In the first few months after my daughter died, I could still smell her. I’d walk into Ana’s bedroom and inhale deeply, immersing myself in the rapidly fading traces of her scent — rose candles, champa body oil, the floral soap she’d loved. I also smelled her lingering sickness, a painful reminder of her last few weeks of life.
In those early days of “after,” my senses ached for her as much as my heart and mind did. It was a whole-body ache, a whole-being ache, and since the evidence of her physical presence was still so fresh, those precious traces that remained soothed the ache.
The hamper full of dirty laundry, the rumpled sheets that held the echo of her shape, the heat and odor of her candles that I burned one by one because I couldn’t bear to let them collect dust — all of this kept me connected to her physical presence.
But, eventually, I burned all the candles down. I washed and folded her last load of dirty clothes. I stripped her bed, dismantled it and threw it away.
The smells faded, turning from something familiar to something other — something musty and foreign. Then they vanished completely until all that remained was emptiness.
Within six months, with the exception of her ashes, all evidence that Ana’s physical body had taken up space in this world was gone.
Grieving is a whole-body act, an act of the senses. The smell of cinnamon bread cookies, the explosion of color in October, the feel of a specific type of abrasive cotton reminiscent of hospital blankets and gauze dressings — all have the potential to recall Ana’s absence and presence simultaneously.
This barrage of sensory memories was incredibly overwhelming at first. That’s begun to change as time pulls the reality of Ana’s physical body further away from my empty arms. I’m now learning to appreciate the power my senses have to keep me connected to Ana’s memory and her spirit.
The clarity of Ana as she was in life has begun to blur at the edges, but the sensory memories remain. Music, flowers, the deep azure of the September sky, the silky curls of my tiny dog (Ana’s dog), the sharp bite of an autumn morning— these are threads that link me to Ana then and Ana now.
She was a musician with a beautiful voice, so certain songs help me recall the precise tone and cadence of her voice. When I hear these songs, I hear Ana, bright and clear as if she were singing directly into my head.
“ Gazing at people, some hand in hand
Just what I’m going through they can’t understand”
From “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues
Led Zeppelin’s Rain Song, Nights in White Satin by the Moody Blues, Hey You by Pink Floyd — all of these are songs she loved. Some of them are songs she sang. I couldn’t bear to listen to them right after she died, but now? They carve a path in my memory that leads straight to her.
This is the true for many other sensory memories, even the hardest ones like the specific sights, sounds, and smells of the hospital. I spent over a month at Ana’s side when she was hospitalized during her initial diagnosis at the age of eleven.
Back then, the hospital was a foreign place. The antiseptic smells, harsh fluorescent lights, and perpetual background noises were frightening. It was an affront to my senses.
Eventually, I grew comfortable in a hospital setting. Ana had numerous tests, surgeries, and procedures over the course of her four-year illness. Many of these things required her to stay overnight for a day (or three or five). Now, when I walk into a hospital, the sensory environment reminds me of Ana. It’s even comforting because it opens up the same mental path that the music does, leading me straight to her.
Navigating sensory memories is tricky. A particular smell or sound or texture can derail me, triggering a spiral of grief.
But these things also have the power to ground me and inspire joy. They tether me to Ana and enable me to bring her memory forward with me through life. When I stopped avoiding (or being paralyzed by) the sensory memories that viscerally reminded me of Ana, I was able to embrace new sensory experiences and integrate them with the old ones.
When Ana’s candles were all gone, I purchased new candles for myself, experimenting with different styles, scents, and colors. At first, I felt guilty for this bit of self-indulgence — for spending money on something that Ana had loved because she wasn’t here to enjoy it.
Then I realized that when I combine new sensory experiences with old ones, it not only lights up that path in my mind that leads me back to Ana, but it puts her sweet face into sharp focus. It brings her forward with me.
I’m sure that Ana knows this, that she wants this, and that immersing my senses in old memories while creating new ones is exactly what I should be doing.