About one year ago I remember hearing about some very awful news. My grandmother had died suddenly. In my mind it was impossible that this could happen. No one who was close to me had ever died before. It was even harder to believe because my grandmother had been much more healthy than her husband. She still worked as a babysitter during the days, and that is where she died. She was taking care of a four year old child and had a stroke while sitting in a chair. The little boy just thought she fell asleep. He tried very hard to wake her up, but obviously couldn’t. When the paramedics finally came they said she had died the minute it happened.
To me the strangest part of my memories of that day is the fact that I don’t really remember being told. I think this may be because I didn’t believe it. My grandmother had taken care of me many times in my childhood. She lived in the next town over with my grandfather for my whole life. Every holiday she would cook so much food for my entire family, that there would be leftovers (and my family is huge seeing as my last name is ——) How could this woman not be ten minutes away anymore? I just couldn’t believe my parents and maybe that is why I don’t remember being told.
The memory that stays with me is the memory of kneeling in front of her open coffin at the wake. I had been to one funeral a long time ago when I was very young and it had been of a relative I did not know very well, so this was my first actual experience in these things. That and the fact that I finally realized everyone was telling me the truth are what I think made this memory so vivid. I can picture her laying there right now. I can even feel the same feelings as I did then. All my denial and confusion were lost, and at that moment there was a huge sense of inevitability and sadness in my mind. Just thinking about looking at her face makes tears spring to my eyes.
I remember studying her face. She did not look like my grandmother. She had way too much makeup on. You could see that it was caked on and it made her have the appearance of no wrinkles where there normally were some, and more wrinkles where there weren’t any before. Her eyes had some sort of gooey substance on them, which I found out later was to keep them shut. She looked as if she was sleeping, but at the same time there was something about her skin color or expression that made it obvious that she would not wake up.
It seemed to me that her hair was a different shade of red than usual. She was wearing her light green dress with her favorite emerald broach pinned on it. Her hands were delicately crossed on top of each other on her chest, and her wedding ring with the huge diamond glittered in the dim fluorescent lights. The white satin lining of the coffin with that little pillow looked as if it was very comfortable.
On the open lid there were pictures of some of my cousins. There was Jr and Josh in one of those professional pictures with the blue background that you can get done at department stores. There were more pictures I can see in my mind even now of Greg, Stacey, Geoffrey, Denise, Marrisa and Shannon. I wished I had a picture of my brothers and I to go in there too, but I didn’t.
I remember that my hands were touching the edge of the coffin where the satin was, one on top of the other. My ring with all the little rhinestones sparkled just like my grandmother’s in the light. I was wearing the only dressy clothes I could find on such short notice, my white button down shirt, and my navy blue, flowered, long skirt. I didn’t like my shoes because they did not go very well with my outfit, but it didn’t matter in the end. Of course no one would pay attention to shoes at a wake.
When I discussed with my mother what she remembered about my grandmother’s death, she describe something totally different. She told me about hearing the news. She is a science teacher in the high school of a town about twenty minutes away. At the end of the day while she was staying after to correct some papers her name was called over the PA. She told me that she remembered that this was a Wednesday and she was very concerned as she walked to the main office so she could accept the phone call. People do not usually call her at school.
When she got to the office and the secretary gave her the phone she remembers everything about the office. This might be easier for her to remember because of the familiarity of the room. She looked at the counter instead of the secretary’s face and started to cry when my father told her the news. She couldn’t give me as many details as I remember and i think she may not have wanted to get into the memory as much as I did. I could tell by the tone of her voice as she told me that some of the same emotions of that moment came back to her as she remembered.
I have a feeling that my experience of the memory of my grandmother’s death was much more traumatic and emotional than my mothers. I may be wrong. She just may not have wanted to share with me everything because she knows how much I was affected by it. When I researched these types of memories, many of the literature I found stated that the memories stay in place more when they are more emotional or traumatic. This is why people with post-traumatic stress disorder mostly never forget how they felt at the time of a tragedy.
Since this was the first time I had experienced death, and the first time I had seen a body of a person when they were no longer in it, I think it was more traumatic then my mother’s experience. I was a small child when her grandmother died, and I know that there are others in her life that have passed on. She had already dealt once in grief. I know it is easier in a way the second time around because my grandfather died about a yea after his wife. I don’t think I have any memories quite as vivid of that than I do of the first time a loved one passed away. Of course another factor of my first experience was that it had been so sudden.
My Grandfathers death was gradual and it seems that flashbulb memories are more of unpredictable situations. Some examples the experts are always giving of public incidence are John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, and OJ’s acquittal. All of these things were large events that the public did not think would happen (OJ may be an exception). Since they were so unexpected and brought up so many different feelings, the environment around hearing the news was burned into the memory.
However, it has been proven that these memories can be changed somewhat easily. Shortly after an event of such proportion has happened, people know they remember everything of that one moment. Later as they lose part of their memories, they don’t even realize that it has changed. They are so confident that they remember what happened that it doesn’t matter that their memory is a little off. A study was preformed after the Challenger blew up and only three out of forty-four people were totally consistent with their memories after three years. One example giving in the study showed that even though one person was completely confident that their memory had stayed the same in the three years, it was actually totally different than what she had said the first time she recounted where she was when she heard the news.
If an event happens that is emotional and/or traumatic, it usually stays as a memory better if it has more effect on the person themself. I am pretty positive that my memory is correct, not only because it was somewhat recent, but because I knew my grandmother well. It is more understandable that a person who did not know anyone on that space shuttle personally might forget details after a while.
My flashbulb memory is consistent to the research I have done on the subject. When I think back to what happened that day, it is just like looking at a picture. The only difference is that this picture includes all my senses. I can hear the sympathetic condolences being whispered behind me, I can smell the “old people” cologne that filled the room, I can still feel the smoothness of the white satin beneath my fingers. I read that some psychologists believe these types of memories can not exist, or that if they do they fade. I think otherwise. I know that in ten years I will still remember my grandmother, and I am happy for that.
1)Van Zandt, Trisha, “No Title”, Web site, last update Thu Jan 28 10:47:05 EST 1999, Date visited; 11/18/99 http://maigret.psy.jhu.edu/~trish/Teaching/Memory/Lecture_Notes/Section_1/overhead2/overhead2.html
2)Shulman, Harvey G., “Psychology 312: Everyday Memory”, Web site, last update Wed, Sep 22, 1999 5:14:34 AM, date visited, 11/18/99
3)Baldwin, David, “Trauma Information Pages, Articles: van der Kolk & Fisler (1995)”, Web site, last update unknown, date visited 11/18/99