One of the things that many dying patients share with me as death approaches is that they wish to be “remembered.”
Some talk of leaving a legacy behind, but most are really just focused on not wanting to be “forgotten.” And to me that’s perhaps the most touching because don’t we all wish to know without a doubt that we have lived a life filled with meaning? The alternative is just something that most of us don’t even want to entertain.
So how can we remember them after death, especially when their absence is so painful?
Simple things like bringing them up in our conversations suddenly doesn’t seem so simple, because just their image or their name can break us apart and make us struggle to breathe. However, the more we become comfortable sharing their memories and bringing their absence to the table, the more healing is taking place.
I’m not saying that we should constantly discuss them, especially if it makes us uncomfortable, but I do feel very strongly that when we love somebody, their life still has meaning, even after death. And it is up to us to keep their memory alive.
Many reading this might be thinking, “Well, this really shouldn’t be that hard. I will never forget them.” But the truth of the matter is that over time things do slowly start to disappear — the sound of a voice or a memory that was once so vivid now appears to be slipping away just beyond our grasp.
People tell me all the time that they feel “guilty” because it feels like they are “forgetting them” and that in their hearts it feels like the “ultimate betrayal.” Of course I cannot take those feelings away from them, but I do validate that this is a normal part of healing.
I remind them that the “forgetting” is an unfamiliar aspect of our grief journey, and I also remind them that the pain associated with those memories — both vivid and those lost — will become softer over time.
Sometimes pictures are stowed away until the bereaved can look at them again without shattering into pieces, while others keep those images front and center, looking at them as a constant source of comfort. The act of “hesitation” in terms of choosing to talk about their departed loved one is something I witness pretty frequently.
Parents hesitate to share emotions because they don’t want their children worrying about them, and children refrain from sharing emotions because they don’t want to upset their parents.
Friends experience the same thing, always in that state of flux wondering whether or not they are helping or hurting someone by bringing up sensitive subjects, primarily that of the name of the person who has died.
In general, I tell people that “doing or saying something is better than doing or saying nothing,” and that we should try and err on the side of bringing the name of our loved ones to the table.
Speak their names. Initiate conversations and encourage others to do the same. The thing about life is that once it is over, only the ones who are left behind can carry our memory into the hearts of others. It is our duty. Because we loved them, make it a point to say their names.
Jenny Filush-Glaze is the bereavement coordinator at Hospice Compassus EAMC and is a licensed counselor. You can contact her at Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org.