Making a memory box

If you’ve been told that you will not recover from your cancer, you could think about making a memory box. Many people in this situation worry that in the future, their children might forget how much they loved them.

A memory box is a container that holds special things belonging to you. It might include photos, some favourite music, letters or a message recorded on a DVD. These objects and messages can help remind your children or loved ones of happy times together and offer them some comfort. It can be a useful way to pass on memories and could be made with any loved one in mind, not just your children.

Creating a memory box can be an emotional experience. You may feel sad or overwhelmed but you might also find it satisfying to reflect on your own memories. You may find it helpful to have a relative or friend support you through the process.

Passing on memories

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 about 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 could forget how much you loved and cared for them. 

It can be difficult for young children to hold on to memories. A memory box can be a useful way of passing on memories of treasured times to your children. The suggestions here can also be adapted to help you create a memory box for any loved one.

What is a memory box?

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 of you and build new ones as they get older. Depending on their age, children can be involved in building their own memory box to remember you.

A memory box can be as simple or elaborate as you like. You could make it using a shoebox, biscuit tin or gift box, for example. Usually, there are people who can give you some helpful ideas and advice if you want them. 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 Child Bereavement UK, sell specially made boxes with pockets to hold objects in place.

Having a memory box helped me cope after losing my dad. At first when I opened it, it made me sad. Now as time has gone by, I can smile when I open my memory box.

Siana, aged 14

What goes into a memory box?

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 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 done with their boxes:

  • A photo of you with your 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 fabric with significance, 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 themself. 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.

How is it used?

Finding ways to remember the person who has died, and to take their memory forward, can be a helpful part of the grieving process. 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. This will help even very young children build up a store of memories that they may otherwise be too young to remember.

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.

You may want to choose family members or close friends as ‘memory-holders’ for your child as they grow up. It may be helpful for them to know what you are putting into your memory box. They can then add to the memories as the child grows up, and answer any questions they might have about the person who has died.

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.

Your feelings and support

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.

Starting to make a memory box can feel overwhelming. You may find it helpful to have a member of your family or a close friend to support you. They can also help you gather the objects you want to put in your memory box.

Who can help?

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. Some people also find it helpful to talk about their feelings with a counsellor. The important thing is to do what feels right for you, when it feels right.

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.

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