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Helen Davey, Ph.D.

Helen Davey Ph.D.

Family Scrapbooks: A Journey of Memories and Mourning

The Importance of Family "Roots"

My mother died in October at the age of 96. Though it was at the end of a long and protracted illness, the impact of her death was still profound on my brother, sister, and myself. Like many adult children, we grieved the loss of that connection. In her wisdom, she understood how profound this loss would be, and so left us her final gift: her scrapbooks.

For many years my mother lovingly collected photographs and newspaper clippings, as well as an extensive genealogy from both sides of the family tree. Along with this, my mother had written the memoirs of my grandmother and great-grandmother, as well as her own accounts of various stories from our family life. These scrapbooks – moving, nostalgic, compelling, and funny – are a family treasure. In fact, the only possession that my siblings and I would each be willing to go to the mat for.

My father, whom we all adored, died when I was 8 years old. Not knowing how to grieve, my family and I never talked about my father, and we all tried to bury our feelings in an attempt to survive the trauma of my father’s death. Little did we know that our silence was exactly what not to do in the process of mourning!

Fortunately for me, however, even then my mother was compiling her scrapbooks, with all the precious photographs of my father’s exciting and adventurous life. As a child, I would spend hours poring over these pictures in an attempt not to forget my memories. I was terrified that I would forget him, so would go over and over my memories of him before I went to sleep. Somehow, even as a child, I intuitively knew that if you don’t talk about someone, your memories will fade.

After my mother died, my brother and sister and I, who live in different states, decided that we would each make our own copies of the 15 scrapbooks. When I received and copied the originals, one at a time, I decided to do what my mother had always wanted to do: enlarge the photos, put them in order, and include her comments. The result is a beautiful story in pictures.

As I sat at my computer, enlarging the very small photographs that are over a hundred years old, it felt as if my long-dead relatives were coming to life. The sparkle in their eyes, their facial features, the gestures I could never see before in the tiny pictures, even the fabric of their clothes – in other words, their personalities – came alive for me.

I found myself laughing with delight as the enlarged images appeared on the screen. I felt surrounded by and connected to my family, even those who died long before I was born. Wanting to share this delight, I’m now in the process of making these expanded scrapbooks for the whole family.

Moreover, I realize now how important my mother’s scrapbooks and her written words are in the process of grieving. My mother, who always said, “Someday these books will be very important to you,” knew what she was talking about. She was only 36 when my father died, and didn’t know how to help us grieve. She had lost her own father when she was only 3. But at the age of 96, my mother had learned a lot, and I’m convinced she wanted to do all that she could to help us with the loss of her.

In fact, this is one of the most important things my mother ever did for her children. Her work gives me a profound sense of history and my place in it. The scrapbooks have given us a vehicle for remembrance and emotional connection particularly important for a family that often did not know how to express its feelings.

My purpose in writing this piece is to encourage all of you – especially those of you who are mothers and fathers – to consider compiling scrapbooks of your own about your family to help them deal with the eventual trauma of losing you.

There’s a reason they call it honoring your “roots,” because compiling such records provides feelings of grounding, stability, and continuity. Such feelings can be quite illusive these days, making a record of a family’s journey through time more treasured than ever.


About the Author

Helen Davey, Ph.D.

Helen Davey, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in West Los Angeles. She writes for Huffington Post.