Memory of a Death

When a loved one has died, we have a memory of learning that they died. This memory of a death might be of the phone call informing you that your brother died. It’s etched in your mind with lots of detail—where you were in the dining room, what you were cooking, how hot it was in the room, the smell of onions.

These are what we call episodic memories; they are detailed memories of a specific death.

A Father is Dying

Perhaps your memory of a death occurred because you were there when it happened. When my father passed away in the summer of 2015, my sister and a dear family friend and I had been taking turns sleeping in the room with him in the hospital he had chosen for hospice care.

On that particular night, I had said good night to him, although he was not responding to us anymore. I got a few hours of sleep on the little couch in the room. In the middle of the night, I woke up filled with a sense of awe, a frequent experience in those last few days (along with feelings of utter exhaustion and lack of confidence that I could go on any longer).

Memory of a Father’s Death

I checked on my dad, and then I decided to go for a walk outside, moved by a similar sense of awe I feel when looking at the marvelous stars in the rural Montana night sky. If you’ve ever been far, far away from city lights, you know that there are so many stars, the night sky looks like it is scattered with glittering sand.

I walked the circular path around the hospital, designed to give staff and visitors a place to stretch their legs. I went back to the room, and Dad was still breathing very, very slowly.

It was truly amazing, I thought, that his life could be sustained with so little breath. I went back to sleep. In the wee hours of the morning, a nurse leaned over me, hand on my shoulder. “I think he’s gone now,” she said.

I went to my dad’s bedside. He was so peaceful, so little, looking both like an infant and an old man at the same time. He looked exactly the same as a few hours before, except that his breaths had gone from very, very slow to none at all.

Adapted from THE GRIEVING BRAIN by Mary-Frances O’Connor and reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2022.

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Mary-Frances O'Connor

Mary-Frances O’Connor, PhD is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, where she directs the Grief, Loss and Social Stress (GLASS) Lab, which investigates the effects of grief on the brain and the body. O’Connor earned a doctorate from the University of Arizona in 2004 and completed a fellowship at UCLA. Following a faculty appointment at UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, she returned to the University of Arizona in 2012. Her work has been published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Biological Psychiatry, and Psychological Science, and featured in Newsweek, the New York Times, and The Washington Post. Having grown up in Montana, she now lives in Tucson, Arizona. For more information go to

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