light, to The Compassionate Friends in November, one of the questions I was asked was this:
How did you deal with James’s room and possessions after he died and what do you have as physical reminders of him?
It is interesting, isn’t it, that a small jar of salt can conjure up such a raft of memories spanning over 30 years? So, I hope that is possible to convey that you need little in the way of material personal effects to hold close the memories that come to mind, when you are thinking about your lost loved ones. But like everything else in the grieving process, how you deal with people’s belongings after they have gone is an entirely personal and individual choice. James’s room was, naturally, full of his clothes, books, possessions and photos – so many photos! as he was an avid photographer, like I am. He had not occupied that particular bedroom for long which meant it was not too untidy; as he had been at Uni most of his things were in reasonable order.
I remember how difficult it was to move anything at first. His room looked as though it was awaiting his return. I could not bear to wash his dressing gown and it hung on the back of the door for some time. His clothes were packed away and apart from some particularly special items, were gradually given away to charity shops, usually through a friend or colleague who took them outside the radius of our local area, which felt easier to do. I offered his friends a memento if they wanted one, and some of them felt comfortable enough with the idea to take photos or books.
After a while, we decided to have a change round of how we occupied the rooms in the house, and it felt right to turn his room into a guest bedroom. However, clearing the room was a very emotional process.
I would offer a word of caution and say, if you decide to throw things out, once they are gone they are gone! – and you can’t get them back. I found it was easier to bag up and box up items about which I was unsure, so that I could revisit them in due course and make decisions when I felt strong enough.
It is a good analogy for the grieving process actually; you have all these boxes with lids on. Sometimes it feels right to take off the lids and examine the contents then put back on the lids. Other times, you can’t bear to open them.
I bought some decorative storage boxes and Shaun renovated an old wooden chest, and these contain the most precious items; those that I will probably never part with. The boxes are in the loft now; it is enough to know they are in the house but I don’t need to look at them very often. I couldn’t even tell you exactly what is in each one.
Photographs are always to hand and I have stored the most precious of these electronically – not simply on the home computer; I pay a small annual fee to a company which I have used for photo storage since the early days of the Cloud. Another word of warning to those whose images might all be on electronic devices … make sure that you have some physical printed photographs to keep in frames or albums, otherwise all your precious images could potentially be lost.
A friend of mine had a particular place in her home where she kept a photo of her son alongside a battery-operated candle and string of fairy lights. She always placed fresh flowers on the table and this corner was her special quiet place for communing with her boy. Other parents leave rooms untouched; it is an entirely individual choice.
In 2013, I had two memory bears made from three of James’s favourite shirts; this is a lovely idea for a very personal memento. Our Jimbo bear sits in the guest bedroom and my daughter Stella has the other.
We have moved home twice since James died and both times, my favourite framed photo of him has travelled in the car with me to be the first thing I put up on arrival. I learned an important lesson with moving house; moving away geographically does not mean leaving behind your memories.
None of us choose to join the ranks of the bereft, but once we arrive, along come aspects of the grieving process that represent choices, even if we don’t recognise them as such at the time. Some people choose to grieve privately. Others, like myself, are prepared to open our stories to audiences. I have come to realise that both my books, Into the Mourning Light and Living in the Mourning Light represent a particularly individual form of memorialisation for James.
Long after I have gone, the words I wrote about my son will mean something to others, and to people who never met him. I consider myself lucky to have the gift of expression to share James in this way, but everyone will find their own individual route to creating lasting and meaningful memories, even if they are as simplistically evocative as a small jar of salt.