It’s said that memories fade. As we grow older our capacity to make new memories lessens and we start to focus instead on times long ago – Mrs Smith down the road who would swing her stick at kids who passed by, the odd young man at the bus stop who’d talk to himself, the teacher who’d smile when you got the answer right.
Life’s timeline stretches in a strange way depending on where we stand within it. It shrinks and expands and even stops. That long night in hospital, the day you stood on top of a mountain and felt the wind in your hair, the moment you said a final farewell. Images flash by and the heart struggles to keep up. Did you remember that right? Was it raining or not? Memories can be unreliable too, that’s the thing. Our brains are clever. They protect us all day long from things that can hurt and I think that’s marvellous.
But it’s important to pause on the timeline now and again and take stock. Particular dates are the perfect opportunity to do so. Tomorrow is the anniversary of my brother’s death. I’ve spoken about it before and yet every year, when the leaves change colour and the nights draw in, my body tells my mind to remember. I get lethargic, snappy and down. And soon enough I nod and realise what’s happening. Grief speaks to us and it’s worth listening. You can place it in a drawer for a while, if the time isn’t right, but soon enough it rattles around in there until you open up and take a look. It’s dark inside but the light gets in too.
And I’m noticing that eight years on from that awful day the snapshots in the drawer are brighter – Stephen’s giggle, his adoring smile at his young daughter, his unbeatable sarcasm. He was kind and funny and gentle. He was here for a time and he was loved.
For those of us left behind, remembering is hard. But in many ways it’s easy too. And soon enough it folds itself within what is left and becomes part of who we are. And we find we can breathe again.
I keep forgetting things: where I put my keys, why I came into the kitchen. It’s as if my brain is constantly reminding me that middle age has arrived. (Thanks).
But remembering things? Now that’s another matter. I have memories so strong that they’ll never leave – some good, some bad. My long term storage is surely getting too full. I feel like I’ll need to order more storage at some point. The hippocampus region in the brain is a marvel, storing and processing memories more efficiently than a machine ever could.
This week the world remembers the fallen from two world wars: the numbers still impossible to compute, the age of young men still impossible to understand. Remembering in this sense is dark but important, the urge to learn lessons is heavy.
This week is also the anniversary of my brother’s death. A single story that brings into sharp focus the losses of many. He died from lung cancer yet never smoked. He was funny, warm and kind. He was my brother.
They say that time heals all wounds. This is nonsense, of course, time just wraps itself around the injury and lets it bleed. It’s been seven years. Sometimes it feels like yesterday, sometimes it feels like seven years – that’s what time does to grief. The burden is lighter now, though, and I’m grateful.
I’m also grateful for the memories that cling on: playing rounders at family picnics, being pushed (accidentally on purpose) into a bunch of nettles, 70s photos with hilarious, wonky fringes. Memory works in strange ways. I love these images arriving in my mind but it’s taken a long time to erase the horrible ones of his last days and hours. Brightness is better. And soon enough it overcomes the dark.
I don’t really care where I left my keys or what I came into the kitchen for. I care about these memories and all they bring back.
Fallen soldiers. Lost brothers. We will remember them.
What’s so funny? We humans laugh all the time, often during inappropriate situations or dark times or just for the fun of it. It’s common across our social species and it might just save your life.
Children laugh easily, giggling at prat falls or silly faces. From our twenties onward, though, we lose that ability. Maturity brings with it a barrier to simple joys as we plod through life getting stuff done and being grown up. But laughter really is the best medicine. It lowers cortisol, the stress hormone, while increasing blood flow, relaxing muscles and triggering happy hormones. It’s good to laugh – our bodies and minds respond well to it.
And so do our relationships. Research shows that people laugh up to 30% more at an amusing clip when in company. Watching funny films or TV shows together can deepen our relationships as we share a bonding exercise like no other. It’s contagious too. So often I’ve laughed simply because someone nearby was doing it, even though I didn’t know the joke – it was funny anyway.
Best of all is humour’s ability to be dark. I love black humour, it never fails to hit my funny bone. Maybe the Northern Irish are particularly good at this given our painful history and natural inclination to shrug off badness with good humour. “If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry”, as my Granny used to say. Use dark humour with caution though – the old axiom states that tragedy + time = comedy. It may be too soon to make a joke about something, so timing is everything.
Even those who are bereaved show less anger and distress when they can remember their loved one with warmth. This week is the anniversary of my brother’s death. Stephen was very funny, a wizard of sarcasm, and even six years on I still smile when I picture his comedic frown. On the day family and friends gathered to scatter his ashes in the sea at a local park we all stopped short when we rounded the corner to find that the tide was out. A moment passed before we all shared the most meaningful giggle in the world. Stephen would have found it hilarious and it was a precious comedic moment in an otherwise dark time.
Laughter is healing. We’ve lost sight of it recently but it is available all the time if we seek it out. I’m off now to watch an episode of Father Ted – truly the best medicine.