LIVE BY DESIGN | How can we best remember those we’ve loved and lost as our lives continue?

Today, in the Barnes Gallery in Philadelphia, my eyes rested on Cezanne’s still life painting, which includes a skull among the apples and pears – a “Memento Mori” reminder, common in that era.

“Remember you will die” was a prompt to live life to the fullest.

Zoleka Mandela didn’t look at a reproduction of Cezanne’s painting on her wall. She lived through a decade of recurring cancer until taking her final breath earlier this week. Condolences to all those who loved her, who are grieving and sitting with their memories.

What will stay with so many of us is Zoleka’s positivity to enjoy whatever time she had, while refusing to be in denial. Hoping for the best and considering the possibility of the worst. And in choosing to share publicly, she saw herself as being of service to others.

That’s the gist of Keitumetse Maako’s News24 obituary – Zoleka Mandela: A look at her fight to live a hopeful and positive life against all odds.

She was diagnosed in 2012 with hormone-positive breast cancer. In her interview with the Nelson Mandela Foundation about her book, When Hope Whispers, which she started writing while undergoing cancer treatment, Zoleka said she hoped the book would be an inspiration to people like herself.

“For a very long time, I never thought I had a voice, and for the first time in my life, I feel useful. Through my book, I aspire to be a source of inspiration to those who are desperate, in need of hope, and unable to ask for help, much like I have been for most of my life.”

At a 2014 event, hosted by the University of Johannesburg’s library, she said: “I’m hoping to bring hope and make a difference in someone’s life. It’s never too late to change your life. I use my life as a cautionary tale to make a positive contribution to other people’s lives.”

Zoleka talked about her preparation for dying, including her children having therapy. Now, the irrevocable has happened. Her surviving children’s lives will continue to be shaped by her, the memories held, the stories shared, and the treasured possessions, including her writing.

How can families support themselves at this time? I found the creation of a memory table to be a simple and evocative way of remembering and honouring a person. As siblings and grandchildren, we did one for my mother. It was such a lovely thing to do. We thought about the decades of her life and found photos from each period. We found significant documents, birth certificate, school reports, refugee documentation, her nursing diploma, her first-ever passport. Then we added her hobbies, the pruning shears, the crochet hooks, the recipes. We shared stories. Creating the memory table was calming and good for our souls.

I wouldn’t want to keep the possessions of a deceased loved one forever and ever – there’s a time for letting go. My memory box for my dad now has only three items, his handwritten notes on planting his vegetables, a snuffbox and a tape measure.

But I have also seen the creative power of memory boxes – offering a power to normalise the absence of the person who has died in a way that can be especially helpful with children. My niece’s son, Nicholas, died of a brain disease, aged two-and-a-half years old. His mother, Stefanie, bought a light wooden box with a hinged lid. She carefully selected a few precious items: a hand-knitted jersey, Tigger, the stripey soft toy, a few of his favourite books and the milestones journal she’d kept. When Nicholas’ two sisters were born several years later, the memory box was there in the playroom. They grew up knowing they had an elder brother, who had died, and they read the story books and played with Tigger just as he had done before them.

Recently, a friend, Wacango, offered a memory box to a mutual friend whose mother died recently and reminded me what a thoughtful gift it could be. I hope someone in Zoleka’s family will create memory boxes for her children.

As part of keeping memories alive as the years go by, many cultures and/or religions follow candle-lighting rituals on anniversaries. When I remember, I adopt this simple practice. But my very favourite occasion is the Mexican El Dia de los Muertos –  The Day of the Dead, which happens on 1 November. On this festive holiday, families remember their deceased relatives in a celebratory manner. In Mexico, the celebrations would take place in graveyards, where the gravestone is garlanded with marigolds and artefacts that recall the deceased beloved.

Migrancy brings improvisation! I attended a community celebration of the Day of the Dead in Oaklands, California. I was invited to tag along with my friend, a doctor who worked in the neighbourhood clinic. It was such fun. Every shelf, every surface of the community centre was filled with photos of deceased relatives, memory objects strongly associated with them, and the traditional marigolds. People wandered through, chatted, and recalled stories. And outside – a barbecue sizzled, music blared, and people danced. I loved this annual way of celebrating ancestry – so different from my Catholic upbringing – when my mother would be teary-eyed and morose on All Soul’s Day.

We are all so very different! My mother might have found the Mexican way jarring compared to how she’d been brought up to remember and honour the dead. What I feel empowered to do is to choose what supports me best: the yahrzeit anniversary candle, a small memory box for each deceased beloved, and a festive Day of the Dead.

What memory honouring traditions have you been part of? Please share.

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