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'I feel honoured to have been a part of Alice’s boxes of memories'

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Healthcare assistant, Sue Gatenby, helped a patient to make memory boxes for her daughters to remember her after her death

I first became aware of Alice when her specialist nurse mentioned that she was being admitted for symptom control and asked if I could help with the memory boxes for her five adult children.

Alice was admitted on a Saturday. I greeted this timid looking lady and showed her to her room. I helped her to unpack her clothes, and offered her and her family a drink.

A few days after she was admitted I sat with her and broached the subject of the memory boxes. She had little energy and didn’t really know what she wanted to do.  So I explained about “winston wish boxes” which involve writing memories on cards and left this for her to think about.

It was another couple of days before she felt able to look at the information, although she admitted that she had thought about it a lot. She was getting weaker every day and failing fast.

One day Alice told me that one of her daughter’s boyfriends always bought her flowers and just as they were ready to be thrown out, but not quite, she would take the flowers and put them in her rose bowl. Her daughter would laugh at her and say “just put them in the bin!” We had a good laugh and the rose bowl became the focus for her daughter’s memory box. 

I asked Alice if she wore lipstick as she could kiss the small cards. She loved that idea. She also had five Christmas tree baubles. I helped her punch a small hole in the cards she had kissed, thread some ribbon through and attach each to a bauble. Alice asked her daughter to buy a piece of jewellery for each of her children with personal engravings.

Then Alice became quite ill but the boxes were completed under her instruction. She managed to look at and approve everything. It was an overwhelming time, but satisfying. I felt drained when we had finished. Alice chose the colour of the tissue paper to match the boxes. She had hoped to leave some verbal messages for her family but was not strong enough to use the dictaphone. However, each box looked so beautiful, that she was happy and content. The memory boxes were important to her and she was pleased when they were complete.

Alice died early in the morning, two weeks after being admitted. Her family were with her as they had stayed all night. We asked if they would sit in the conservatory while the staff attended to her. When the family returned to her room I thought I could see a smile on her face.

We ensured that her quilt cover and pillowcases were on the bed, which were very personal. I had laid out the five memory boxes on the sofa. Angela had previously asked me to cut a lock of her Mums hair, and atop of her box I had placed a tiny box containing the hair, fastened with a piece of ribbon tied in a bow.

The family sat together looking at what was in their box, and asked if they could all have a lock of their Mums hair. That was no problem. My colleague snipped and I tied the ribbon bow. They looked so relaxed, sitting together and chatting, and stayed for some time before leaving to go to their mum’s house.

Angela and one of her sisters called in to see us the next day to let us know how much the memory boxes meant to them, and how they loved going through their contents.

I feel honoured to have been a part of Alice’s boxes of memories.

Sue Gatenby is a health care assistant.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • This is a beautiful story and shows how devoted our health care assistants are.The memory boxes will help Alices' girls with the grieving process.Well done Sue, your work will inspire others.

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