What to Do with Photos That Represent Difficult Memories

One of our favorite aspects of pictures is how they capture a specific moment that can help us hold onto a memory. However, some memories elicit difficult emotions, and photos of those memories can be challenging to know what to do with. We recently began a new project with a client in his 90s. While his life has been full of many happy memories, there are also difficult moments we are working to archive and organize in a way that makes him feel like we are accurately telling the story of his life while not putting too much emphasis on painful memories. Picture This Organized is here to help our clients navigate any sensitive memories associated with specific photos and create a plan for how best to store those photos.


Illness unfortunately is a part of many people’s family stories. While you may want to capture big wins in a loved one’s medical journey, these photos may eventually represent the end of someone’s life or bring up a difficult time. Illness can often change a person’s appearance and may not be how they want to be remembered. We recommend saving a photo or piece of memorabilia that represents something positive about that time. Some worthwhile moments may be documented through, cards from loved ones, photos with the nursing staff, a test result marking a milestone reached, etc. Unfortunately, sometimes, there isn't anything positive about an experience with illness, and that is okay. In those circumstances, we suggest leaving those difficult photos out of your photo collection.

Photos with memories
This card was sent to me after my knee surgery and represents a bright moment during a difficult recovery.

Complicated Family Relationships or Tragedy

Many photo collections are used to document the memories of someone’s entire life from childhood to the end of life. However, childhood photos can bring up emotions of challenging and potentially harmful familial relationships. Rather than focusing on people's struggles in their childhood, we prefer to emphasize how our clients got through and rose above their situation. We handle the decisions for what to keep or what to exclude on an individual basis because every situation is different. Sometimes memorabilia hints at a difficult moment but feels important for our client to include in their collection. Additionally, our client might choose to use a photo that represents a happy time before more difficult times began or a happy moment in the midst of hard circumstances.

Photo memories with a bicycle
Mickey (Tom's brother), the day he left for a bike trip, and also the day he died. We haven't saved any photos of the accident or news coverage. Instead, we chose to archive a photo representing a day that started with hope and ended in tragedy.


When a marriage comes to an end, it can be challenging to know what photos to keep from that time in your life and which ones to part with. Pictures from a previous marriage may not always be important to a spouse, but they can hold a lot of meaning to children. Our biggest advice to clients is not to make that decision for children too young to know what pictures they will want in the future. Instead, we can help our clients remove those pictures from their main collection and keep them in a specified folder for children to access later if they wish. There also may be other photos from the day that might be special or important for our client to keep such as photos with friends or family who attended the event.

Wedding photo memories
My sister, Laurie, with my dad on the day of her wedding. Although that marriage eventually ended, she recalled how special it was to have him there to walk her down the aisle. The memory of Dad's support was still special to her, and we ended up using this photo in his 80th birthday album.


Photos and stories from wartime can be emotional for veterans to share or talk about, but a family member needs to be ready to listen if their loved one is ready to share. My father-in-law never wanted to discuss World War II, but one day he decided to share an extremely painful experience, and his family was there and ready to listen to and support him. Sometimes, these stories don't need to be documented. Family can just be there to hear and remember that story. However, if it is something that a veteran wants written down, you can use the voice memo app to record the story in their own words accurately. Stories or photos from war can also be included in a heritage album. The stories that were important to that soldier can be included with any photos, or they can be omitted if too painful. Momentos from that time can also be photographed so the memories are captured without the family needing to inherit that item. Furthermore, if there is an item that is special or significant to multiple family members, one person can keep the original while others receive the digital version to remember that piece of family history.

memories of family photos
My father-in-law while he was a POW. While that was a difficult seven years, he was taken in by a kind French farmer. This photo is of Freddy with the farmer and his granddaughter. This helps us see the hope in that situation and a reminder that we are thankful he eventually could return to his family.

End of Life

The need to document a loved one’s life can feel overwhelming and emotional. Documenting the end of a loved one’s life can be tricky. We recommend Momento Foundation who offer a caring approach for capturing the final chapter of a loved one’s life.

However, it is also important to consider asking important questions about your loved one’s life while they are still there to tell their story. Not shying away from the difficult moments of life can help you determine what a family member wants to include in their legacy and what they do not want to pass on. Our family questionnaire can assist you in gathering information about what they want people to know about their life and what memories they want to share. We can also assist in telling the story of someone’s life through a memorial slideshow or photo album celebrating your loved one’s life and sharing their legacy.

Getting Started

While these are challenging topics to approach, we know the value is examining the important moments of life and the photos that represent those moments to create a collection that tells someone’s story. If you would like help sorting through your photos to create a complete and organized collection, contact us to get started by scheduling a 30-minute consultation.

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