It can be difficult for young children to hold on to memories. A memory box can be an important way of passing on memories of treasured times to your children. This page can also be adapted to help you create a memory box for any loved one.
This information is for people who have been told they will not recover from their cancer. In this situation, many people find themselves thinking about the future and grieving for a time when they may no longer be there. This can be particularly difficult if there are children in the family. It's often upsetting to think that as time goes by, they may forget how much you loved and cared for them.
We also have a section on coping with advanced cancer, which you may find helpful.
A memory box is a container to hold special things belonging to you. The things in the box can help a child hold on to memories and build new ones as they get older. Depending on their age, children can be involved in building their own memory box.
A memory box can be as simple or elaborate as you like. You can make it using a shoebox, biscuit tin or gift box. Usually, there are people who can give you some helpful ideas and advice if you want it. There may be someone at your local hospice, such as a specialist nurse or an occupational or art therapist, who has a particular interest in memory boxes. If you want help, ask your nurse or doctor for advice.
Some organisations, such as Winston’s Wish or the Child Bereavement Charity sell specially made boxes with pockets to hold special objects in place.
What goes into a memory box?
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Before you decide what you want to put in your memory box, you may find it helpful to think about some different types of memories. These may include:
a special time you and your child shared together
something you enjoyed or laughed about together
a memory that offers you or your child some comfort
something you especially love about your child or about your relationship with them.
What you put in the memory box is really a personal choice. Anything that's important to you or your child, or that helps to remind your child of a specific memory, can go into the memory box.
It’s sometimes difficult to know where to start. Here are some suggestions of things other people have put in their boxes:
A photo of you with the child can be stuck on the lid. This provides a visual reminder of the connection between you and can lead the way into the box. It could be a coloured box, in either your or your child’s favourite colour. Or the box could be covered in a special fabric, such as material printed with a favourite nursery rhyme or cartoon character.
A bottle of aftershave or perfume that you use can trigger memories. The child can be encouraged to spray it on a favourite soft toy or on themselves. Our sense of smell is one of the most powerful ways to stimulate memories.
It can be nice to include a letter to your child, or some short stories about things you’ve done together.
A DVD recording could include a message from you or recordings of things you and your child have done together. Most camcorders can play straight on to a TV screen, so tapes or discs don’t need to be specially edited. If you would prefer to edit recordings, your child could help. This may make it a joint project for you both and can be a memory-creating process in itself. CDs can be made fairly easily on a computer. Many mobile phones can also record videos.
Anything recorded on an MP3 player, such as messages or your favourite music, can then be transferred on to a CD. Your specialist nurse or local hospice may be able to help you make a DVD or CD.
Small cards with messages on them could include details of your favourite things. Examples include, 'I love you because...', 'Thank you for…', 'When we’re not together what I miss most about you is…', or 'Remember when…'.
Anything that has a personal story attached to it can be included. This might include jewellery, cards, toys or tickets from places you visited together that hold special memories. It can help to attach a small note to the object as a reminder for the child. Luggage labels are a practical way of doing this.
Grief is not about forgetting the person who has died; it's about finding ways to remember them and take their memory forward. However, it can be difficult for children to hold on to their memories.
Whatever you choose to put into a memory box can be used to tell your child stories of your life. These can be repeated again and again. So even young children can build up a store of memories that they may have been too young to remember by themselves.
Depending on the age of your child, they may want to look through their memory box alone and remember times when you were together. Or they may want to have a parent or relative with them to share the memories.
Some of the memories may make your child laugh or cry. That is all part of the process of remembering the person they have lost. So it's important that other people who are involved in caring for the child are available to give them support.
You may want to choose family members or close friends as ‘memory-holders’ for your child as they grow up. A memory-holder can then add to the memories as the child grows up, and answer any questions they might have about the person who has died.
Your feelings and support
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Creating a memory box can be a sad thing to do. But it can also be satisfying to do something that will help your child to connect with memories of you and the times you shared. It also gives you a chance to reflect on your own memories and may make you laugh as well as cry.
Deciding to make a memory box can feel overwhelming, and it can be difficult to start. You may find it helpful to have a member of your family or a close friend to support you and help you gather the objects you want to put in your memory box.
Everyone has their own way of coping with difficult situations. Some people find it helpful to talk about their feelings with their partner, their family or a close friend. Or you may want to talk over your feelings with a specialist nurse, such as a palliative care nurse. The important thing is to do what feels right for you, when it feels right.
Some people also find it helpful to talk about their feelings with a counsellor. You can talk to your specialist doctor or GP about a referral to a specialist nurse, if you don't already have one, or to find out where you can get counselling. Our cancer support specialists can also give you more information about help that's available.
Winston's Wish helps children rebuild their lives after the death of a parent or sibling. Offers practical support and guidance to families, professionals and anyone concerned about a grieving child.
Child Bereavement Charity
Child Bereavement Charity aims to improve the care offered by professionals to grieving families. Provides specialised training and support for all professionals to enable them to meet the needs of grieving families. Also supplies resources and information for families, and for the doctors, nurses and other professional people who help them.
With thanks to Karen Neill, Children’s Support Facilitator; Iain Rennie, Grove House Hospice Care; and the people affected by cancer who reviewed this information.