How to Use a Journal to Remember a Recently-Deceased Relative

When a loved one dies, you might wish to remember the person by writing about your experience in your journal, writing about the deceased and keeping mementos.

Here are a few things that I have done with a journal during Aunt C’s recent illness and  death:

1. Print Text Messages

These days, some are irritated if you call them on the phone without advance notice. Instead, we send short text messages on our cell phones or other mobile devices when it is more convenient than voice-to-voice or face-to-face communication.

I’m so glad that this is the case, because text messages from loved ones who are now deceased become written (or, rather, typed) keepsakes.

I have texts from Aunt C that I will print out and place in my journal, including her last one in which she thanked me for sending a book about cancer and hope – There’s No Place Like Hope: A Guide to Beating Cancer in Mind-Sized Bites.

2. Record Their Words and Habits

One of the issues that mourners sometimes have is this: as time wears on and the person you love has been dead for a while, you fear forgetting the little things. You want to remember how they laughed, for instance, but can’t quite recall it.

Long before anyone dies, make a habit of recording interesting conversations from the people in your family, or sayings, or even what seems mundane. I would encourage recording people in your video diaries so that you have a visual and oral representation of them.

Barring that – let’s say that they are camera shy- then using your paper journal will  suffice. Be detailed in your description of the person; use similes, if needed. e.g. Her laugh is like the tinkling of a wind chime in the summer breeze – tinny, and insistent.

Let’s say that you did not record much about that person while they were alive. Then, just after the death, when you feel you are ready, record as much detail as you can.  Don’t scold yourself for not having done this sooner. Be kind to yourself.

(One of the great things about social media is that many people have shared their voice and face on the internet; they have already recorded themselves. Try to acquire copies of those videos, if you can.)

3. Attach The Funeral Program to the Journal

These days, it is easy for a family or a funeral home to create printed programs for the event.  The program is usually both an order of service (e.g. song, prayer, song, eulogy) as well as an obituary.

The printed funeral program is another keepsake that you can attach or adhere to your journal.

I acquired two programs from Aunt C’s funeral, cut them at the fold, and glued them to pages in my journal. I used two in order to display the content on the back and the front of the program; you may use just one program, if you wish, and copy the back.

4. Journal At the Funeral

Take a journal to the funeral; write what you would like to capture about the event, or about yourself, or about the deceased, or about the people that you have met.

One way to help yourself remember the details of the event (or just to calm down if you are overstimulated) is to pay attention to your 5 senses and write about them. (e.g. Who do I see? What one thing do I hear? What one scent do I smell? What do I taste? What textures do I feel on my skin right now?) Write down those observations. Whether at a funeral or not, some of my most vivid memories have come from moments when I just drink in basic things in my immediate surroundings.

If you journal at the funeral, be aware that others might look over your shoulder and see what you write. I tend to journal only about the funeral when I’m at the funeral, i.e. I take notes. When at the funeral, I do not write anything revealing, or too personal, or anything that I wouldn’t mind someone else reading while I’m there.

If the person eulogizing the deceased knows her well, the speech is usually informative and chock full of stories that you can record in your journal.

If the person giving the eulogy does not know the deceased very well, the speech tends to be an impersonal lecture. However, he or she might still have a few words worth worth your time; take notes. I do not put too much pressure on myself to summarize the eulogy if the person did not know the deceased; I just grab one concept from the whole speech, then write about something else.

At some funerals, there is a point in the service when audience members may go to a microphone for a couple of minutes and reflect on the life of the person who has died. Usually, the audience member tells a story about one moment in time when the deceased was kind, or entertaining, or a welcome presence, etc. These are often stories that I’ve never heard before, so I take notes. I summarized these 2-minute reflections about Aunt C in my journal during her funeral.

You may decide to do all of this in your journal later at home. However, I have found that I tend to forget some of the things I want to record unless I’m taking notes in the moment, as if it is an important class.

(Actually, a funeral can be an important class in life. Everyone is thinking about death and what is important to them. It’s a time of reflection.)

5. Consider an heirloom journal

Let’s say that the deceased did not leave much of a personal record of themselves – their opinions, their thoughts on life, their thoughts on the family, etc. There’s little you can do about that.

However, you can consider leaving YOUR journals behind so that your relatives have a keepsake from you.  The heirlooms might be your daily journals or a separate journal specifically dedicated to what you want your relatives to know about you, about life, about concepts that you find important.

Aunt C did not keep a journal (at least, not that we know of); she was a private individual. However, after her death, a few relatives perused her papers to get a better sense of who she was, that which she never really told us about herself. It was a bit impersonal since the papers were diplomas, certificates, office papers, bills, etc., but they still told a story. It would have been nice to have something a little more personal from her.

Give the gift of your personal story to your loved ones by leaving your journals in your will.



P.S. If you are worried about what can happen to your journal after you die, read this article to consider your options: Journaling Q and A, Part 1.

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