Keeping Their Memory Alive

“Talking openly about memories — not just positive ones, but difficult ones, too — can help kids make sense of their past and rise to future challenges. It’s especially powerful to share stories about how the family sticks together through good times and bad, which allows kids to feel that they are connected to something larger than themselves. Studies show that giving all members of the family a chance to tell their version builds self-esteem, particularly for girls. And making sure to integrate different perspectives into a coherent story builds a sense of control, particularly for boys.

A friend of mine who lost his mother when he was young told me that over time, she no longer seemed real. People were either afraid to mention her or spoke of her in idealized terms. My hope is to hold on to Dave as he really was: loving, generous, brilliant, funny and also pretty clumsy. He would spill things constantly yet was always somehow shocked when he did.

Now, when emotions are running high in our house, but my son stays calm, I tell him, “You are just like your daddy.” When my daughter stands up for a classmate who is getting picked on, I say, “Just like your daddy.” And when either of them knocks a glass over, I say it, too.”

I loved this op-ed by Sheryl Sandberg in the New York Times. The topic of death and memory is rarely brought up today– no surprise in our youth-obsessed society– but it is vitally important to the way we live and grieve. As a historian, I’ve always been curious about the ways we remember (and narrate) the past. Eulogies and the passing remembrances we engage in when our loved ones pass are sort of the private/personal version of this pursuit. What we think and say about the dead matters. Not just because of how the world views us (indeed, I’d argue that this hardly matters at all), but because those words and thoughts deeply impact our mental health and resiliency– both internally and in our family units/communities.

I wrote about this idea last year when Justice Antonin Scalia died. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot the last couple of days. As I wrote then, we all deal with these irreversible losses differently. From romanticizing our most tender moments to wiping away all petty disagreements and ancient grievances, we like to imagine the dead are neither gone nor forgotten. Instead, they will live on in our sunny memories. To me:

“This is as false as it is comforting. The dead are indeed gone. And the complexity of who they were is lost to us for all of time. All we can capture are snapshots; brief glimpses of the man or woman they were. That random act of kindness that represents their sweet and giving nature. The grace they showed in forgiving you. The humor and dignity they showed in staring down death. These are the pieces of the puzzle we like to think about. This is who we want to remember them as.

But it is not who they were. People are impossibly complicated. And it is not their memory that is served by forgetting this. These memories are of and for the living. When we wash away those less seemly moments of their lives we heap another pile of dirt on their grave. Far from being preserved, the dead become more lost in these memories, replaced forever by some grotesque caricature…

How we remember people and events of the past is important. Memorials that present a one-sided, shallow, and thoughtless narrative are monuments to our own glory. They strip meaning away from the life they represent, replacing it with a sanitized, ideal version…”

If you truly want to honor the dead, you’d do well to heed Sheryl Sandberg’s advice. Remember your loved ones as they were, not as you wished they had been. It is great to remember that they were insatiably curious, quick with a joke, or the first to offer a helping hand. But it is equally important to remember the clumsy way they thrashed through life like a bull in a china shop. Or how their brash personality made them such a polarizing figure. Or how their towering ego and over-inflated sense of self-importance could make enemies of even the closest friends at times (the last two are uncharitable things I can imagine people remembering about me). To honor the dead, we must not let the complexity of who they were die with their physical form.

Do the tough work of really understanding your relationship with the deceased and of viewing their life in frank and honest ways. You’ll find that you smile longer, laugh louder, and feel closer to them in the days/weeks/years/decades that follow their passing because you are engaging in thoughtful reflection on your relationships and memories. This will serve you much better than the sort of shallow monument building we all too often engage in. Being open and honest is our only chance to keep their memory alive. That open, honest memory demonstrates the depth of love we have for the departed. And that love is how we become resilient.

2 thoughts on “Keeping Their Memory Alive

  1. Appreciate this often ignored subject Jeremy. Thanks. I am forwarding this on to my cousin and her family. She lost a son at age 18 and now just recently another one at age 36.

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